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UK tips to changemuseum mindset

The new year does not bode well for UK museums. There will be funds cuts, museums will close and outreach staff will be downsized. The country has an ageing population and museums are targeted at the young. Yet it is difficult to attract visitors in the 12-25 age group. The challenge in the UK will be for museums to keep minds alive and to be relevant to society as well.

Jane Weeks, museums and heritage adviser, British Council, who on Monday morning interacted first with museology students and thereafter with individuals connected with museums in the city either directly or laterally, said some museums in the UK are buzzing with activity (the Tate Modern was not planned for the phenomenal crowds it draws), and in new rich China, which is very interested in display, education and governance of museums, many as large as Heathrow airport, museums are meeting places of young people as they are considered safe.

The museum of today, Weeks observed, is less about objects than the stories they tell. An object can be “fantastically boring” but the information provided should be of interest to people. Museums assume very low levels of knowledge among visitors. Even niche museums are trying to lure new visitors by introducing social history. Most UK museums have regular evaluation programmes so they always have to be on their toes.

There is rethinking on the role of museums as they have to be useful in people’s lives. Museums in the UK were keen on developing international partnerships not only at national level but regional level as well. Many old museum buildings, mostly belonging to the Victorian era, are being refurbished but glazing of roofs has not always been successful, Weeks said. The heritage lottery funds gives money only for public programmes.

Sujata Sen, director, East India, at British Council, announced that the British Council plans to work with museums in India and south Asia. But from what the participants said in the second half of the programme one could not help wondering if this would be at all possible in hidebound India where museums do not have to scrounge for funding (that is guaranteed by the government with or without footfall), and where mindsets never change and unionised staff refuse to work. It is not uncommon for money, as in the case of the Indian Museum, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year, to be returned unused.

There are rare exceptions like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum) and the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, both in Mumbai. The science museums like the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum with their dedicated staff and volunteers (no other museum here has tried this out) have also been a great success. But with many museums being without full-time chiefs, they are “headed by people who don’t have time,” said historian Barun De.