Martin Roth at the international seminar on museum at Science City on Thursday. (Sanat Kr. Sinha)
At the end of a lively panel discussion on Friday afternoon, when the organisers were felicitating the panellists with gifts and flowers, the moderator, Amareswar Galla, wondered aloud how the organisers had involved the much-sought-after Martin Roth, director, V&A Museum in London.
The museum, which was created out of the proceeds of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, has, of late, organised several exhibitions on subjects as diverse as the rock star David Bowie, opulence and splendour of Indian royal courts and the evolution of Chinese paintings from 700 to 1900, which were all smash hits.
Roth was here last in 2011, and he has sprouted much facial hair since. He was very enthusiastic about the Indian Museum then, and this time, too, he is very pleased with the way it looks after its recent restoration.
“The Indian Museum is not Bengali. It is not Indian. It is world heritage,” he said as he enthused about the Enlightenment of which this institution is a “perfect example”.
Roth was here for the conference and seminar on museums in 21st century, which began in New Delhi on Monday and ended in Calcutta on Friday. It was held in collaboration with the Indian Museum, National Museum, New Delhi, and the Indian National Committee of International Council of Museum, and being supported by the British Council.
In his keynote address in New Delhi, Roth said: “They (museums) can open doors. They can reveal histories. They can be key vehicles for international cultural dialogue.”
He harped on the same themes — “shared heritage” — when this correspondent met him on Thursday. “Someone like Kipling shows that opportunity,” he said.
He stressed the importance of bringing the specialist’s knowledge to the level of all visitors — even the villagers who flock to the Indian Museum. “The core collection means nothing unless it is accessible to the public.”
He said he has met several Indian artists — somebody like Subodh Gupta — and discovered how deeply rooted they were in the villages they came from.
He related how he had been invited to the Italian mountains where people from neighbouring villages met to discuss the problem of avalanches. These people from different backgrounds talked to each other and found different solutions. “If people can’t come to you, go to the people. This is what Gandhi did,” said Roth, whose museum, incidentally, is developing an exhibition on south Asian textiles which will examine their impact on India’s Independence movement.
Roth sounds enthusiastic about the way people from villages take to IT like fish do to water. He sites the example of a professor of education who developed cheap computers (“like ATMs”) for children. Thereafter the kids started writing programmes for computers.
Roth is not averse to taking risks. “Don’t be shy. Don’t be too prudent.” He was talking about the Bowie exhibition. He says the V&A was the first museum to open a restaurant and go in for gaslights to attract visitors in the evening.
A website is a must but “digital is only a tool – not the business. Don’t overuse it. It is like going to a restaurant and eating the menu. Food has to be there,” he stressed.
Visitor experience is what matters most. The museum must be a clean, attractive and elegant space. “Be nice to guests. Make it like a hotel. Be nice to guests. There must be something to eat and drink. Sometimes throw a party. There must no darkness. Guidance must be attractive to make it lively. It is not a luxury. People are the target,” said Roth.
It sounds like a threat as he said: “If you are not interested in people don’t work in a a museum. Work in an archive.”