Thursday 4 June 2015

Museums as Social and Cultural Places

Jay Winter, American Historian has said that, “Museums are, in a way, the cathedrals of the modern world, places where sacred issues are expressed and where people come to reflect on them. A museum is also a kind of bridge between the academy and the public.”
 Museums are not not just  just repositories of objects that educate the public. The viewer experience is as important as the repository in the museum. They are becoming more social and interactive places. India must learn from this. 
Why in news?

  • Recently the new Whitney Museum of American Art, devoted to 20th and 21st century American art, was opened in lower Manhattan by Michelle Obama as the chief guest. The  designed by celebrated architect, Renzo Piano, a favourite of many museum trustees and directors in the United States.
  • In March 2015, 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 (India's oldest 200 year old 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
About the Building (Whitney Museum)

The beauty of the building lies in the fact that, unlike Indian Museums, this building is for the people: its street-side ground floor, encased in glass, had a restaurant on the one end and a public gallery and information services on the other. Art is all around — from the visitor-friendly sculptures in the lobby to the artists-designed elevators, to the exhibition galleries and the art education studios. 

In this building rather than teaching on lines of Western classical tradition, it is a cultural centre for the people and a socially active place. Objects and visitors are equally important. It is an inviting building than a repelling one. Museum experience is more interactive and less forbidding. It allows full day light to come in. 
What is the learning?

For much of the 20th century, museums were seen as the repository of objects; their primary mission was to acquire, preserve and present objects that could educate the public. 

But this new movement towards making museums of the 21st century more people-friendly, which in turn profoundly changes the definition of the institution itself, does not include only the new Whitney. It is now understood that in order to create museums as destination spaces, they must also be an integral part of a community that sees the institution as part of its life.

As one of the oldest and greatest civilizations of the world, India indeed has an incredible story to tell about its rich and glorious past. The treasures of its golden past are kept in its museums for the mankind to see, enjoy and cherish. Museums bring us closer to our roots and making us aware of our glorious past. Museum visits as an integral part of school life were important events, which shaped our understanding of the growth of human life on earth.
Problems of Indian Museums

  1. Old method of working
    • India has huge collection of quality objects, especially of Indian art. But we are still working in the way work was done in last century
  2. Lack of expertise
    • IAS officers in India run the museums 
      • They  are generalists and thus there lies the problem. We need experts.  
      • Sometimes Bureaucrats from agriculture department come and head Museums.
      • Museum posting is generally seen as punishment posting!
    • But it is not always the case - like Delhi's  National Museum was lucky to get IAS officer Dr. Venu Vasudevan, under whom, the museum, which has 2.10 lakh artefacts representing 5,000 years of Indian art, saw a 30 per cent increase in visitors.
      • “Since the government does not assess us, there is no incentive for anyone to work,” says Dr. Vasudevan (he has background in tourism). 
        • This points to a larger issue to ponder upon - the appraisal and reward system in civil services - one of the reform agendas as a part of Civil Services Reforms.
  3. Indians do not go to Museum - this is not true!
    • Kalaghoda festival in Mumbai, Music festival of Chennai in December attract lot of youth who engage with art, music, and food. This shows that there is a thirst for more substantial cultural spaces. Issue is connecting with the masses.
  4. Argument that India is itself a huge museum and we don't need colonial institution such as a museum. 
    • Museums and cultural institutions can be both engines of economic growth and sources for community stability. so why not? They can also be powerful catalysts for understanding a country’s past, and for future creativity.
  5. Funding Issues
    • India has about 1000 Museums out of which about 90% are Government Museums. They can not partner with private individuals or  organisations, and have to depend on Central funding even for day-to-day operations. 
  6. Archaic policies
  7. Lack of autonomy
  8. No skilled manpower.
Main Museums of India

Largest and Oldest Museum of India: The Indian Museum 

  • It has rare collections of antiques, armour and ornaments, fossils, skeletons, mummies, and Mughal paintings. 
  • It was founded by the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Calcutta), India, in 1814

Allahabad Museum, Allahabad
Indian Museum, Kolkata
Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal
National Council of Science Museums, Kolkata
National Museum Institute, New Delhi
Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad
Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata

Some of the oldest museums were established by the British and their collections were a combination of natural history and antiquarian remains like the 197 year old Indian Museum, Kolkata (which will be celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2014) Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai.

A year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a case for India to be the Jagadguru (teacher of the world), as articulated by Swami Vivekananda, because of its civilisational strength. If India is serious about being a cultural leader and a spiritual teacher in the world, it will have to figure out fast how to activate the potential of its moribund museum sector and bring it into the 21st century.

14 key concerns in the Museum Sector. These concerns are (Just glance through this once. No need to read it in much detail):

  1. Collection & Stores Management
  2. Proper/Scientific Display of Artefacts
  3. Information, Signages, Floor Plans & Visitor Facilities
  4. Museum Shops and Souvenirs
  5. Multi-Media, Audio Visual & Guide Facilities
  6. Attract Various Audience Segments, including Students/Children  
  7. Image Building, Publicity and Cultural Events.
    • Set up and invigorate ‘Friends of Museum’ & also meet them.
  8. Visiting & Travelling Exhibitions
  9. Expansion & Acquisition of Collections
  10. Professional Development of Museum Personnel
  11. Implementation of Plan Schemes & special projects
  12. Security: Modern Techniques
  13. Conservation and Restoration
  14. Interactions with Academics, Archaeologists and Artists


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