The Indian Cultural Landscape - Where do Museums Fit in?

Soft Diplomacy

As we celebrate the International Museum Day on 18 May this year, let’s see how tapping the great potential of Indian Museums can enhance our cultural diplomacy

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) has been celebrating the International Museum day since 1977. Each year this international body (located in Paris) floats a theme and encourages museums all over the world to observe and celebrate the spirit of museums through the theme. In 2016, the theme is Museums and Cultural Landscapes.

The Indian subcontinent is densely punctuated by monuments, sites, communities with deep cultural roots and practices and a hoard of intangible heritage that is all part of the cultural experience that India is. But where do museums fit in? Why should one visit museums in India when the cultural landscape of India has enough and more to offer outside of it? The answer to this question bears within itself the key to making Indian museums relevant, engaging and fulfilling a purpose in the present times.

India is home to more than 1000 museums, most owned by the government, some aided by the government and few in private hands. Most large museums are still with the government and are spread across the subcontinent neatly categorised into national level, state level, district level and site museums (which essentially belong to the Archaeological Survey of India and are usually adjacent to a historic site protected by them). India has many kinds of museums - encyclopaedic museums such as the Indian Museum in Kolkata, one man collections such as the Salarjung Museum in Hyderabad, museums dedicated to Indian craftsmanship such as the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmadabad, the Crafts Museum in Delhi and the Sanskriti Museum of Everyday Objects in Mehrauli; state museums that hold regional antiquities and of course the National Museum in New Delhi, which was established to provide a glimpse of India to its visitors soon after independence.

Most of these museums were established and curated at a time when the Museum was imagined as a library of objects. Collecting and displaying was like a laboratory exercise where precision, scientific approach and academic needs were the main motivation for the displays and organisation of galleries. These museums of the 19th and 20th centuries had niche visitorship but managed to remain relevant as they basked in the past glory of being novelty institutions back in the late 19th century. But this doesn’t hold water any longer.

For the longest time and particularly from the 90s, museums in India have struggled to bring in audiences, some have succeeded sporadically and some have given up. On the occasion of the International Museum Day, we wish to share with our audiences what the National Museum can offer to its public and what has been its learning in making museums relevant in India.

Museum-going in India does not come naturally to Indians. There are many reasons for it, culturally the Museum has only been around for less than 2 centuries, moreover they are a city phenomenon and the large rural population of India, even when they visit a big city find it confusing and irrelevant to visit a museum. Young, educated city visitors deal with another problem - they have too many choices at hand - shopping malls, movie theatres, restaurants to relax in and most definitely spending time on the web and social media make it difficult for them to drag themselves out of the comfort of their home. The large expat community in India, who expect museums to be ideal centres for learning about Indian culture also often return without a substantial takeaway, so why should they visit a museum? The truth is that the Indian Museum Sector has only just begun understanding its audience in the past decade and it is this understanding, although still evolving and maturing, that has given them the much needed orientation to welcome audiences and taught them how to do it effectively.

In 2014, National Museum, New Delhi also embarked on a similar journey. We realised that no museum can attract visitors merely because they have rich collections, which most Indian museums do, but the key lies in the understanding on how effectively we share the knowledge embedded in our collections? Do we do enough to reach out to the public and tell them about our objects? Do we tell good stories? The average attention span of a visitor to the National Museum in front of one object is less than 30 seconds and in a gallery under 4 minutes. So what can we do for them so that they spend more time, come back again and bring more visitors with them?

We first started out with a volunteer guide programme. National Museum invited volunteers to come forward to give their time to the Museum. They were given 3 months training on the collections of the museum and a carefully drafted script on 25 highlight objects on display across galleries. Today, more than 200 volunteers take visitors for a walk in the National Museum. Every day the museum offers 2 free volunteer guided tours in the morning and afternoon and twice a day over weekends. This allows walk in visitors to have an opportunity of walking with someone who can talk to them one on one about objects, that’s a priceless experience. The idea of the volunteer guide programme was instituted to provide a short (90-100 minutes) but intense experience for visitors who would otherwise wander around the museum and could lose interest. This was only the first step. We soon replicated the highlights tour by publishing a self-guiding booklet called the Museum in 90 Minutes. It can be downloaded from our website and visitors can pick up a free copy at our reception to walk with it around the museum and not miss its highlights. It has crisply written labels that make objects and history accessible.

Once this started, it gave us some time to understand who were our visitors and what did they expect? We realised that we got tourists (both Indian and non-Indian), school children and scholars. We also realised that there was a potential audience in Delhi that the Museum had neglected for years, this comprised of young college going people, local families, retired senior citizens and art enthusiasts. It was important to curate programmes for them so that they could feel motivated to come. One of the best ways of bringing local audiences for a museum was to organise special exhibitions. They may have seen permanent galleries once so they only come back when there is a special exhibition. Between 2014 and now, National Museum has organised over 15 special exhibitions which have brought back Delhi audiences to the Museum. They also feel a sense of ownership and pride about the museum.

School children mostly come with their teachers and the pattern was that they came in hundreds and roamed the galleries reluctantly staring at display cases and looking lost. This pattern and low-grade experience had to be broken. With the help of the National Museum Institute, National Museum developed a guided tour for children available to be booked by the school online, this service is also free. The idea was that no child should wander about the museum unaccompanied. Children need an orientation before their museum visit and this was achieved through instituting our YuvaSaathi (Young volunteer) programme. Today no school group wanders about the museum alone, they are all assigned a free volunteer from the museum who talk to children and tell them stories about our collections.

Earlier the museum only organised painting competitions in the name of educational programmes. The Education and Outreach department of the Museum created a summer programme for children called Playtime at National Museum, which runs for 2 months in summer (May and June) and hosts a myriad of activities for children including archaeology (with mock digging), art lessons, treasure hunts, learning traditional crafts, writing and play-making workshops around collections, merchandise design, write your own history, music and lot more. The museum comes alive with young art lovers every summer. Anyone can register for the programmes on our website but as there are limited seats, we often run out. We lay a lot of stress on quality and depth of engagement of the child with the arts rather than hoarding them in large numbers.

Another important intervention has been the setting up of a Museum Shop and a Museum café. However insignificant this may sound, we realised that every cultural experience must take place in a relaxed environment and these non-collection spaces allowed for that much needed break to absorb the large number of displays spread across the galleries. The Museum shop has a selection of objects with object motifs specially designed as museum takeaway by the visitor at the end of their visit.

It was also important to understand that the fun activities and playing to the audience does not serve the purpose all the way. We needed to push the academic merit of the museum and expand its research capacities to keep up its credibility. Regular Lectures, Talks and Seminars have achieved that to a great extent. We also pushed our publication programme and within the last one year, the Museum came out with 12 new publications, far more than perhaps in the last decade. A keen eye on language was crucial. How should labels be written? How many words? How to build up a story and how much information to give have all played an important role in making each object accessible and enjoyable. A lot still remains to be done but this change in language can be easily seen in the newly made Bronze gallery about which you can read in the next issue.

A new audio-guide has been developed and National Museum is digitising its collections vigorously to make this all available online. The 3D photography of objects is also underway. Our digital presence on social media has also made a huge difference. Regular posts and tweets about our collections and ideas keep the young and potential audiences engaged with the museum, they find a familiar and accessible platform to share their thoughts and concerns.

One of the most crucial interventions has been to give importance to good design in every aspect of the museum - galleries, exhibitions, regular signage, products and publications. Every museum experience begins with the visitor feeling comfortable and relaxed and a well-designed space allows for that. The Display and Design Department of the Museum has been greatly motivated and now delivers excellently designed spaces.

The National Museum still has a long way to go but in the near future, it will shortly be revamping many of its old galleries. It has the capacity to become an orientation space for what lies ahead in the Indian experience. It could become a window or a tasting plate for the vast cultural resources that India has to offer. It should share its rich collections and the many ideas that created them through history so that the visitor is prepared to welcome the variety that they will encounter across the country. Each museum can do this in their region and state. It is interesting to understand that ICOM, through its theme of Museums and Cultural Landscapes, has suggested the much needed connect and continuity that is crucial for museums to work in a brimming cultural landscape like India.

It is amply clear that if museums in India have to fit in, they have to offer great storytelling, a space for conversations - both academic and popular and an environment for a quiet intimate experience with the art through good exhibitions and programmes. The museum needs to become a popular destination for families and young people and not remain a snooty isolated and purely academic discourse for a handful.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.