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Revisiting the Basics

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Museums of India and Associated Issues


Recently National Museum of Natural History caught fire due to adequate safeguards. It brought to our attention- the appalling state of our century old museums, and our utter disregard towards it.

In today’s blog we will discuss at length as to what are the reasons behind it. What could be done to restore their legacy?

As usual, we’ll start by learning about some notable institutions and harvest some important tid-bits for prelims along the way.

Notable Museums of India

1. National Museum, New Delhi (Subordinate Office under Ministry of Culture)

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2. National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru

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3. Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH)

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  • Launched by Lord Curzon in 1906

4. Asiatic Society, Kolkata

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  • Founder: British Indologist William Jones
  • Patronized by Warren Hastings (1st Governor of Bengal)
    • Notable: Charles Wilkins under his patronage published first English translation of Bhagvat Gita
  • Most important of the society’s achievements was the decipherment of the Brahmi script by James Prinsep in 1837
  • Successful decipherment inaugurated the study of Indian palaeography
  • First Museum in India was established by the Asiatic Society in 1814 called “Indian Museum” at Kolkata

5. National Museum of Natural History (NMNH)

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  • Initiated in 1972 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of India’s Independence
    • Although publically launched on 1978, coinciding with World Environment Day
  • Functions under the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change <and not Ministry of Culture>
  • NMNH has extended its geographical range by establishing Regional Museums of Natural History (Bhopal, Mysuru etc)

Aims and Objectives of NMNH:

  • Museum of Natural History to depict its flora, fauna and mineral wealth
  • Environmental awareness among the masses (including conservation)
  • Educational programmes, guided tours and Teacher Orientation Workshops

What are the issues with Indian Museums?

1. Lack of a comprehensive Museum Policy

  • Salary and Personnel issues
    • Since the government does not assess or rate museums, there is no incentive for anyone to work.
    • Government does not pay professional salaries to personnel involved in restoration and conservation. Neither does it engage productively with Private and Civil Society
  • Revenue and Financial Issues
    • Currently there is no revenue model for museums, and the only source of money for them is from Ticket Sales that are meagre (Rates as low as 5 Rs for ASI renovated Museums)
    • Some revenue does come from increase in merchandise sales but any money a government museum makes- goes into a common kitty and is not spent on well performing museums.
    • Mumbai’s chhatrapati shivaji maharaj vastu sangrahalaya (MCSMVS) runs without government support By a handful of influential Mumbaites under a Board of Trustees
  • Lack of Privatisation
    • Government museums make up 90 per cent of the roughly 1,000 museums in India
    • They are banned from Partnerships with private individuals or organisations, and have to depend on Central funding even for day-to-day operations
  • Multiple ministries holding charges of various Museums <remember that not all museums come under Ministry of Culture, for eg- the recently fire hit NMNH>
  • Lack of autonomy

2. Appalling state of Museum Management

  • 2011, UNESCO published a scathing report on the appalling conditions at India’s top 8 museums
    • Sub-standard maintenance, Lighting and signage, Archaic policies, no skilled manpower
  • Recently ASI lamented on the damages caused to 2nd BC Yakshi statue and a 3rd BC Mauryan lion, at the oldest museum of India in Kolkata due to careless handling by inadequately trained museum workers
  • Fire Safety Issues in Museums: That many of our museums would fail Fire Safety Audit requirements by NBC (National Building Code)
  • Failure in Mandate of Museums: That they act as mere closed-door guardians of treasures instead of disseminating them

3. Security Issues

  • CISF is in charge of providing security to National Museum, New Delhi and Indian Museum in Kolkata.
  • But government has not been able to provide barrack accommodation in their campus as per CISF requirements.

 

So how do we improve status of our Museums?

  1. Aforementioned UNESCO report and a 14-point museum reforms agenda put together by the Ministry of Culture in 2010-11 served as a wake-up call
  2. Instead of spending money in acquiring new collections, government should focus on launching Museum awareness drives. Relaunch old Museums with renewed vigor by highlighting their contemporary relevance to people.
  3. Increase people’s engagement to History by providing guided tours free of cost
    • For it is people that transform a museum from what is essentially just an archive.
  4. Administration should balance autonomy and accountability. Here we can take a cue from British Museums that are run by a government-appointed Board of Trustees.
  5. Digitization of information can cause the traditional model of museums (i.e. as static bricks-and-mortar) to expand to include virtual exhibits and high-resolution images of their collections that patrons can peruse.
  6. Train museum professionals by International Tie-ups. Organize exchange of Museum professionals as part of Biateral treaties between diplomatic exchanges.
  7. Improve Disaster Management of Museums
    • GIS and national library for ease of tracking and prioritizing evacuation of valuable artifacts
    • Follow NBC guidelines for strengthening museum structures
    • Cases of galleries must be shatter proof and bullet proof
    • In flood prone areas, valuable artifacts must not be stored in basements
  8. Involving Civil Society organizations by incentivising donation of precious artifacts for public viewing and conservation by NGOs like INTACH
  9. Training staff of museums to respond to disasters such as Fire, Earthquakes etc

And how to reduce Fires in Museums?

  • Use of “plywood” for keeping the exhibits should be minimised
  • Ensure ventilation system in place
  • Ensure Fire Audit for the building has been conducted
  • Sprinkler system and water hydrants in the building, but should be functional- i.e. connected to a water source
  • Post Damage issues:
    • Structural damage due to fire may not keep building safe for long
    • Hence adequate reinforcements may be necessary, because complete collapse can’t be ruled out

Annex: International Museum Day (IMD)

  • Theme of 2016 IMD: “Museums and Cultural Landscapes
  • Coordinated by the International council of museums (ICOM)
    • ICOM is a NGO maintaining formal relations with UNESCO <but not part of it>
    • ICOM also partners with entities such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization,
  • International public service missions on fighting illicitly traded Artifacts and Ethical standards for Museums

Published with inputs from Amar 

Questions, suggestions and comments


  1. Profile photo of Krishna Kunal Krishna Kunal

    In some editorial post-fire incident on NMNH it mentioned :

    “Documentation of antiquities using public and private records should become a national mission”

  2. Profile photo of Naveen Shekhar Naveen Shekhar

    Nice coverage…

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