Even as countries get ready to celebrate International Museum day, fundamental questions have arisen about the future role of museums. Museums have evolved from a private and elite preserve to become an important public institution. For long they have been perceived as a mere repository of artefacts where evidence of the past was collected and catalogued. This simple understanding is no more adequate as the collections have to be eventually put to the service of society. Realising this, the UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) have been choosing special themes every year to emphasise the larger role of museums. If last year the emphasis was on the role of museums in social development, this year it is about responsible tourism. The American Association of Museums too has identified ‘public relevance in a time of rapid social and cultural change’ as one of the top four challenges ahead. In order to meet the challenges, the focus needs to shift towards informing and engaging the local community. The museum practices, as they move up to desirable international standards, have to be equally grounded in the immediate and the dynamic context of the place and the people.
The world of museums is asymmetrical and a single prescription may not fit all. While the museums in the developing world, including the ones in India, need to improve a lot in terms of their professionalism, exhibiting environment and capacity, the challenges faced by the big and wealthy museums are different. New concepts and categories such as the cultural banks and community museums tried out in Africa are successful innovations and hold promise. However, the same cannot be said of attempts by wealthy institutions in the United States and Europe to create a new privileged class of museums. As many as 19 large museums have been demanding that they be designated as ‘universal museums’ where artefacts of different nations will be kept safe in the interest of the humankind. This is more of an attempt to ward off any restitution claims on their contestable acquisitions than a useful innovation. Even the ethics committee of the ICOM has been critical and described this move as a ‘specious demand.’ How can a museum fulfil its educational role if it is perceived as a ‘house of stolen treasures’? The established museums must look at ways to help people exhibit their precious artefacts in their own country. A promising future lies in building a trustworthy partnership between the emerging museums and the established ones that will ensure a better conservation and more frequent circulation of artefacts among them.