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The museum deserves much more patronage

The Art For Humanity show took me to the Coomarswamy Hall at the city’s museum last week. It had been more than a decade since I had stepped into these precincts and was taken by the beauty of its lawns, landscape and backdrop. Ayaz Memon writes.

india Updated: Apr 08, 2012 01:51 IST

The Art For Humanity show took me to the Coomarswamy Hall at the city’s museum last week. It had been more than a decade since I had stepped into these precincts and was taken by the beauty of its lawns, landscape and backdrop.

Why isn’t this space used more profitably, culturally and financially, beyond the working hours of the museum I wonder? There can be fewer better venues for an event than the Indo-Gothic structure designed by George Wittet at the start of the previous century that is now the repository of the past — eco-socio-cultural — not just of Mumbai, but the country; indeed the world.

What’s within the museum is, of course, of the essence. The American actor Stephen Wright, known for his pungent humour, says, “I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.” But that does not denigrate museums, rather how they link the human race together.

Too often, we are consumed by the hurly-burly of daily existence to bother about the treasures that exist around us. Where’s the time? Or there’s always another day we can go there. Museums and stuff become a mere memory of compulsory visits during school days, not matters of active, everyday choice. Alas.

This is not peculiar to Mumbai or India. Most people almost inevitably visit museums and art galleries when they are touring other cities or countries but not their own. No visit to Paris, for instance, is complete without a day at the Louvre — and now even more so after the success of the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code series — or the British Museum and Tate Gallery in London, MOMA and Guggenheim in New York.

But it is also incumbent on the city and its denizens to be aware of what the museum holds for them and tourists alike. In that sense, Mumbai comes a cropper compared with New Delhi, Kolkata and even Hyderabad. While tourists still throng it, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum) does not hold the seduction it should for the city’s culturati even though it is in the art precinct of Kala Ghoda.

It is easy to blame the onslaught of Bollywood (the overdose at the opening of IPL 5 strengthens the point) but indifference to cultural and historical awareness is the more likely. This is unfortunate. The museum has made some new additions such as the Jehangir Nicholson and Premchand Roychand Galleries, which considerably enhance its worth and enrich the city with its displays of art, design and heritage.

The museum has also collaborated with its global counterparts, and last year’s collection of ancient Chinese artefacts, which I understand from those in the know, was fascinating. If there can be a criticism, I am informed, it is that the older part of the museum has not been sufficiently augmented — some of the sections look the way they did decades ago.

The problem one presumes is as much of finance as of interest, and needless to say, these are intertwined. Like so many of Bombay’s finest institutions, the museum was founded with private money as its official website highlights:

“Founded in the early 1900s, this Museum is one of the premier cultural institutions in the country. On the 14th August 1905, a number of prominent people of Bombay gathered at the Town Hall and resolved to erect a Memorial to the visit of the Prince of Wales (later King George V) in the form of a public Museum which, would be named after him.

“The meeting was attended by Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, Justice Badrudin Tyabji, Narotamdas Gokuldas, Justice Chandavarkar, Sasson J David and many other dignitaries known for their outstanding contribution in their respective fields and also in the development of the island of Bombay. The Foundation Stone of the Museum was laid by the Prince of Wales on 11th November 1905 and the Museum was named Prince of Wales Museum of Western India. For a long time people had also felt the need for a good museum in the city and finally the museum was established by the public contribution aided by the then Government of the Bombay Presidency.”

Such commitment is needed even now. To expect the government or municipal corporation to do everything signals a distressing withdrawal from city life. I dare say it is even short-sighted, considering the number of scams and land grabs that have emerged in which politicians and bureaucrats have got involved in matters of education, art and culture.

Pelf before everything else seems to be their motto, so self-help is infinitely better I say. True, more kids — and grown-ups too — are likely to be seduced by a mall than a museum. But that is also because of a lack of orientation and lethargy. The general public, I would like to believe, is still interested in these things even if it starts with skimming the surface when it comes to the exploration of history and culture.

ayazmemon@hotmail.com
When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds