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The future of our past

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:53 IST
Lalita Phadkar
Lalita Phadkar
Hindustan Times
HT columns

Twenty years ago the Louvre was opaque. Acres of art and artifacts whose dry labeling never knitted individual exhibits into a story. Compulsory, not compelling. No longer a static repository, today’s Louvre actively works to involve visitors. Simplification started with a visitor leaflet — a plan showing the wings radiating from the central concourse and colour-coded rooms to indicate their contents. Thumbnail photographs created a ‘treasure trail’ of highlights.

Now thematic trails offer reasons to come again and again. The lack of stuffiness shows in a trail called ‘The Da Vinci Code: a visit to the Louvre mixing fiction and fact’. Imagine an Indian museum creating a ‘Jodha-Akbar trail’! The focus is infotainment. Room placards talk theme, explain highlights and tell stories. Artifacts, meticulously dated and sourced, are grouped to make a point. Audio guides offer interesting factoids. Bilingual helpers are mines of friendly information. Websites offer vibrant worlds of exhibits, trails, individual and group activities — the cultural calendar of the museum.

Our museums contain treasures. The National Museum in Delhi, Salarjung in Hyderabad, Jai Vilas in Gwalior and the Indian Museum in Kolkata are capable of showcasing India’s ‘wonders’. Our museums should be major tourist draws. They should make Indians proud to be Indian.

But very few are vibrant crowd-pullers. Why are our museums not on the foreign tourist’s must-see list or not celebrated worldwide? Why do parents not see museum visits as an imperative for their children? The answer hits you in most of our museums. Some are clean with well-displayed objects, good lighting; some, like the Mumbai museum even have audio guides. But most lack even these basics, offering dim corridors courtesy fused bulbs, dusty showcases, suboptimal signage and confusing labeling. Our museums must gear up to compete for mindspace with other attractions like movies or bhelpuri on Chowpatty. They must work towards attracting the maximum number of people and get them to visit again and again.

A museum is a brand, this being the perception people have of a product. Some museums feel their brand is created because they have a standardised colour, font and logo. These are only brand accessories — useful but insufficient. In a successful brand, people’s perceptions will mirror the desired image. Brand accessories alone can deliver no more than what paintbrush and canvas can make people perceive an artist in a man who can’t paint.

A brand begins with crafting a position. For any museum, generically, this is offering infotainment: the only memorable outing where heritage comes alive. To attract visitors to it, each museum needs a differentiated position with a distinct identity, personality and desired image. Once crafted, for brand success, every visitor-touchpoint must faultlessly deliver that position at all times. The brand experience must live up to the promise of the position. Thus, the layout, display methods, signage, room and exhibit labels, visitor facilities, staff-visitor interactions, museum shop, cafe and events must always be ‘on brand’.

Museum branding is a live topic today. The Tate, the Museum of Modern Art, the Victorial and Albert Museum, the Louvre and the Guggenheim were selected as the top brands in the Museum Conference in Venice in 2008. Like them, Indian museums can be effective ambassadors of our culture to the world if they become successful brands.

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