The art of interpreting the past

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RESERVOIR OF ART: Museums need professionals who straddle art, culture, history and sociology disciplines.
RESERVOIR OF ART: Museums need professionals who straddle art, culture, history and sociology disciplines.


With a rich cultural heritage and nearly 700 museums, India needs professionals in museum management with a firm grounding in preservation techniques.

After the huge popularity of Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code and the film thereafter, the figure of the museum curator has acquired an aura of mystery, that of the keeper of secret knowledge, in popular imagination. After all, who would not be awed by a personality who is familiar enough with the objects of a bygone era to be almost friends with them?

A curator — that is, the caretaker of a museum — in the real world has a lot more tasks and responsibilities than just accumulating antiques. His job is not just about putting up labels and descriptions before artefacts are stored in glass boxes.

Traditionally, collection, conservation and communication are the roles ascribed to a museum. However, the new millennium, which is as much obsessed with anonymity (especially of netizens) as it is preoccupied with identities, has rendered the task of interpreting the past a deadly serious business.

India, with its rich cultural heritage and nearly 700 museums, requires trained professionals to preserve and interpret the past. In addition to the traditional museums, specialised museums like the Oil Museum (Mumbai), Bird & Elephant Museum (Kerala), Law Museum and Defence Museum (Delhi) also fuel the demand for specialists in museum management.

There are about six universities in India catering to the needs of the industry. Museology as a separate discipline was first introduced at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (Baroda) in 1953, followed by the Department of Museology in Kolkata.

The National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology (NMIHACM) in Delhi was established as a deemed university by the University Grants Commission in 1989. The institute comes under the Ministry of Culture and offers postgraduate degree and research options in the field of museology.

With a batch strength of 15 students, the M.A. (Museology) course attracts students from both within and outside the country. The course is divided into four semesters and combines theoretical knowledge with hands-on training.

Interdisciplinary approach

With its stress on an interdisciplinary approach, the course is designed to give future professionals a firm grounding in the history of art, museum management and preservation techniques in addition to honing their entrepreneurial skills and innovative thinking. Explaining the need for such an approach, Manvi Seth of the Department of Museology at NMIHACM says, “You have to build a context around the artefacts for the people to be able to connect with them.”

The students have access to the National Museum Gallery in addition to the department’s library and multimedia database. Educational trips to other museums in the country, guest lectures and internship projects form an essential component of the two-year postgraduate degree at NMIHACM.

The minimum eligibility for admission into the M.A. (Museology) course at NMIHACM is graduation in Arts or Social Sciences. Admission to the course is through an entrance test and interview. The students are required to have knowledge of at least one foreign language. However, if they are not proficient in the same, they will be permitted to learn a foreign language during the course of their study.

P.K. Sharma, Assistant Registrar at NMIHAC and the secretary of the Museums Association of India, says that the course is well-recognised abroad and there is a demand for its alumni from the government sector. In addition to this, the institute has started providing placement assistance to its students from the current academic year.

“Apart from direct placement, the job opportunities include the whole arena of museum services from security to lighting arrangements,” says Dr. Sharma. He adds that alumni have also taken up projects like State exhibitions and Republic Day processions.

Highlighting the need for museum professionals who are adequately equipped to interpret the past within the present context, Dr. Seth says, “It is not just art, but also the way that art (artefacts, in this case) is preserved or exhibited, in the present times, that serves as a reflection of society.”



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