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Museums and a waste of treasures

Berlin has an entire stretch of land dedicated to five major museum complexes.

Museums in the UK have been making serious efforts to bring out collections from storage and reach out to more people.

In India, meanwhile, museums have been an “exasperating” loss of opportunities. Such was the verdict of museum lovers assembled at Victoria Memorial Hall on May 17, International Museum Day.

Jawhar Sircar, the CEO of Prasar Bharati, called for a change in outlook, greater expertise and a free hand for museums, even if that meant breaking rules and taking risks.

Speaking on Why Do We Waste Museum Collections and Opportunities, Sircar said India boasted the greatest collection of artefacts. Treasures like the Dancing Girl (3rd-2nd millennium BC) of Mohenjodaro at the National Museum in Delhi, fragments from the Stupa of Bharhut from the 2nd to 1st century BC and the Gandhara Buddhas of 1st to 3rd Century AD at the Indian Museum, the personal armour of Akbar dated 1581 AD and an Arabic version of the Panchatantra commissioned by the emperor in 1575 AD at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, Veiled Rebecca at Salarjung Museum in Hyderabad, Dara Shikoh’s handwritten commentary on the Gita and Upanishads dated around 1657 and Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharatmata at Victoria Memorial could each be the focus of an exhibition.

“The treasures of the nation are being held from it because of the system,” said Sircar, adding that the Indian Museum at present displays only six per cent of its collection of 1,80,000, National Museum in Delhi 21 per cent of its collection of 2,08,000 objects, Victoria Memorial 10 per cent of its 28,000 objects, Chhatrapati Shivaji museum 15 per cent of 60,000 and Salarjung 30 per cent of its 46,000 items.

Sircar’s prescription: a revamp of governance and rules, autonomy from governmental procedures, professional trustees who can visualise and execute rescue operations, a dedicated group of well-paid new-generation museum-keepers, mandatory performance targets and political will and determination to restore museums.

Other speakers at the two-day event hosted by Victoria Memorial Hall and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), celebrating its 30th anniversary, shared their experience of museums in other countries.

Anindya Basu, a young architect associated with INTACH and just back from a tour of museums in Germany, gave the audience an illustrated introduction to the Museum Island of Berlin — a stretch of land between two branches of the Spree River which is dedicated to five museum complexes.

Samarjit Guha, the head of programmes at British Council, Calcutta, said public connections with collections were increasing daily in the UK, not just through physical display in galleries but online, through loans, associated knowledge exercises, publications, open storage, study tours and more. The long-term sustainability of museums is a subject of serious research for museum associations and museums are accountable for use of public money and resources, he said.

With 65,000 artworks in its collection, the Tate is still low on storage, loaning works to other museums or displaying them in temporary exhibitions in the UK and beyond. The Glasgow Resource Museums Centre, a storehouse for the collections of all Glasgow museums, is also using its holding of 1.4 million objects to connect with different communities and involve schoolchildren in regular activities.

Stéphane Amalir, director, Alliance Francaise du Bengale, recalled his experiences in Nha Trang, Vietnam, where he had suggested converting a shipping yard into a live museum where visitors could watch the antiquated ways of carving boats out of wood. The suggestion was ignored but Kumartuli, Amalir said, seems perfect for a similar project where visitors could be involved in image-making and watching the traditional craftsmen at work.