Sunday Anchor

India's neglected museums

Last month, the Archaeological Survey of India wrote to the Union Culture Ministry about two invaluable pieces, a 2 BC Yakshi statue and a 3 BC Mauryan lion, at Kolkata’s Indian Museum that had been irreversibly damaged. The ASI said the damage was caused by careless handling and warned that the museum would die if the callous attitude continued.

This was at India’s oldest museum, which turned 200 last year. But the dismal state of museums, especially government ones, is no secret. In 2011, UNESCO published a scathing report on the appalling conditions at India’s top eight museums, citing sub-standard maintenance, lighting and signage, among other issues. But at the core are deep-rooted issues of archaic policies, lack of autonomy, and no skilled manpower. Our excellent collections are proof of a rich socio-cultural history, but when museums act as mere closed-door guardians of treasures instead of disseminating them, attractively and intelligently, to a wide audience, they lose their purpose.

Thankfully, a quiet revival finally seems underway. The UNESCO report and a 14-point museum reforms agenda put together by the Ministry of Culture in 2010-11 served as a wake-up call. But it was left to the museums to implement reforms, which meant that only a handful got their act together to start brushing off years of political and ideological neglect.

Small steps ahead

Delhi’s National Museum was lucky to get IAS officer Dr. Venu Vasudevan, under whom it has transformed into a buzzing institution. In 2013, when he took over as Director General, the museum, which has 2.10 lakh artefacts representing 5,000 years of Indian art, saw a 30 per cent increase in visitors. Last year, it saw a 112 per cent increase in merchandise sales because of initiatives taken despite the fact that all the money a government museum makes goes into a common kitty. “Since the government does not assess us, there is no incentive for anyone to work,” says Dr. Vasudevan.

Government museums make up 90 per cent of the roughly 1,000 museums in India. They are banned from partnerships with private individuals or organisations, and have to depend on Central funding even for day-to-day operations. Dr. Vasudevan is a self-confessed “museum nut-case”, whose background in tourism spurred him to capitalise on Delhi’s biggest tourism asset but, as he says, the real questions to ask are: “Why are we understaffed? Why don’t our museums attract good professionals? Why do we have an extremely backward governance body?”

The answer comes from Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, honorary director, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, and vice-chairman, INTACH: “The government is not willing to pay professional salaries.” Ms. Mehta is baffled that after spending crores on a facility, the government fails to see the rationale behind spending money on staff salaries, training, or preservation. Our museums are bleak zones, that have failed to evolve into places of education or entertainment. Kolkata’s Indian Museum received Rs.100 crore from the Culture Ministry last year for a revamp to make it into a role model, but has little to show a year down the line.

Museum policy needed

However, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly Prince of Wales Museum, is a success story, under Director-General Sabyasachi Mukherjee. An autonomous institute created in the early 1900s by a handful of influential Mumbaites under a Board of Trustees, CSMVS is run without government support. But even this model is not without flaws; it took the efforts of Mr. Mukherjee to bring it back from a state of neglect into a vibrant space that engages both the creative and the curious. He points to government apathy and the absence of an evolved national policy or guidelines for museums. However, a few efforts in the last years have been heartening, such as the tie-up with the Art Institute of Chicago to train museum professionals. But such initiatives are too few.

“Ultimately, it is people who make a museum. You can have a great collection with average people and it will still be an average museum, but an average collection and great people often produces a great museum. Museums have to invest time, thought, effort and, probably, money to recruit the right people, develop the right skills, who work together as a team to deliver a relevant, sustainable, dynamic and effective museum or gallery,” said Mark Taylor, Director, Museums Association UK, at the ‘International Conference and Intensive Seminar on Strategic Transformations: Museums In the 21st Century’ organised by the National Council of Science Museums in collaboration with Indian Museum, Kolkata last year.

The tragedy is that India’s museums have fabulous and valuable collections that deserve to be enjoyed by more people. That can be possible, if the administration balances autonomy and accountability, like successful models abroad, where institutions like the British Museum are run by a government-appointed board of trustees. Such a model is not far-fetched and can suit even our unique socio-political climate. As Dr. Vasudevan says, “It should have started yesterday.”


>India's neglected museums

The UNESCO report and a 14-point museum reforms agenda put together by the Ministry of Culture in 2010-11 served as a wake-up call..

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> Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai

The museum is working on an ambitious expansion plan with a Modern Gallery, an auditorium, a children’s centre, more libraries and archives.

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> CSMVS, Mumbai

Now, CSMVS gets over a million visitors a year, despite charging more than other museums.

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> NGMA, Bengaluru

The five-acre campus with its stunning but crumbling colonial structure was restored to house the National Gallery of Modern Art, and celebrated its sixth anniversary last February.

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>National Museum, New Delhi

The museum has also been organising collateral events such as talks, workshops, performances and activities for children.

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> Lower middle class left out

The Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH), launched by Lord Curzon in 1906, has a collection of over 28,000 artefacts.

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>'Culture cannot be a punishment posting’

Eka Resources, museum consultancy company, MD Pramod Kumar K.G. talks about the tragedy of Indian museums and what can make a change.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 1:57:34 AM |

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