India’s ancient history is greater than that of a nation-state: CEO of J Paul Getty Trust in Mumbai

Cuno, an art historian and head of one of the world’s largest art organisations, is in the city to deliver a talk on global history and the art museum.
James Cuno
James Cuno
Published on Jan 26, 2018 12:10 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByJayati Bhola, Mumbai

Works of art are examples of how identity is fluid, and not fixed, says James Cuno, president and CEO of the J Paul Getty Trust. “World museums can benefit largely if museums collaborate and exchange collections.”

Cuno, an art historian and head of one of the world’s largest art organisations, is in the city to deliver a talk on global history and the art museum, on the sidelines of the India & The World exhibition underway at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum until February 18.

“This exhibition takes on the difficult task of demonstrating to the world that the concept of nation-state is a modern phenomenon… India’s ancient history is greater than that of a nation-state,” Cuno says.

The exhibition opened in November in collaboration with the British Museum and features exhibitions from civilisations around the world that were evolving simultaneously. It is an example, Cuno says, of what is possible when the effort goes beyond highlighting a geographically defined culture and focusing instead on the larger story of human civilisation, and one culture’s connections with the others existing at that time around the world.

“The exhibition at CSMVS, then, is a model that exhibits how working together with a common purpose can be vital for the future of museums.”

This is especially crucial, he adds, if we are to keep museums relevant in the internet age.

How does one differentiate, then, between shared heritage and an appropriation of heritage? How does one view artefacts that may now be housed in an institution like the British Museum, and shared by it, but were taken from another state’s soil?

“The question of colonialism and imperialism will always be a part of the British Museum,” Cuno says. “But it allows one to teach that history. It is, in a sense, evidence of that history.”

As for the other factors holding back India’s museums, Cuno points to a lack of financial and human resources, and ‘a complex bureaucratic system’. “It is also true that this is a common thread when it comes to museums around the world, whether in New York or LA,” he adds.

India has seen a huge revival of arts and culture in the past 25 years, he says. “There is an openness and a surge of contemporary art in India. The current generations of artists express themselves more boldly, experiment with tougher subjects.”

Take some of this online, under the umbrella of the country’s museums, he suggests. “Remove the barrier of seriousness, minimise the cost of going to the physical museum and allow people access also in their homes, over coffee, in the company of their children. After all, museums are ultimately public institutions, and they are there to serve the public.”

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