Not so long ago, National Museum in Delhi was known to be a dull, desolate place where artifacts rested in dusty, dimly-lit galleries. Instead of visitors, in most galleries, one often saw a couple of bored khaki-clad policemen.
Not any more.
The museum, a treasure trove of the country’s history and cultural heritage, is fast reinventing itself. In the past two years, several galleries have been renovated and re-opened; regular exhibitions are being organised and several events which include workshops, lectures series, cultural performances, talks, etc have become a part of the museum’s calendar.
Among the galleries that have been re-opened in the past couple of years include Tanjore and Mysore painting gallery, decorative arts gallery, ethnic arts gallery and jewellery gallery. Besides, bronzes and manuscript gallery and Central Asian gallery are scheduled to be opened this year. Earlier this month, the museum got its second souvenir shop which will offer a whole new range of products that will appeal to young visitors such as t-shirts, mugs, replicas inspired by museum collection, glossy guide books and catalogues on ongoing exhibitions.
“We are trying to revive the museum; it lost connect with people over the years. Every visitor to the museum has a right to be entertained and informed. Today a museum has to compete with malls and multiplexes for the visitors’ time,” says Venu Vasudevan, the director general of the museum.
“New exhibitions are the way to get repeat visitors. In the last two years, we have organized about 12 exhibitions which is more than what we did in the past ten years,” he says.
Vasudevan, an IAS officer, who earlier served as the joint secretary in the ministry of culture, talks with a lot of passion about his plans for the museum. He has the right credentials to walk the talk--- he is an active thespian, and performs with his group ‘Abhinaya’.
Last year, under his stewardship, the museum organised one of the biggest exhibitions ever of Indian art — The Body in Indian Art — a grand display of over 300 artefacts belonging to 44 collections that explored the myriad contours of the body in various contexts over 4,000 years of artistic engagement.
“One of the biggest shows in the history of the museum, it was a landmark show for us which laid the template for future exhibitions. It was for the first time that we had professional designers and curators from outside. The exhibition gave us a template that we used for all our other exhibitions,” says Vasudevan.
“The idea is to improve the quality of museum experience by bringing in expertise that the museum does not have,” says Vasudevan.
In 2014, the museum also introduced a series of public talks -- National Museum Lecture series, conservation talks and art history and archaeology talks. Besides, it has also started a new programme called National Museum History Performance Series, weekend activities for children, and fortnightly screenings of classic Indian movies.
“We try to make sure that every programme serves as an invitation to revisit the museum. The idea is to turn the museum into a cultural space — a place for interaction, knowledge and entertainment — for all sections of people. Visitors are at the centre of what we do,” Vasudevan, who is driving the change at the museum, says.
Among other initiatives that the museum has introduced is a volunteers guide programme for visitors, in which trained volunteers take visitors on a 90-minute guided tour of the museum.
The museum’s efforts seem to be paying off as the footfall has increased by an impressive 60% in a couple of years. “With the kind of vast collection we have, we are aiming at a million visitors a year,” says Vasudevan.
The museum has also re-launched its website. Besides, it has partnered with Google Arts Project and feature online exhibition on its platform. It will soon launch a mobile phone application that will serve as a guide to the museum and provide a whole new multimedia experience to the visitors. “We are on our way to becoming a contemporary museum rather than a museum that lived in its past,” says Vasudevan.