Why it’s time to resurrect India’s museums
There are many reasons why our museums are in a state of dilapidation. Mindset, lack of vision, non-involvement of corporate India…
Finally, India has a museum dedicated to the prime ministers of India. It’s welcoming that the Union government thought of celebrating all PMs with a modern, interactive museum in the heart of the national capital. But why are most other museums in the country museum pieces in itself?
Mindset. And ennui. Lack of vision on the part of those in charge of these things and the non-involvement of corporate India. Most importantly, India is a living culture. Putting things in museums means it is a historic, representative look at what was. Take the grandest of museums: Prince of Wales in Mumbai, renamed after Shivaji. A grand gothic building with a huge staircase and ceiling. But display? Age old. Anything goes. Take the National Museum in Delhi. Best treasures of India, some lying in the open. It is under-dimensioned. Take Egmore in Chennai. Chola bronzes exposed to sea salt. Need more be said? We don’t care for our cultural heritage. Period. We have too much of it, so what’s a few hundred years (lost or looted) between friends?
Or is it that we have too much of it? In this context then, where will new disciplines fit in? Stamp museum? In a post-office naturally! Dolls museum? In a mall naturally! Coins museum? In a bank naturally! (RBI Mumbai.)
The main issue is vision or the lack of it. Sarkari museums are like someone decides, someone does, and nobody sees. Look at Ahmedabad, our best city for museums. Each one is a private museum and well run: textiles, utensils, even kites. Yes, Ahmedabad is India’s museum capital. Dakshinachitra, outside Chennai, is the best open-air museum, featuring habitats of five southern states. Kolkata has the best colonial buildings, one of them housing the largest of Asian treasures, at the Indian Museum. Salar Jung in Hyderabad is the most soothing museum. The Mathura Museum has best Buddhist artefacts in worst display. Ditto for Patna Museum. The Partition Museum is fast becoming a must-see in Amritsar.
Museums are not a place for mummifying culture but can be father of cultural spaces. Ah! That’s the word. Cultural space. Museums ought to be spaces for cultural symbols and learnings, not stuffing. Do you know the most visited cultural space in India? Mumbai International Airport—30 million footfalls annually. Have you ever walked from one section to another? Artefacts from all over India, the best talent of India through contemporary art at baggage belts, and Tanjore paintings meeting Rajasthani decorative arts in aisles. It is possible if the client gives charge to an experienced, qualified expert (Rajiv Sethi in this case). Make a connoisseur like Aman Nath, chairman of the Neemrana Group, in charge of Mission Museums Possible of India and see the magic he has created in real dead places. If he can revive a fallen fort and help reforest surrounding areas, then he can do more if given a chance and charge. The starting point has to be right. Abroad, professionals—not administrators—are given a project: the Bilbao, the Bubble or the Boston Museum. Tourism is a by-product of culture not a hand-maiden alone.
Cultural illiteracy is high if you see the mish-mash churned out on TV. B-grade out-of-work characters of Bollywood, in skimpy dresses, talk of flute as if they have seen an alien. How and what will our children learn? From where? Wikipedia? That general, half-baked information platform? Why can’t we now create museums that stand the test of time, use technology for educational content and make use of Indian symbols to make it interactive and interesting? It is possible.
Delhi’s worst museum was about stuffed clay models of animal replicas housed in FICCI, at Mandi House, which was gutted some years ago. Delhi’s best was the crafts museum where one saw craftsmen at work. Bengaluru has a good aircraft museum by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and now a good music museum by a builder. For the last 40 years, I’m trying to save our dance heritage and create a space for learning its history and heritage, which hopefully the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), under Sachidanand Joshi, will make it happen in its new space; so that what Lincoln Center New York wanted for any sums and we suffered penury but didn’t sell these treasures so that it remained in India and benefitted our future generations is seen and savoured here , soon.
Society must also put a premium on art, heritage and learning. Buy tickets to museums, music concert and dance shows. Kids buy expensive dresses, shoes and bags worth thousands and their parents give them lavish pocket-monies in Metro India but not one has given them a museum membership or lifetime pass to culture. To be a member of Met (that’s Metropolitan Museum, USA, not meteorological department here! ) is a badge of honour. Americans have very little historical culture but it has the best museums. Sweden, a small country with 10 million people, has some of the best museums in Europe. Italy is living, breathing museums. France too. A little butterfly museum in Cheboyan County in Michigan, USA, where I got married, has more visitors and material than our Natural History Museum!
There’s still time before it is too late. A special directorate of museums with 1 per cent corporate CSR monies or education cess going to it must be budgeted. Each state must have a window to its culture and arts. If I go to Odisha and don’t want to see its famed beaches and temples in heat of May, when it is 42 degrees C outside, then there must be a place where I can learn about Odisha in totality. Ditto Karnataka or Himachal. Why haven’t we done this until now? Better late than never.