A trip to the museum

KEEPERS OF HISTORY Museums need us as much as we need them

KEEPERS OF HISTORY Museums need us as much as we need them

We don’t go to museums. We prefer malls, cinema halls and restaurants. Visiting a museum is best left to schools which make it mandatory. After all, it is an academic exercise. And what entertainment can these places possibly offer? I agree India doesn’t boast the greatest of museums, but you can’t doubt the collection of artefacts in these repositories of heritage, even for a second. Our eventful history has bequeathed us numerous masterpieces, but unfortunately, we don’t find them compelling enough. Cultural historian and museologist Jyotindra Jain says that the habit of going to museums has just not been inculcated in us.

Strangely though, whenever abroad, Indians enthusiastically visit The Louvre (Paris), Victoria and Albert Museum (London), Tate (London), Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) (New York). While a few of them offer free admission to visit their permanent collection, visitors are charged for special exhibitions. At The Louvre and MoMA, tickets are priced at 15 Euros and $25 respectively. Back home, one of the best museums of the country, National Museum in Delhi charges a mere Rs. 20.

According to Joyoti Roy, outreach consultant, National Museum, it receives between 6,00,000 to 7,00,000 visitors each year and anything between 2,500 and 3,000 per day. The mix includes Indians, foreigners and school students. For an Indian museum, it is an astounding figure, but still nowhere close to the footfalls museums, we consider the finest, get.

In its annual report for 2014-15, Tate declared it the ‘best year ever for visits’ with 7.9 million in all and a record 5.7 million visits to Tate Modern. Tate had the highest number of visits by young people for any art museum in the world, with over 3.5 million under the age of 35.

It has not been many days since National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore, hosted A. Ramachandran’s expansive retrospective covering five decades of his artistic journey. As we sat outside the first-floor gallery after Ramachandran walked me through his sketches, sculptures and paintings, the senior artist, a tad disappointed said, “Had an exhibition of this scale taken place abroad, people would have come in thousands.”

There were about three-five visitors inside the gallery at that time. Jain, who has also helmed institutions like the Crafts Museum and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi, puts the onus on museums. “We developed the museums but didn’t evolve the infrastructure around it. And it is the museum’s responsibility to do it. When you know people are not going to come to you, you have to go to them. Crafts Museum shares its wall with India Trade Promotion Organisation. It receives lakhs of people during the trade fair. I fought tooth and nail to get that door opened during my tenure (1984-89) so that the visitors spill over to the Crafts Museum as well. Museums need to rethink their strategies and outreach should be a major point of concern for them.”

In 2010, UNESCO brought out a report on the terrible conditions at India’s top eight museums, citing sub-standard maintenance, lighting and signage, among other issues. The Ministry of Culture put together a 14-point museum reforms agenda and things have moved forward since then.

Things took a 360-degree turn for the National Museum with the appointment of IAS officer Venu Vasudevan as its director general in 2013. According to the information provided to us by Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the oldest museum in Mumbai has received 3,00,000 visitors over the past year. On an average, the museum witnesses 500 visitors every day, with an average of 2,000 visitors over weekends. Not big numbers again, but impressive enough in the Indian context. And this is when the museum re-emerged after a revamp in 2008 with an extensive exhibition programme. Collaborations, screenings of movies of different genres and workshops for adults and children contributed to the increase in the number of footfalls. The public-private partnership model of the museum is unique and can be replicated in other cases as well.

Entry of private players like Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in 2011 has upped the game. In the last six years, KNMA has been visited by around 1,20,000 visitors from all over the world. And this is despite a stellar collection of contemporary art from India and the subcontinent, impressive exhibitions, more than 400 workshops like paper sculpture workshop with students of Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Pushp Vihar, a family art workshop etc. KNMA has been at it admirably.

Robust publicity of exhibitions and creating links between different art spaces can also fetch the audience. Different art institutions located in close proximity can host a series of events to be held in each one of them simultaneously. Museums also need to transform their cafes, upgrade their museum shops and most importantly, invest in their human resource. So, what do we do until then? Let’s go and explore these storehouses of history, culture and knowledge, because unless and until we claim them, they will remain indifferent to our needs.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 11:56:53 am |