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Preserving history

Museum professionals manage collections, plan events, revitalise showcases and advise on buys, writes Rahat Bano

education Updated: Sep 22, 2011 11:43 IST
Rahat Bano

Museologists are privileged professionals. Unlike us, who marvel at historical treasures from behind glass barriers, they touch and handle centuries old statuary, mighty emperors’ swords or fabled empresses’ jewels. We content ourselves just by chewing on tidbits of information on the labels. Museum professionals, on the other hand, are privy to confidential information, namely the value of such valuables in today’s time and who it belonged to before becoming their museum or gallery’s property.

A museum professional’s profile can be very interesting. One could study at Delhi’s National Museum Institute (NMI) and later work as consultant for, say, a World Bank project to upgrade a state museum. Integrating technology with history through touchscreens to access content for museums in Delhi could be part of the job. Why, even the armed forces could have work for you like redoing a regimental museum etc.

You see, it’s not a “one-dimensional job,” says Kanika Kuthiala, assistant curator, National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi. “It has a management aspect, documentation part as well as visitor focus. Curators conceptualise exhibitions, which involve hand-picking exhibits, working on their placement, text, and labels, and deciding on the flow and pattern of visitors’ movement. They also supervise preparation of brochures or gallery (or museum) guides.”

Museum professionals do historical research and 3D designing as well.

Outreach and social relevance are increasingly on museums’ agendas. “A museologist’s job is not only to conserve and write catalogues but also how to connect it with the audience,” says Manvi Seth, head, department of museology, NMI.

Of late, former royal families have been hiring professional hands to document and manage their collections. “In Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad, (erstwhile royal) families are looking at documenting their huge collections. That’s one area where our students get most of the projects initially,” says Seth. One of their alumni has been a part of the documentation team for the Chowmahalla Palace (Nizam’s) collection of silverware, photographs and paintings.

This career can open as many doors as you make an attempt to open. It can take you to cultures far and wide, taking one’s own culture and history along. One PhD candidate at NMI interned at the Anasazi State Park Museum in Utah, United States — an “amazing” experience.

“It’s an interesting profession if you take it seriously,” says Rekha Verma, collections manager, Islamic Arts Museum, Kuala Lumpur, who was recently in Delhi. “A museum has many branches,” says Verma, adding that aspirants can venture into museum photography which calls for extra care, given the delicate nature of certain objects. “If you know about museum ethics, you can set up an art warehouse to provide services to collectors.” In museology, you must know where you want to go — there are divisions like anthropology, textiles, numismatics and so on, says Kuthiala.

“But it’s not a fast-paced, corporate kind of job which keeps professionals on their toes 365 days a year. There are lows and slumps.” The pay in India is low too, lament practitioners.

Then, you hear the oft-repeated words: you have to love it to sustain.

What's it about?
Museology is about museum theory and practice. As an academic discipline in India it is not new but it has been about a decade or so since museums have accepted museology as a stream of study. Museologists are primarily involved in documentation of artefacts and collection management. They also conceptualise exhibitions and workshops. Sometime ago, NMI held exhibitions for blind children. Museologists work in museums, galleries as well as non-government organisations. Museology professionals can work as education specialists, who spread knowledge through objects

Clock Work
9am: Visit the store room. Check relative humidity or RH and temperature (because of the country’s weather) and ask maintenance and conservation department to fix RH. Go to the
galleries for a round
10am: Come to the workstation. Check daily requests (another department wants some images). Arrange for a photo shoot
1pm: Lunch
2pm: Update computerised database
4pm: Give design inputs to graphic design team, if there’s any request
5.30pm: Check store room for RH and temperature. Return keys to security department
6pm: Leave for the day

The Payoff
Assistant curator: Rs25,000 a month in an Indian museum

Skills
. A grounding in history (science if you intend to work in a science museum)
. Management skills
. Ability to communicate a topic through visual aids
. Strong team spirit
. Research skills — understand the material and be able to re-write or translate it for your audience
. Knowledge of an additional language (such as Sanskrit, Prakrit, Persian, or French)

How do i get there?
Graduates in a variety of disciplines can enrol for a masters in museology. Universities accept candidates with a bachelors or masters in subjects such as history, ancient history, archaeology, anthropology, Sanskrit, fine arts, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, geology, earth science, agriculture, environmental science, and marine science. Check the individual institution’s requirements

Institutes & urls
. MA in museology, National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology, New Delhi
www.nmi.gov.in
. MA (fine) museology,
MS University of Baroda, Vadodara
www.msubaroda.ac.in
. MA/MSc in museology, University of Calcutta, Kolkata
www.caluniv.ac.in
. MA in museology, BHU,
www.bhu.ac.in

Pros & cons


.

You handle confidential details about artefacts


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Tour with travelling exhibitions


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Work with interesting personalities such as former royals interested in getting their collections managed


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Low paying job in India


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Work has its boring moments

Possibilities are endless

A consultant talks about the possibilities one may create

Tell us something about your academic background.
I did my graduation in history from Janki Devi Mahavidyalaya, Delhi University and then my masters in medieval history from (DU) before doing another postgraduate programme — in museology. Though you can be from any field of study, it helped to have a history background. This is because major museums in India are historic in nature.

When and why did you decide to become a museologist?
I have been a frequent visitor to museums because of my parents’ keen interest in making us aware of our rich past. It was my mother who suggested I take up museology. The study can be applied and experimented.

Tell us about your first job and your current work.
My first job was with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust (MMT) under Karni Singh Jasol. He helped me develop an eye for objects of art and appreciate these. There, I worked with curators and experts from around the world. However, I do give credit to my teachers at the National Museum Institute and the fact that for two years, I studied museology while being surrounded by beautiful sculptures, paintings and other works of art. There were numerous international seminars and conferences that helped me build my analytical side.

I have primarily been a consultant with various museums such as MMT, Jodhpur; Scindia Museum in Gwalior and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya

(CSMVS), Mumbai. Besides, I have worked with private art collectors and an art gallery, Artroom, in Bandra, Mumbai.

Currently, being a part-time project-researcher in CSMVS is definitely enriching. Working under respected curators and learning first-hand will definitely help me in the long run.

What’s the scope for work as a museologist today? Is there any new job avenue open to museologists? Will you recommend this profession to young students?
Creative satisfaction. If you are not passionate and want only money, this is not your field. In today’s world, everything is possible. There are many avenues open — art galleries, private art collectors, researchers, auction houses, art trusts, museums and so on. If nothing else, create a new branch. I have four jobs right now, including research on Indian films.
One can try one’s hand at writing. Then there are travel/ history shows. Be imaginative and the world is at your feet, literally.

What do you like most about this career? Is there anything you wish should change in this line?
I do wish people stop using art as a money-making machine. But the passion to preserve history and understand its value in the present and future is the best part. Give me any art object and I can tell you a lot about the time it comes from.

Nilanjana Som, project researcher, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya interviewed by Rahat Bano