Darwin, Einstein, Sabyasachi: Meet the new member of an elite American club

Updated on Jun 10, 2022 02:14 PM IST

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director-general of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum, has been elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It’s an ideal chance bring East and West closer, he says.

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Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein were members of this club. So were Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Now, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director-general of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum (CSMVS), has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S).

He joins the ranks of Indians such as Nehru (1950), Homi Bhabha (1958), Amartya Sen (1981), MS Swaminathan (1984), Romila Thapar (2009), Ratan Tata (2010) and Narayana Murthy (2019).

Members are elected for achievements and leadership in fields such as academia, the arts, industry, public policy, and research. The mission of AAA&S is an interesting one: to shape ideas through research, and to influence policy, so as to advance the public good.

“We are celebrating a depth of achievements in a breadth of areas,” David Oxtoby, president of AAA&S, said in a statement issued in April. “These individuals excel in ways that excite us and inspire us at a time when recognising excellence, commending expertise, and working toward the common good is absolutely essential to realizing a better future.”

Mukherjee has led CSMVS since 2007. In that time, the museum — 100 years old this year — has seen a state-of-the-art conservation lab set up, a major renovation completed, and collaborations forged with institutes around the world.

In 2012, the city flocked to see a 3,000-year-old mummy loaned by the British Museum. In 2017-18, the museum hosted India and the World, a unique collaboration with the British Museum in London and the National Museum in New Delhi that put about 200 priceless objects from across 20 museums and private collections on display.

How is the role of the museum changing? What can the future look like, in a world where everything is virtually on display? How does AAA&S fit in? Excerpts from an interview.

How vital is it for museums today to adapt and change?

Indian museums were created in different times for different audiences than the ones they now serve. In the past, mapping, collecting and preserving cultural evidence were of major importance. Today, museums are required to connect with society and represent the people they serve. The museum of the future will be a community space where people can see their identity in terms of cultural continuity.

It is in a museum you discover and rediscover your roots and your connection with the past. This places museums in an important position of trust in relation to their audiences, local communities. CSMVS wishes to establish itself as a global cultural institute of excellence that interprets the contemporary world for its visitors, strives for curation of new knowledge, promotes young talent in the arts, nurtures a wave of world partnerships and creates an environment of joy and learning for everyone.

My hope is that my membership of the Academy will help bring East and West closer through nuanced knowledge-sharing. After all, the platform provides access to some of the greatest creative thinkers in the world.

What challenges in the fields of culture and museology do you hope to address via your association with AAA&S?

My association with the American Academy may help Indian museums explore the big question: Why do museums matter today more than ever before? We would like to share some of our common challenges in the museum domain such as tradition vs disruption, freedom vs constraint, analog vs digital thinking, history vs contemporary thinking, pull over push. So that museums can evolve and sustain themselves in today’s environment.

Today, the museum is not merely a storehouse of antiquities that establishes a link between the past and present. The evolving concept of museums is helping us understand who and what we are as a community — our cultural diversity, our monuments, evidences of human achievement, and attitudes of the societies in which we live and flourish. The aim of museum education is self-realisation.

What’s holding us back?

India is one of the world’s most ancient civilisations, with over 5,000 years of shared human history. It is a country blessed with many living traditions. But we could not create one major national-level heritage management institute — the equivalent of an IIT or IIM — even 75 years after Independence.

It is said that even 75 years after Independence not many museums could meet the basic parameters of a standard museum as defined by ICOM (International Council of Museums). The national-level museums which primarily showcase the nation’s heritage, and other important state-level or regional museums, have not changed much in their basic approaches towards museum principles. Of course, there are factors responsible for today’s state of affairs that we will have to systematically study from the point of view of modern museum practice. The pressing issues are: Technological advancement; static art collections and other resources; inadequate human resources; inefficient processes; government indifference; lack of human interest and awareness.

There is no instant solution to these issues. But good heritage management training, and the involvement of the local community, might change the perception of museums as mere repositories of antiquities.

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