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Museums not afraid of controversy

Can museums hold an exhibition on violence against women prevalent in India today? Can museums afford to handle controversial issues?

Indians used to museums where objects are viewed with reverence from a distance would be horrified at the idea of doing that, but this was exactly what one of the young participants asked at the International Conference and Intensive Seminar on Strategic Transformations: Museums in 21st Century, during the panel discussion at the end of the session on Friday afternoon.

It was being held at the Asutosh Memorial Hall on the Indian Museum campus, and unlike most sleep-inducing discussions, it generated a lively debate.

Saroj Ghose, an Indian science populariser and museum maker, admitted that Indian museums are subject-oriented and engaged in scholastic pursuits and are “lacking enormously in sensitivity to society”. He appealed to young museum professionals not to shy away from such issues.

Before him, Mark Taylor, director, The Museums Association, UK, had said museums could discuss and take a stand on certain issues, while Martin Roth, director, V&A Museum, London, observed that museums have a role in asking difficult questions. “We have to take risks…We have to face the public”.

Responding to a question on the definition and role of “national museums”, Gordon Rintoul, director, National Museums Scotland, said national museums should do more than just focus on their own museums. They should do something all over the country in which they are located. The definition is rather vague, opined Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director-general, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai. Amareshwar Galla, executive director, International Institute for the Inclusive Museum, Copenhagen, who was the moderator, quoted nuclear physicist Homi K. Bhabha as saying that a national museum cannot remain frozen in time.

The definition varied from country to country, said Steven Boudewijn Engelsman, director, Weltmuseum Wien, Austria. If state-funded it is “national”.

To this Rintoul responded: “If a museum remains static it is not relevant any longer.” Visitors must be asked if they feel a museum is alive or not. Educational programmes must be changed every year. Carolyn Royston, head of digital media, Imperial Museums, UK, suggested that the digital media could help tell multiple stories, and could be an instrument of change without much fuss. “There are simple ways of changing content. Watching what they (visitors) do in a museum” is of vital importance.

Munira Sultana, deputy secretary, ministry of cultural affairs, Bangladesh, said participation of ordinary people was important for the museums in that country too, a point that was seconded by Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Ananya Bhattacharya, director, banglanatak dot com. The latter suggested connecting objects with real life.

Another issue raised was that of the quality and relevance of museology courses in India. Saroj Ghosh suggested radical changes in content and stressed practical application for which museums should be part of an institution. Students should be engaged in project-oriented work.

G.S. Rautela, director general, National Council of Science Museums, recommended 50-50 practical and theoretical. B. Venugopal, director, Indian Museum, said a degree in museology is a “handy tool”.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee spoke at length on the success story of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. “Transformation is not in physical terms alone. There should be a change in mindset. An institute should have a clear-cut vision. The museum is not supported by the government and it collaborates with NGOs who work with sex workers, HIV patients and construction labourers.”

On politics and museums, Mark Taylor of radical ideas said “museums have to be political — could be about the local community. Museums have to ask questions.” Martin Roth too was of the opinion that museums must raise questions and that they were “politically incorrect” because of the diverse cultures they brought together.