For all the talk of our vast heritage, cultural outreach in India is sub-optimal today. Apart from the India Art Fair, I cannot think of a single significant initiative in recent times to modernise this sector and bring it in line with global best practices.
Soon after Independence, institutions like the National Museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art and Lalit Kala Akademi were set up, acknowledging that cultural achievements must go hand in hand with economic achievements in the young republic. Celebrating newness and experimentation while keeping pride in our heritage seemed to be the goal then. Today, most cultural institutions, including museums seem to suffer from a time warp, where keeping things unchanged seems to be a laudable objective.
Indian museums need to do four things to become more relevant:
Change perspective: People working in the museums often see themselves as 'keepers of the collection' and focus too much on the objects in the collection: managing and preserving them, and keeping records become the raison d'etre. This is important but equally important is to reach out to visitors so that they get excited by what they see and are pushed to explore further.
Focus on revenue: It makes sense in a developing country to keep the entry prices low. However, ways of increasing revenue from better off visitors must be pursued. They must build innovative routes for revenue generation like membership of the museum, dining facilities at different levels, a museum shop, multi-media lecture series, letting out part of the facilities within well-defined parameters. They should also build partnerships and create changing exhibitions from within the permanent collection to bring in more visitors.
Encourage donors: This time at The Met, New York, I was surprised to see even viewing benches in the galleries with discreet plaques giving the name of the donor. Donors can bequeath collections, fund new acquisitions, adopt galleries or sponsor publications. Museums should be actively reaching out for corporate donors and high net worth individuals to get involved.
Create a friends of the museum volunteer movement: Even in the quasi-governmental National Museum in Budapest there is a robust volunteer programme that provides guides in the galleries, mans information desks and helps out in the cafes, at the ticketing counters. The British Museum has the same. The Met has a full division called 'The Volunteer Office'. The volunteers aren't paid but enjoy facilities like free entry to events and lectures, discounts on purchases at The Museum Shops, etc.
Even those who believe our museums must change, seem to succumb to a mind-numbing case of cynicism: the where's- the-point-nothing-will-change syndrome that paralyses many today, in all spheres.
They should take heart from the few Indian museums that are changing like The Bhau Lad Ji in Mumbai, Mehrangarh Fort Museum and the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad. The Bhau Lad Ji is especially heartening because it is a municipal museum that has grown in the past decade from a dilapidated place into one of India's finest museum spaces. Small initiatives like a facebook page called The Indian Museum Movement (http://www.facebook.com/TheIndianMuseumMovement) show there is a nascent museum culture.
The arts, properly handled, can be a source not only of cultural richness and nation building through pride. They can also result in new employment opportunities, bolster our tourism and help the vast artisanal craft community. We acknowledge that 'soft power' is potentially one of our strong weapons in the world. At home though we urgently need to make that potential come alive.
Lalita Phadkar is director of BASIS, a brand consultancy whose division helped revamp the Museum Shop at the National Museum, Delhi.
The views expressed by the author are personal