Friday, 2 June 2017

FINDING DIRECTION IN INDIA'S MUSEUMS

MUSINGS ABROAD

BY: KRISTEN MCLAUGHLIN

India is a nation bursting with rich history, archaeology, monuments, and intangible heritage like dance, song, costumes, and more. It is a country bustling with life and vibrancy and fast-paced change. However, many of India's museums do not match the quality of sites and collections. On the cusp of an economic shift, attention has turned to just how India is displaying this heritage and history and the possible benefits of creating more popular, engaging, and organized museums.

There is a need to identify opportunity through museum planning and management in India's museums. Currently there is much lamentation within the country regarding a lack of audience, disorganization, government control, and skilled labour. This article will look at some past discussions about India's museums and possible directions for the future. Despite current obstacles, there is growing movement within India, particularly with youth, to increase the strength and message of India's museums. It is an exciting time!

Brief History

Indian museology dates back to the late 18th and 19th centuries, when the Asiatic Society was formed in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1784 by British colonizers creating documentation records on the cultural heritage that existed in India. Their first museum, the Imperial Museum, is now the Indian Museum and one of the largest in the country.

The Indian Museum in Kolkata. Source.

Even before this, though, the rulers of India and lesser nobles often collected stone and bronze sculpture, textiles, paintings, and other artifacts, similar to neighboring countries and ancient Southeast Asia.

Because of this history, one may expect India to have some of the most advanced museums in the world. This is not the case. There are many contributing factors to the lack of strong museum presences in the country, but it frequently comes down to a lack of physical and economic resources; museums are not the priority of most countries, particularly when there are larger, more life and death issues to deal with. There is also a perception among citizens that museums are mainly for tourists, so improving museums has not been on the social and economic development calendar. According to Barry Lord of Lord Cultural Resources, most museums in India lack basic requirements for professional operation.

The Numbers

India's government-run museums recorded less than 100,000 visitors for tickets priced at 30 cents, as compared to the Louvre's 8.6 million visitors with full-priced tickets. However, this is not a new occurrence. In 2009 India's Ministry of Culture released an impressive 14-point agenda promising reform for museums, such as more interactive displays, outreach and educational programs, and more. In 2011 however, a UNESCO report revealed that the country's major museums still suffered from a lack of maintenance and sometimes basic lighting and signage. 

"But at the core are deep-rooted issues of archaic policies, lack of autonomy, and no skilled manpower. Our excellent collections are proof of a rich socio-cultural history, but when museums act as mere closed-door guardians of treasures instead of disseminating them, attractively and intelligently, to a wide audience, they lose their purpose."  -- Madhumitha Srinivasan, The Hindu

Much of this is the result of art and culture being consistently marginalized in the country's budgeting, as all museums rely on the government for staffing, day-to-day operations, and basic supplies. However, the government is not willing to pay the fees necessary for training, staff, and preservation that would entice the experienced people needed. In India's 2017-2018 budget, less than 1% (about 0.13%) has been given to the Ministry of Culture, which manages libraries, cultural institutions, archives, as well as museums.

The Big Concerns

According to Vinod Daniel from the Australian conservation network AusHeritage, there are six major problems facing Indian museums today.

1. Director: appointing a permanent director to allow for time to transform a vision into reality.
2. Autonomy: All museums in India report to the government, which can be challenging. Implementing a system such as a board would allow for more freedom.
3. Staffing: Most staff in museums in India do not have any form of training, whether that be collections, curation, interpretation, programming, etc. A proper selection process should become the norm. Organization is a serious problem.
4. Audience Engagement: Currently, citizens of India are not particularly attached to their museums. Last year, a fire burned up 70% of the collection in a national museum in New Delhi, and most people did not know it had happened. A problem is a way to make audiences want to come and to make them feel connected, citizens as well as tourists.
5. Collections: Museums need to rethink how they manage their collections. There are no collection development strategies in Indian museums, which would help with organization, streamlining accessioning processes, and more.
6. Intangible Heritage: India is particularly unique because of its strong intangible culture in song, dance, art, textiles, etc. A way to bring these aspects into the museum fold may help with development strategies, tourism, and more.


Solutions?

  • -Allow for more museum autonomy; implementing boards, trusts, and other operating structures rather than government
  • Create a museum that is important and topical to gain attention from civilians: as suggested by Indian MP Shashi Tharoor, a museum on British colonialism in India and the detrimential aftershocks would be a strong starting point in gaining the attention of citizens and the importance of museums in preserving relevant history
  • -Consult with museums around the world and create global ties: for example, this year the ICOM (International Council of Museums) International Committee on Museum Management conference is taking place in the Vishakhapatnam and Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh!
  • -Bring in employees and interns from across the globe for different perspectives and experiences
  • -Look for unique strategies that use little money and resources (such as looking to small museums in other countries)
  • -Pick the strategies that work best for your specific institution. Start small, such as writing policies.
  • -Fight to get the community interested and invested in your museum in order to create social capital.

India is a country with a large and diverse history and endless possibilities for the future when it comes to promoting these aspects. When it comes to museums, though, it seems the country is stuck in a rut. India may have to break away from the traditional government-run only museum model and find the policies, practices, and goals that work for their museum's specific needs. However, at present there seems to be no positive shift in museum management in the country. With a growing interest from India's youth in working in museums and the importance of audience engagement, perhaps they will be the ones to create new solutions to old problems.


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