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Who appoints the keeper of memories?

The transfer of the Director General of the National Museum, Delhi, at a time when the museum has begun to show signs of a turnaround, shows that governments are still unable to grasp the rather specialised nature of such institutions.

Typical of the month of April, we’ve just had another big round of transfers of bureaucrats, among them being the Director General (DG) of the National Museum, Delhi. Transfers are often done as a matter of routine. Perhaps the Appointments Committee of the Department of Personnel and Training, or the decision-makers in the Prime Minister’s Office, has not been quite aware of the difficult history the National Museum has had without effective leadership for years, and how such rapid transfers prevent this prestigious institution from getting an opportunity to revive itself.

A misunderstood role

If the government particularly requires this DG’s services in another Ministry as a matter of priority, then should it not also consider the lacuna it will leave in the nation’s most significant cultural repository? One wonders if it has quite thought through how difficult it will be to find a replacement immediately. Or does it imagine that the nation’s apex cultural institution can be looked after as an additional charge by any one of the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Culture? It has been an impossibly hard position to fill — it has lain vacant for long passages between various stopgap attempts at finding suitable directors. Thus, the matter is about how the very position of the National Museum’s director is to be treated. Civil servants remain employees of their Central government service first and foremost, and the government can have them shunted out on a whim, without a replacement in place or a deputy/additional director to take over, or a strategic period of overlap with the next director to ensure a smooth handover. The predictable result is that a museum which has only just managed to start taking steps back to normality, will be left abandoned yet again. The role of the museum and its director continue to be misunderstood by governments that have, time and again, demonstrated their inability to grasp the rather specialised nature of these institutions.

The quantum leap in media response and visitor numbers in the past year signals the beginnings of an important turnaround of a museum where the calibre of its moribund staff had previously left everything to be desired. Several of its galleries that have been shut for years have been reopened, and systematic inventories of departments that have been resistant to take stock of their holdings have been initiated. The ball has just started rolling for the takeover of those national assets by younger curators from older, retired ones. The museum has now started inviting interesting exhibitions; matters regarding the conservation of heritage are being debated here along with intellectual discussions about the meaning and diversity of cultural heritage.

This turnaround has been brought about in an institution which has been deeply set in its ways, and we all know that several attempts by previous directors over the past decade or more have not had this kind of success.

It is a rare thing to have civil servants in the country who care enough about their postings in departments like Archaeology and Museums to want to stay on in those portfolios. However, this is not against the selections of DGs from the IAS per se. In fact, the tenure of Dr. Venu Vasudevan, the DG who has just been asked to demit office, has demonstrated this: that the museum and such institutions often need a strong administrator sufficiently au fait with the malaise in the system to be able to root it out or at least sidestep it as well as to be a participatory leader rallying diverse stakeholders.

This is a larger issue about where the nation wishes to position the DG of its National Museum. A DG in Delhi normally reports to any one of three joint secretaries in the Ministry of Culture! As an astute New York-based museum administrator who was once being considered for the post famously quipped; “When Mrs Obama wants to come to my Museum at the Met, her office calls the museum’s director straight. When the wife of an Indian Prime Minister wants to visit the Director of the National Museum of India, her office deals with no less than seven offices, before they can meet officially!” The British Museum is a non-departmental public body governed by 25 trustees whom the director turns to for ratification of most intellectual matters while rendering accounts to the Secretary, Department of Culture, Media and Sports through which it is funded. America has an incorporated Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) which protects the ethics of the museums, while each museum has its own trustees and autonomy on its finances, salary scales, pensions and insurance matters. In each case, the trustees or the incorporated association ensure/s the necessary intellectual and administrative autonomy required for their museums to withstand the vicissitudes of changing political and media allegiances. If we want to be regarded as seriously as the superpowers, should we not pause to consider with what respect they protect the keepers of their cultural heritage?

No doubt there are details in those countries which aren’t perfect either. Perhaps, with the right intervention, India can set a better example. British museums were dominated by the state till major acts in 1963 and 1992 reformed their status and gave heightened autonomy to the Tate, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London, and, above all, the British Museum. Spain’s situation too has been evolving, and now the Prado has managed to win an extraordinary amount of autonomy for its functioning.

A significant profile

The fact remains that the rapid change of officers in these portfolios does not permit for any substantial institution-building. Apart from that institution’s development, sometimes, where a few nodal institutions account for the majority of the nation’s interest in that industry (historical art and heritage being a case in point), it affects the entire field with massive potential losses. The stakeholders in this institution range from everyone who is in the art world, the media and tourism industries, apart from intellectuals and educationists. Thus, the position is one that can have a massive public profile, provided that there is the right person in the job.

The economic worth of this portfolio includes crores worth of irreplaceable art. Like all assets, the commercial value of the fortune needs specialist care and profiling. Museums like the Metropolitan in New York or the V&A in London make huge profits by using their original artworks as sources of inspiration for artists and designers whose works are kept in their glittering shops. These museums also have a significant profile of the highest quality of research and publishing at an academic and popular level. And the deepening of the research and dissemination of their collections gives the museum a role in society that is far beyond one of any immediate financial worth. Its current value is always to be judged against its potential and several museums across the world have leveraged their historical collections to create a degree of public participation profoundly impacting peoples’ sense of their selves and identities.

For a policy change

As much as museum personnel preserve peoples’ histories and memories, every single one of the objects in that collection has its own history and its own biography. Its personnel have to be able to read the thousand words that every picture tells, and be able to reflect to its audience, the centuries of learning of a civilisation that each object encapsulates. This comes from years of patient engagement with collections, with a continuity of scholarly involvement and, above all, a love for the objects.

Museums of historical artefacts in India have a difficult role to play in our times. In a country where perceived ideas of “tradition” outweigh the “facts” of history, museums are often the only places which can maintain evidence of times past. This onerous responsibility requires a considered and substantial knowledge of the interface of aesthetics and history with politics and media. With such a significant role to play, why are archaeology and the museums not looked upon as serious enough portfolios? What will it take to bring about a change in perception and more respect from politicians and the bureaucracy for these positions? And what will it take to bring greater protection to these vulnerable institutions? This will need a strategic policy change that lends the museum not just autonomy in its intellectual work, but its director a higher and more thought-out role in government. This requires the intervention of the Cabinet Secretary, Parliament and the Union Public Service Commission — three offices that remain quite divorced from matters concerning culture — and who have shown a lack of involvement in finding ways to grant such institutions their autonomy and rules to govern their highest offices.

(Naman P. Ahuja is Professor, Indian Art and Architecture, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 12:39:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/who-appoints-the-keeper-of-memories/article7232197.ece

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