National and privately owned art museums in India operate as if they are in two different time zones, but that may be about to change. Officials are being made to spring-clean their old theories and practices of work. Neeraj Sinha of ASI museum, Vaishali (Bihar) has just made and toppled a paper tower as part of a 'change management' training programme for curators at NGMA, Delhi, and is feeling thrilled.
Organised by the National Culture Fund, the programme in collaboration with the British Museum - the outcome of a 2010 MOU signed between the prime minister and three British institutions - is aimed at a gradual shift not just in the way national museums are run but also the people who work there and their attitude to change.
Manpower development as a key to improve the image and work styles of our museums was one of the findings of a 2009 brainstorming that the culture ministry had with experts. The wake-up call was perhaps necessary. Museum-going culture is on a decline. The British Museum, for example, gets 60 lakh visitors a year. In comparison, national museums such as NGMA, Delhi, Salarjung Museum, Hyderabad, get around less than half - 20-25 lakh visitors.
"A big challenge is bringing the public to site museums (built on the site of a dig) in remote areas," said Sinha. To find a solution is not his brief, he said, but courtesy the training programme, he was a new man. As part of the course, each curator will effect one change in his workplace. "We were told the caption should not be more attractive than the object," said Sinha. He will now ensure they tell the whole story, introduce touch-screens near objects as visitors these days, need a "TV feeling."
Omkar Wankhede of Allahabad Museum plans to show films on the masterpiece exhibits to schoolchildren in villages around his city. Dr Abdullah Mondol, curator, Birla Industrial Technology museum, Kolkata, has learnt that science museums could do with a bit of drama. In his new gallery on electricity, expect "lightning, synchronised sparks, thunder."
"Indian museum officials have a strong conservation ethics," said Jill Maggs, British Museum, but added that museums "need to be more than just about the past."
National museums need to reinvent themselves if they want to stay relevant to the world of contemporary art and cultural practice said critic Shuddhabrata Sengupta. "Museums should be less about the sanctification of icons and the building of canons and more about a place where different currents collide and talk to each other."
Some private museums are seriously debating what museums could be - what is its politics, who does it address, what is it building. In a recent exhibition titled 'Zones of Contact', which Vidya Shivadas co-curated with Akansha Rastogi and Deeksha Nath, Shivadas said they "worked with this idea by historian James Clifford which looks at the museum as a fraught public space that is actually being shaped by artists, communities and their agendas."