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People, the mantra for museums

- World seminar stresses the need to be open, accessible & educational
Mark Taylor, director, The Museums Association, UK, at Science City. (Sanat K. Sinha)

“Traditional museums — static building based. Transformed museums — open, accessible, educational.”

Thus read the power point presentation of Mark Taylor, director, The Museums Association, UK. No wonder people were the keystone in his address at The Indian Museum’s bicentennial celebrations on Thursday at the Science City auditorium.

“Talk about people — not human resources. Collections don’t matter, buildings don’t matter, funds don’t matter. Museums must invest time and money to employ the right people to bring collections to life,” said Taylor.

The Indian Museum’s bicentennial celebrations kicked off on February 2, the very day on which Dr Nathaniel Wallich, a botanist from Denmark, had shot off a letter to the Asiatic Society of Bengal with the appeal to open a museum in Calcutta for “the naturalist or scholar”. The museum in a very big way helped Indians to literally reclaim big chunks of their lost past and identity, aided by European and mainly British scholars, archaeologists and naturalists.

The National Council of Science Museums had, therefore, chosen the right time to organise the International Conference and Intensive Seminar on Strategic Transformations: Museums in 21st Century, which began in New Delhi on Monday and opened in Calcutta at Science City on Thursday. It is being held in collaboration with the Indian Museum, National Museum, New Delhi, and the Indian National Committee of International Council of Museum (ICOM), and being supported by the British Council.

With participants from all over the world, the seminar turned out to be a celebration of multi-culti, which is still quite fashionable now. What made it even better was that it was people-oriented. All the speakers stressed the need to impress visitors first and foremost.

This is particularly important in our context, museums — and the Indian Museum, in particular — still being considered a magical repository where visitors — mostly from remote villages — stare in disbelief at the marvellous objects on display.

Museums should be an agent of social change. Since museums in the UK are in a big way self-financed, Taylor said they needed, besides curators, digital managers, marketers and researchers, and people involved in retail and catering and outreach and community work.

But the first allegiance of museum staff should be to visitors. And they must be willing to adapt themselves and their skills to change. Taylor made an even more radical point. The staff should “reflect” different sections of society, including the educationally and economically disadvantaged. He was all for recruiting earlier and not necessarily graduates.

In his keynote address, Museums and Transformations in Post Reunification of Germany, Hans-Martin Hinz, president, ICOM, said ICOM meetings have in the past caused prejudices to dissipate. He emphasised the absolute necessity for museums to enjoy freedom to do their work at a time when politicians were cutting the budgets of these institutions. They must also be free of political action. “We must do whatever we can to be a driving force,” Hinz concluded.

In the only video conference, Roberta Altman of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, demonstrated how the museum reached out to children from a school in impoverished South Bronx to introduce them to nature and nurture — culture, in other words. “Non-traditional audiences need a museum to reach out,” she said.

S. Chaudhuri, director, Central Research & Training Laboratory, National Council of Science Museums, stressed “empathetic storytelling”, a playful environment, not just accumulation of knowledge. The human element has to be prioritised, he observed.