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Heritage Matters: Reimagining India’s Museums 

Heritage Matters: Reimagining India’s Museums 

Here’s something we bet you didn’t know – that India has more than a thousand museums. Which is precisely the point. Instead of showcasing our rich heritage with pride and occupying a prominent place in public consciousness, these repositories of our legacy are fast losing their relevance. They are regarded largely as ‘boring buildings meant mainly for history enthusiasts’, rather than the go-to place to rediscover the human story.

Valuable antiquities unearthed from decades of archaeological excavations are lying in the storerooms of our museums and are crumbling to dust, in what some regard as graveyards of priceless artefacts. Even scathing reports from UNESCO and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) are gathering dust, ironically, just like the artefacts that are the subject of these reports.The condition of reserve store highlighted in the report by CAG | CAG Report, 2020

The condition of reserve store highlighted in the report by CAG | CAG Report, 2020

In fact, a September 2020 report by the CAG highlighted how the Indian Museum in Kolkata, one of the oldest museums in India, failed to follow conservation protocols during their renovation work, which resulted in the damage of many valuable antiquities.

So why are museums in India in such a pitiable condition? What can we do to revitalise them? How can we turn galleries that display seemingly lifeless objects into living, breathing spaces that fire the imagination and kindle a desire to know more about who we were and where we came from? And what can we learn from new-age museums in India?

We put these questions to leading curators and experts in Reimagining India’s Museums, an edition of our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters. Our panel included Abhishek Poddar, Founder-Trustee, Museum of Art & Photography (MAP); Karni Singh Jasol, Director, Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur; Pramod Kumar KG, Managing Director, Eka Archiving Services; Deepthi Sasidharan, Director, Eka Archiving Services; and Manimugdha S Sharma, Deputy News Editor, The Times of India, New Delhi.

What’s wrong with our museums?

While there are many challenges in the way museums in India are managed and how people engage with them, our panel of experts felt that one of the basic issues is our understanding of the very concept of a museum.

While Karni Singh Jasol believes that we lack a museum culture in India, and our museums aren’t relevant or mainstream enough, Pramod Kumar says we need to work on the very concept of a museum.

“Do we really know what are we talking about when we talk about museums in India? What works as a museum across the world need not necessarily work for us. I think our premise of looking at a museum from the foundation is not proper,” said Kumar, who founded the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing in Jaipur and has worked as a consultant on several museum projects.One of the galleries at  National Museum, Delhi

One of the galleries at  National Museum, Delhi | Noman via Wikimedia Commons

Abhishek Poddar, a prominent art collector and patron in India, believes that we need to engage people better to get them to visit museums. “India doesn’t have a problem of people… we have a problem of getting people to museums. Although we have some of the most crowded cities in the world, the joke is that, in India, to get away from people, you go to a museum! We need to change that.”

Deepthi Sasidharan, an art historian and an archivist, believes that a systematic functioning, which includes inventorying, documentation, archiving, etc, is essential for a museum to move forward. She also talked about digitisation of the content of museums. She pointed out that while many museums overseas have made their collections accessible online, we in India are still struggling with the digitisation of museums and their collections. “When it comes to archiving or documentation, I think the problems are common to both government museums as well as for private museums. Documentation or creating an archive of information requires very skilled, knowledgeable people. We lack training, we lack skilled professionals.”

Accessibility is another problem, whether for visitors to a museum or for scholars and researchers.

It is difficult to access the collections or information on certain objects. “We hold onto the information, we don’t provide access to visiting curators, visiting scholars. It all boils down to the fundamental problem of how we see museums and cultural institutions,” Karni pointed out.

Poor storage management, incorrect or inadequate utilisation of funds and resources, false or incomplete information on labels, poor lighting in galleries, lack of trained professionals and lack of innovative engagement methods are other problems that afflict our museums. In the context of labelling, Kumar made a fascinating point about how the labelling of objects in Indian museums provides bare minimum information to visitors.

“Internationally, curatorial teams call it ‘tombstone information’, as in the birth date and death date, either of the artist or of the artwork, where it was created or the material… just the basic information that tells you what the object is in physical material terms.. But that’s not good enough. If I write ‘Pahari style’ next to a painting, what does it mean to a lay person if I don’t give a larger explanation?” said Kumar.

Manimugdha Sharma made an interesting but sad observation. He said that when school kids visit museums, they are often accompanied by their sports teachers, not even history teachers, which tells us how even schools regard the museum experience.

What is the way forward?

Our panel of experts had interesting ideas about how we can revitalise our museums and consequently the museum experience. In fact, most of them have been working on how museums can be made engaging and relevant.

Poddar, while talking about the upcoming Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru, said the museum has tried to involve schools and children. They have also created ‘education labs’, which focus on workshops and engagement programmes. He believes that collaborations (with other museums and other institutions) are the way forward.Bihar Museum, an example of a new-age museum

Bihar Museum, an example of a new-age museum | Wikimedia Commons

Kumar and Sasidharan of Eka Archiving Services have been consulting on many museum projects. Kumar believes that storytelling makes for better engagement. Weaving interesting stories through objects can spark curiosity, which encourages people to want to know more. This, in turn, makes for a much better museum experience. According to Sasidharan, training programmes are essential for spaces like museums. Other solutions highlighted in the discussion were employing a multiplicity of languages in the form of audio guides, which would reach out to a larger audience; and using cutting-edge technology such as virtual reality and augmented reality. So, for instance, installing barcode scanning systems that can help visitors access information about the objects on display.Mehrangarh Museum | Mehrangarh Museum Trust

Mehrangarh Museum | Mehrangarh Museum Trust

Karni Singh Jasol pointed out that interacting with local communities is vital for museums. He said that local communities need to be aware of their local history through museums. Taking Mehrangarh as an example, Jasol said the management has reached out to local schools in Jodhpur so that they come to the museum, to not just interact with objects in the galleries but even with space itself. This has worked very well for an institution like Mehrangarh, which is housed in a historic fort.

Manimugdha Sharma believes the first step to encouraging people to visit museums is to start having more conversations on heritage and history in our society.

India’s museums are begging for improvement and there is no dearth of ideas that can breathe new life into these institutions. Hopefully, the governments that run these great crucibles of our history will take note and we will see a new wave of innovation and revival of India’s museums.

Cover Image: Indian Museum, Kolkata via Wikimedia Commons

You can watch the complete conversation on Reimagining India’s Museums here:

Through our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters, we offer a platform to anyone who wants to highlight issues surrounding our heritage as well as showcases work that addresses the many problems faced on the ground, across the length and breadth of India. If you have a story to share, an issue to highlight, or work to showcase, please write to us at contactus@livehistoryindia.com.

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