In India, museums suffer from an existential crisis. Except for a few exceptions, most are dead places with little footfall and anything novel to offer. Unlike in the West, they hardly figure on the must-visit lists of citizens and tourists, even though many have magnificent historical objects and artworks.
This lack of public and State interest leads to complacency among those who run them, leading to untoward incidents. Two such incidents occurred this week:
On Tuesday, a fire gutted India’s only Natural History Museum (NHM) in Delhi, destroying priceless collections of the nation’s flora and fauna. The same day, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) discovered that thieves had decamped with a dagger gifted to former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Both incidents betray negligence of basic precautions: The NHM did not have the mandatory fire clearance and its fire-fighting equipment was not functional. The gifts gallery at NMML did not have a CCTV camera. After the NHM fire, environment and forests minister Prakash Javadekar ordered a safety audit of museums. One more case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Why have things come to such a pass in museums? There are several reasons: The lack of qualified staff; forward-thinking professionals; the State’s inability to attract talent and lack of finances even though funding has gone up in recent years. Then there is corruption and inefficiency in using funds. Like all institutions in India, museums need to re-invent themselves to draw audiences.
In an era of information overload, they need to come up with interesting shows, better displays, rotate their collections and reach out to audiences in every possible way, including via social media. The National Museum in Delhi has taken several such initiatives and others must follow.
In the West, museums have started leasing their premises for different activities and funds from those bankroll their upkeep and new acquisitions. Then there is clever merchandising that keeps the revenue flowing and works as moving advertisements for the institutions. There is a view that Indians don’t have a great interest in museums. That’s a two-way street: Put enough in the display cabinet, engage with the audience, and they will come. No one likes walking through halls of objects displayed in a lacklustre manner with turgid reading materials to accompany them.
But for museums to survive, it is also not enough to focus on displayed objects. As historian Romila Thapar has written: “As with the writing of history the museum also represents mediation between the past and us. And the past is not something out there, it is a part of us. We need to understand the past, not in isolation but in context. I can only repeat the sentiment often repeated, that a museum should make the invisible, visible”.