For a long time, Mumbai's museums have been the stuff of long-forgotten school trips. Now, shrugging off this insipid reputation, these storehouses of national and local culture are planning a slew of new activities and facilities to engage people in the city.
From this week, Byculla's Bhau Daji Lad museum will introduce inexpensive audio guides (wireless headphones) with a pre-recorded guided tour in three languages for visitors. The museum will also open a garden café in November, and hopes to construct an auditorium for cultural exchange if given a go-ahead by the city's municipal corporation.
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), formerly the Prince of Wales Museum in Colaba, is gearing up for three grand launches this October — a swank but reasonably priced café, a full-fledged museum shop, and a children's creative centre that will double the museum's youth activities such as film festivals and workshops.
That's not all — the Gandhi museum at Mani Bhavan, which needs no publicity to draw crowds, revamped its 100-seater auditorium a few years ago and will now get the latest projectors to screen documentaries and other visuals on Gandhi. And even Alpaiwalla Museum, the small Parsi community museum tucked away in Kemps Corner, has a complete makeover planned.
"A museum cannot be just a storehouse any more," said Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director of CSMVS, which draws a million visitors annually. "Today, a museum is a link between the past and the present, and also an important centre of culture that encompasses all aspects of human life."
Nivedita Mehta, Alpaiwalla's curator, agrees. "You can't keep going without change, you have to reflect the times and what is new in it," she said.
The new changes coming up are in fact a reflection of this shift in attitude that has taken shape in recent years — museums are meant to showcase not just tangible exhibits, but also culture in its non-static form.
Since its massive, government-funded redevelopment project in 2007, for instance, the CSMVS has hosted live concerts by vocalist Pandit Jasraj, dancer Sonal Mansingh and the Symphony Orchestra of India. Exhibits are now accompanied by interactive computer kiosks for theme-based games and quizzes, a variety of travelling exhibitions visit regularly from around the country, and traditional handicraft workshops pull in the young crowds.
"Two years ago, we aimed to get more locals involved in all our activities, and today local participation has risen from 10 per cent to at least 30 per cent," said Mukherjee.
As Mumbai's oldest museum, Bhau Daji Lad too focused on activities for the locals when if was restored two years ago. Today, more than 350 municipal school children participate each week in specially designed interactive lecture-and-workshop sessions, where indigenous craftsmen teach them about the industrial arts and life of the old Mumbai.
"We're a city museum, our primary thrust is to work with artists in the city," said Tasneem Mehta, honorary director and managing trustee of the museum.
The youngest baby on the block — the RBI Monetary Museum at Fort — seems to have it all going right. Launched in 2005, the small air-conditioned museum has everything from colourful graphics to explain the history of Indian coins and currency, to information kiosks, and games and quiz corners to learn about money. All it needs is more visitors, and it's already organising school trips and competitions to introduce a new generation to the museum culture.
Interview Abha Narain Lambah
'The average citizen is much more interested in visiting a museum'
How are museums important for a city, particularly Mumbai?
Museums show case a city and all aspects of its life and history. Even if a tourist visits a city for a day, the top two or three destinations on his list will include a museum. In Mumbai it is usually the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum, which becomes a window to the culture of not just the city but also all of India.
Has the attitude of people changed towards museum culture?
For many years, museums have been static and localised — places you don’t want to visit again. But in the past couple of years, there has been a change in perception. The fact that the prime minister himself heads the ministry of culture says a lot about this new attitude, and museums too are trying to draw in more visitors.
The CSMVS has hosted music concerts and prestigious travelling exhibitions, for instance, which has created a lot more interest in the average citizen to visit the museum more than once, for various
How is the CAM conference going to affect the culture of museums in Mumbai?
First, the conference puts forward the fact that different cultures and museums need to be looked at across the board, not in isolation. Directors from museums all over India and professionals working in the area will brain storm together so that best practices can be adopted by all.
This conference also comes at a time when a number of new museums such as the textile mill museum will be coming up in the city. It’s a great time for Mumbai to celebrate museums.
'A museum needs to think of itself as an NGO'
With the five-day Commonwealth Association of Museums (CAM) conference set to begin at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum on Tuesday, museums in the city are looking forward to an opportunity for shared introspection.
Based on the theme of 'Rethinking Museums', this will be the first conference that CAM, a non-profit organisation funded by the Commonwealth Foundation, will conduct in India. With sessions such as 'The larger role of museums in society', 'Networking with museums' and 'Museum improvement strategies', the conference aims to help museums transform into active community centres in their cities by sharing ideas, experiences and best practices.
"A museum needs to think of itself as an NGO that is serving the society in its city,” said Barbara Winters, assistant secretary general of CAM, who is in Mumbai for the conference. "Museums can play an important role in tackling issues such as racism or prejudice by working with community groups."
"Museum practices have seen a change all over the world. Indian museums need to pick up on that change and adapt it to local contexts," said director Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director of the Colaba museum, who wants the conference to create effective communication networks between museums in India.
This museum, Bhau Daji Lad and Nehru Science Centre museums will be the three venues in the city where 85 delegates, mostly Indian, will discuss not just how more audiences can be drawn to museums but also what can be done to engage them.