Reimagining Museums In India

Arunima Gupta

May 19, 2021, 05:54 PM | Updated 05:54 PM IST

A section of the Indian Museum
A section of the Indian Museum
  • As tourist destinations, museums are one of the largest sources of revenue for many countries.
  • Additionally, they are also hubs that invite and incubate ideas, talent and innovation, which is also accompanied by investments and international collaborations.
  • Sadly, the majority of the museums administered by the Indian state and provide neither learning nor leisure.
  • Cultural institutions play a critical role in shaping narratives and nurturing a country’s heritage, knowledge traditions and values.

    Museums are such institutions that conserve, document and exhibit a country’s tangible and intangible heritage through audio-visual means. They also facilitate dialogues between individuals and communities, enabling them to engage with diverse cultural practices of today.

    To celebrate museums as integral cultural institutions, 18 May is marked as International Museum Day.

    Indeed, governments as well as non-governmental actors across the world have realised the importance of museums in addressing social, cultural and economic issues facing their countries.

    They have channelised resources and talent to foster a museum culture for several reasons.

    Firstly, museums familiarise visitors with a country’s civilisation and its history which is essential to understand its present-day social and political structures. Museum exhibits provide valuable information on cultural achievements or on power-relations between states through display of war-related artefacts.

    They can also share experiences and trauma of tragedies that civilisations went through in the past. Through this, museums evoke sentiments associated with pride, pain, admiration, curiosity and more, underpinning communities’ shared experiences and aspirations. This in-turn influences perceptions of a country and its people about itself and the world.

    Yad Vashem — the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem is a brilliant example of how the Jews have shaped their narrative by harnessing museum resources. From the very architecture of the museum complex to the carefully curated exhibitions, the museum offers a painful yet gripping experience to the visitors. With over one million visitors each year, Yad Vashem seeks to remind the younger Israeli population of their national identity and struggles of the past. To the foreigners, it seeks to evoke greater empathy and better understanding of the Jewish community and the state of Israel.

    Secondly, museums are indicative of values such as creativity, leisure and excellence that individuals uphold. They also convey the degree of patronage and the appetite a society has for cultural pursuits. For instance, museums in France are windows to experiencing the idea of Art de Vivre, or the art of living, that the French closely associate with.

    Furthermore, prominent museums pin cities for their unique cultural heft on the global map. While a museum dedicated to French culinary traditions and world cuisines in Lyon advocates for the city to be the gastronomical capital, museums boasting of the craft of textiles and perfumery reinstates Paris as a fashion hub in the world.

    Finally, museums can be catalysts for developing thriving cities in which they are situated. Museum complexes and their vicinity serve as attractive destinations for libraries, think-tanks, universities, restaurants and more. This increases the avenues for citizens to engage with the city’s cultural milieu and also encourages creative entrepreneurs and agencies to partake in commercial activities.

    This was best exemplified in the case of the effect wielded by Guggenheim Museum, in the dull industrial town of Bilbao in Spain. Following the construction of the museum, the city breathed a new life with economic growth, dynamism and global recognition as a major tourism destination in Spain.

    This model, known as The Bilbao Effect, encapsulates the spill over effects of cultural investments in reinvigorating social and economic ecosystems.

    Museums, therefore, are potent institutions with abundant knowledge and cultural endowments. They are storytellers that appeal to the sensibilities of individuals.

    As tourist destinations, museums are one of the largest sources of revenue for many countries. Additionally, they are also hubs that invite and incubate ideas, talent and innovation, which is also accompanied by investments and international collaborations.

    Concomitantly, museums become instrumental in furthering a country’s soft power and global influence.

    A Case for Revamping Museums in India

    India, being one of the oldest and the most advanced civilisations, has much to share with the world. Our accomplishments in the field of performing arts, visual arts, literature and science are unparalleled, and so is the story of our civilisation’s journey till date. Our civilisational continuity is also underpinned by the fact that our heritage inspires present-day innovations and creative expressions. However, our museums fail to do justice to our heritage. The shortcomings are not due to lack of information and artefacts to display, but primarily because of substandard curatorship.

    Museums are meant to offer an all-inclusive experience comprising both learning and leisure. The architecture of the museum; open spaces interspersed with galleries; appropriate lighting in the rooms; well-functioning amenities such as ticketing counters, restrooms and cafeterias, and an inviting souvenir shop are some of the very basics that contribute towards an exciting and comfortable museum experience.

    Likewise, authentic information disseminated through audio guides or through well-written content, as well as the luxury of time provided to observe and interpret exhibits, allow visitors to fulfil their curiosities.

    Complementing venues like auditoriums, libraries and activity rooms for children further increases people’s cultural engagement. Sadly, the majority of the museums administered by the state and central ministries of culture provide neither learning nor leisure. The National Museum in New Delhi is a case in point.

    With archaic infrastructure and abysmal maintenance, the museum presents little incentive to visit for adults and miniscule attraction for children.

    The upcoming Central Vista project, therefore, presents the opportunity to finally rethink and rebuild a new National Museum with state-of-the-art technologies and planning.

    In fact, there is a need to revamp most of the state-run museums — both in terms of infrastructure and administration. Towards this end, some measures would include investments in physical spaces, human resources and modern technologies.

    Concerted efforts are also needed to build strong value propositions and forging meaningful public-private partnerships involving relevant stakeholders.

    Most importantly, governments must identify and employ domain experts for the right kind of job and ensure autonomous functioning. Historians and conservators are likely to emphasise on the intrinsic value of artefacts, whereas curators would focus on market orientation and customer satisfaction.

    Additionally, professional expertise is needed for developing and executing effective communication and branding strategies as well as for maintaining digital resources like websites, e-archives, virtual exhibitions etc.

    This becomes even more pertinent in times such as these, when the ongoing pandemic has forced people into their homes and made the internet a window to the world.

    It would also be worthy of documenting the number of tourist footfalls and revenue generation on an annual basis, as no such comprehensive data exists as of now.

    While these trends dominate the museum landscape in India, it may be wrong to assume that every single museum in India shares the same fate.

    Many recently-built museums, especially those run by non-governmental organisations and individuals offer enthralling experiences. This would include museums like the Museo Camera, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Art and Photography.

    However, despite the coming of these newer institutions, the general fascination of museums remains low and in-turn risks their sustained operations.

    The need to reinvigorate museums as important cultural centres, that offer immersive experiences, inform people of India's cultural endowments and the identity of its people, cannot be emphasised enough.

    This could gradually pave the way for a robust museum culture to flourish, in at least major cities in India, attracting artists, entrepreneurs, academics and investors.

    As the theme of this year’s International Museum Day goes, it is high-time we hold conversations around the future of our museums and reimagine their role in our societies.

    The influence of museums — assessed by their footfalls, partnerships, and events — would ultimately reflect on India’s cultural footprint and its soft power.

    Arunima Gupta is Principal at the Network of Indian Cultural Enterprises. She is an alumnus of Leiden University, the Netherlands and Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi University. Prior to joining NICE, Arunima headed the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Relations at Vision India Foundation. She tweets @ArunimaGupta03.

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