A staffer at Calcutta’s Indian Museum;
(insets) an empty display in the same museum and
Pic: Subhendu Chaki
It’s not an uncommon sight in some of the best museums in the world to see a visitor with a rapt expression — as if in a trance — before a particular exhibit. It’s not often, however, you find someone sleeping on the floor of a museum.
At the government-run Indian Museum in Calcutta, the sight of visitors taking a nap in the afternoon is not rare. Of course, it’s another matter that they can actually do so when the stench from the restrooms makes it difficult to spend more time than absolutely necessary in some parts of the building. On the other hand, a shuteye would mean not seeing the paan-stained stairways or electrical wires hanging from speckled walls.
“In India, there is no difference between a museum and a railway platform. They are both boring places,” says artist A. Ramachandran, who has worked closely with museums.
But boring is not how one would describe the obstacle race to the National Museum in Delhi. To enter the premier museum, you have to jump over an array of bricks, as the path to the entrance is waterlogged. There is idle chatter inside the ticket counter, and the employees look surprised when you ask a question. They hand you a ticket and nonchalantly turn their back to you.
“Sheer apathy rules our museums,” holds art conservator Rupika Chawla.
Across India, government-run museums — which come under the department of culture — are in a state of disrepair. In a country which has 836 government-run and autonomous museums, little has been done to uplift the institutions which together hold treasures worth hundreds of crores of rupees. “Pathetic” and “filthy” are words that are often used to describe the two leading museums — the National Museum and the Indian Museum.
A 2010 Unesco draft report — never made public — had bemoaned the state of national museums. “Though it may be unfair to say museum officials are not doing anything, what has to be revised is the way directors and staff are appointed, and the modalities of decision making in general within the museum which do not always allow individual staff to bring in their expertise,” says a Unesco official.
Indeed, expertise is not a word often used in the context of museums in India. The Indian Museum celebrates its 200th year in 2014 — for which a committee of experts was appointed.
“The committee was formed a year ago to look into the bicentenary celebrations but now it has been dissolved without anyone informing us about it,” says art historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta, who was part of the committee. “I am upset at the way our vision for the bicentenary has been sidelined. Till today, I haven’t received a single letter from the museum citing the reason for such a move. No room is given to any long-term changes that one wants to bring,” says Guha-Thakurta, director, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.
And the Indian Museum could seriously do with some changes. Only 9.9 per of the total of 1.10 lakh objects are on display. It cannot exhibit its collection of 52,000-odd coins for lack of space. The museum has limited stock of replicas and reprints for sale — orders have to be placed through an application to the museum which may sometimes take up to a year to be delivered.
It’s the same story everywhere. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, which looked at the functioning of the National Museum last year, found that a quarter of the galleries have been closed for more than three years and hardly 7.5 per cent of its two lakh collections been exhibited.
The state of the Government Museum in Egmore, Chennai — which has the largest repository of Raja Ravi Varma paintings, rock art, Tanjore armoury, coins and rare zoological and botanical specimens — is no better. “The precious Amaravati sculptures at the museum are embedded in cement. They are lying in total neglect, unlike in the British Museum where the Amaravati sculptures are not kept for public display but can only be seen on appointment,” Chawla says.
In the West, which boasts of some of the world’s best run museums, an effort is made to make them more attractive and accessible to the people. For instance, the Louvre in Paris (which had 85 lakh visitors in 2009-2010 versus the 5.4 lakh who visited the Indian Museum) hosted a fashion show by the Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo in June. The fashion house in return sponsored an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.
The museum recently collaborated with Nintendo to develop an audio guide on the portable game console Nintendo 3DS. The official website of the museum has a section — Plan Your Visit — for tourists to facilitate their visit to the Louvre. The museum has 15 cafes and restaurants, several bookstores and a spectacular website. The National Museum website is still “Under Construction”.
“The National Museum has a beautiful collection of miniatures but there has been no specific exhibition to display them,” laments Ramachandran. The labels of artefacts are poorly designed (some are missing), the blinds on the windows are filthy and an entire section on the third floor has been left unlit. “It has been like this for many months now,” says an attendant.
The art acquisition committee at the National Museum has been defunct for the past 16 years and the museum is yet to find a permanent director. The museum shop has almost no reproductions of artwork. “The National Museum shop used to produce wonderful replicas. The people who were reproducing them got old and no effort was made to train younger people,” explains poet Ashok Vajpeyi, former culture secretary who was the acting director general of the National Museum in the mid-1990s. The main problem with government museums is the fact that either they are headless, or they are run by bureaucrats. “What business does a bureaucrat have heading a museum? A museum should be headed by a museologist,” a senior historian fumes.
A professional trained in running a museum, the experts point out, would know about the ways of preserving and displaying objects. Most Indian museums have not digitised their archives. To top it, treasured objects are in danger because of factors such as environmental humidity, dust and sheer neglect.
In India, the lack of professionalism is most visible when it comes to innovative thinking. Academics point out that bureaucrats tend to balk at introducing new measures — such as events to make a museum more attractive to the people, including the young. “Recently, we had a kite-making event. We got traditional kite makers from all over the country, and even from Japan. Children loved it. But later we were asked to explain what relevance it had to the museum,” says an official of the Indian Museum.
The acting director of the museum, Anup K. Matilal, however, seeks to stress that the institute is introducing change. “The entire exterior is being refurbished. We will be adding four more galleries. We are improving our cafeteria and museum shop, a new toilet block is being built and we are soon going to publish our own catalogues,” he says.
About the bicentenary celebrations, Matilal says that the museum — which has an annual budget of Rs 15 crore — has asked the Centre for another Rs 100 crore for the celebrations. “Not everything will be ready by 2014 but we expect to make all these changes over five years,” he adds optimistically.
|SPRUCING UP: Restoration work at Victoria Memorial, Calcutta;
It is often argued that the job of a museum head goes to bureaucrats because there are not enough trained professionals. But an art historian who had applied for the post of director at the Victoria Memorial says that the selection committee is yet to take a call despite having a vacancy for two years.
And even when committees comprising people from the art fraternity are formed, they rarely meet. “I was part of the advisory committee of Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) for three years. In my entire tenure the committee met just once. So what kind of work can one hope to get done,” asks sculptor K.S. Radhakrishnan.
Museums are also beset with a manpower crunch. At the Indian Museum, 111 out of 260 positions are vacant. The Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad is short of five curators. Around 20 per cent of posts are lying vacant at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai. “We don’t have enough people who can identify scripts or numismatists or people who study textiles,” says Swapan K. Chakraborty, secretary and curator (in charge), Victoria Memorial.
That a trained professional can make all the difference is evident at the CSMVS, which is headed by a trained museologist. In 2004, the museum raised money only through gate entries and rent that amounted to Rs 2 crore. Today, museum watchers point out, it raises funds through collaborations, successful exhibitions, summer workshops, corporate tie-ups, film screenings and so on.
“Our recurring income — admission fees, sale of prints, audio guide, photography permission and museum publications — earn us around Rs 3.24 crore which is 55 per cent of our total budget. The shortfall is raised through a systematic marketing strategy and also rent from immovable properties,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director, CSMVS.
Another museum doing relatively well is the Salar Jung Museum. It receives around Rs 1.30 crore from ticket sales and another Rs 25-30 lakh from selling memorabilia. “There is no dearth of funds. In the last five years, the museum received grants from Rs 8 crore to Rs 13 crore in addition to non-plan grants,” says director A. Nagender Reddy, who has trained in museum studies.
There are many ways of making money, which indeed can help a museum run better. Ramachandran suggests that ticket prices, now roughly Rs 10, be raised. “Selling museum publications, conducting tours and patronage from industry can also bring in money,” he says. Radhakrishnan cites the example of the City Palace Museum of Udaipur. “It’s now a part of the tourist circuit. Despite the high ticket price, it’s a must-visit place on everyone’s itinerary,” he holds.
Curiously, though shortage of funds is often cited as a reason for a museum’s pitiable stage, even the funds allocated to them are not always spent. In 2008, the Indian Museum returned Rs 20 crore which it said could not be utilised because of administrative issues. Even the Rs 72.36 crore that the Centre allotted to the ministry of culture in 2009-2010 wasn’t fully utilised, leading the parliamentary committee to conclude that the “allocation to the museums is enough”.
The ministry of culture, the National Museum and the Government Museum in Egmore did not respond to repeated calls and emails with queries about the state of Indian museums.
As government institutions flounder, a crop of private museums is coming up, highlighting that an institute can always be run professionally. The experts point to the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi and Noida, the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon and the soon-to-be-opened Kolkata Museum of Modern Art (KMoMA).
|FUTURE OF THE PAST: A portion of the Indian Museum under repair;
That museums can be spectacular — and fun — was established in 2007 when the 18th century Chowmahalla Palace of the Nizams was opened to the public in Hyderabad. Largely described as a museum that met global standards, the palace showcases vignettes of the Nizams’ lives with ancient maps, daggers with gold-and-ruby inlaid hilts, an old gramophone with an Elvis Presley record on it and the begums’ intricately-woven, zari laden outfits. Through the day, tourists, residents and schoolchildren line up to buy tickets at the palace.
“Private museums are working hard towards inculcating a museum culture in India,” says Kiran Nadar, who runs KNMA which has tied up with schools, colleges and NGOs for various activities.
But as far as the national institutes go, museum lovers fear that little is likely to change in the near future. “Nothing will change till the time our national museums develop trained expertise,” says the historian. “Small steps are being taken in this direction, such as the Leadership Training programme conducted by the British Museum,” he says, referring to a scheme under which 20 senior professionals from various Indian museums were trained in documentation, marketing, leadership and management skills to develop a modern museum.
The water outside the National Museum may now have dried up, leading to easier access. But the doors to the museum — like its counterparts in most parts of the country — are as unwelcoming as ever.