Museums and their message

Deborah Swallow was just 21 when she came to India for the first time. That was in 1969. And that trip made a difference to her personally. She started evincing interest in museology. Today, she is the Director of Collections and Keeper of the Department of Asian Art in the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, London. She speaks to T. Ramakrishnan on the relevance of museums and making museums accessible to under-privileged sections of society.

MUSEUMS IN India are generally a neglected lot. In fact, the posting of civil servants to museums is perceived to be a ``punishment assignment'', even if they put in hard work and display devotion to their duty.

Dr. Deborah Swallow is not oblivious of the ground realities. She concedes that opting for museology even at the university level is only a ``second choice'' for students in this country. Still, she says given the constraints, curators and museum officials here are doing a great job.

Their job skills need to be strengthened and they should get western exposure. This is where institutions such as the Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections at the V&A Museum can play a critical role. The Trust has a scheme under which scholars are sent to the U.K. to update their knowledge base.

However, she points out a couple of key differences in the way museums in India and those in the West, particularly U.K. (from where she hails) are run.

One, a wide spectrum of people visit museums in India whereas it is only a ``high profile society'' that goes to museums in the U.S. and Britain. But, only the `elites' there support museums. In contrast, ``here, the well-to-do members of society are willing to sponsor music festivals or contemporary art galleries but not museums''.

Another difference is that in India, the functions of museums are, by and large, funded by governments while in the West, most of them are privately funded and they have to raise resources on their own.

For a recent project of the V&A Museum, nearly one- half of the project cost was met by a portion of the proceeds from the UK national lottery and the rest through contributions from voluntary bodies and others.

As regards the problem of the State's ``poor patronage'' to museums here, Dr. Swallow says this country has a ``huge population with huge demands on resources''. Naturally, in the scheme of the administration, education and public health figure among the top priorities, and culture and heritage come last.

In this context, she says she is ``reasonably sympathetic'' to the authorities' recent move to hike entry fee at the Chennai Museum. ``There is nothing wrong in levying fee on those who can afford it. At the same time, we must never exclude the poor and one day in a week can be earmarked as free day to provide under-privileged sections access to the museums''.

On the issue of fixing a separate fee for non-Indians, she does not find anything unusual but, it should be ``realistic and fair''. Already, some foreign students have felt that the fee is too high.

The V&A Museum Director says there is no formula available that will heighten interest among people in visiting museums. But one suggestion that she has is to ``incorporate more context in the text''. Also, the manner in which the text is displayed matters.

One should take into account that people with different backgrounds come to museums. They must have choices of text available, to relate to the exhibits. Longish and highly informative text may look all right for scholars but not for ordinary persons. ``We learnt our lessons the hard way but are quick to respond to them. But, as for the Indian conditions, one needs to study people before making any change''.

Talking of her organisation, Dr. Swallow says ``we expose ourselves to critics''. Through rigorous evaluation by both scholars and ordinary people alike, continuous attempts are made to finetune the working of the Museum.

Emerging and new technologies should be utilised for generating more awareness on museums. Commending the Chennai Museum for creating a website, she says what is to be done next is to see who uses it, how people use it, and for what purposes. Do museums have a relevance in today's fast pace of life? Are they not redundant and is it not that live entertainment has become the paradigm of culture?

These questions any museologist needs to subject oneself to constantly. Dr. Swallow says ``take the example of Amaravati sculptures. It would have been wonderful had that civilisation been in existence. But, it is not so. Museums are required not just for reasons of preserving remnants of that civilisation but they are compendia of knowledge. So, their role is much bigger''.