Excerpts from the speech by Sabyasach Mukherjee delivered on the may 6th 2012
at the German Museums Associations’s Annual Conference in Stuttgart
I feel honoured and proud to participate in the German Museums Association’s Annual Conference at the historic city of Stuttgart which in fact happens to be a sister city of Mumbai, a place where I belong. We consider this Conference of a great importance for three significant reasons. Firstly, it acknowledges the need to disseminate knowledge, expertise and resources through professional and virtual networks in addition to the circulation of material objects. Secondly, it allows for a variety of perspectives in the interpretation of museum practices and thirdly, emerges in the exchange of ideas, objects and exhibitions in a spirit of generosity recognising the disparities of resources and expertise that exist. There are two distinct approaches often noticed in the context of Indian museum profession, that is to say, conventional and non-conventional. Both these approaches evolved through the years while interacting with domestic as well as international communities. Traditional cultural institutions were created in different periods of time for different audiences than the ones they now have to serve. While in the past, mapping, collecting and preserving cultural goods was of major importance, today cultural institutions are required to connect with the society and represent the people they serve.
The presentation has been structured in three different groups in order to understand the whole complexity of the museum movement and its evolutionary process and relevance in the contemporary society:
i) Establishment of Public Museum
ii) Museum Movement after Independence
iii) Museum of Tomorrow: Developing a New Vision
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly Prince of Wales Museum of Western India), Mumbai – A case study.
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines Museum in a comprehensive manner on the following lines :
“ A Museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment”.
It is clear from the definition that education and enjoyment along with study are accepted as the primary purpose of a museum. Education is one of the powerful tools of a Museum through which it plays a crucial role in enriching social, cultural and economic progress of the communities that it belongs to.
The definition reflects four important aspects of Museum:
• The first is the character of a museum, that it shall be a non-profit, permanent institution and open to the public.
• The second part emphasizes the duty, that is, service of society and its
• The third part deals with the functions of Museum, that is, acquisition, conservation, research, communication and exhibition.
• The fourth part deals with the purpose, that is, education, study and enjoyment.
The concept of Public Museum in India was first conceived during British India in the mid- nineteenth century. The museum movement in Europe, more particularly the establishment of the British Museum, London and the Lourvre in France had encouraged those with a progressive outlook to study and preserve their cultural heritage for posterity. It was more like a repository of antiquities of the ancient world. The first Indian museum of Indian art objects was established in 1801 by the East India Company. The key objective of this museum was to house those artefacts collected by the East India Company and its holdings were later distributed among the British Museum, the British Library, the Museum of Natural History and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The creation of Public Museum in India goes back to the birth of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 15th January, 1784 with British initiative. In 1814, the Society established a museum under the able leadership and initiative of an amateur botanist, Dr. Natheniel Wallich, who had his own private collection of botanical specimens. Thereafter a number of museums of varied nature were established in different regions but these museums did not receive the desired attention and patronage by the then British Government. The concept of Museum during this period remained more or less at discovery, exploration and excavation level. Some provincial museums somehow survived with low maintenance but could not do anything productive to the then contemporary society. The British Government then constituted a two- member committee headed by S. F. Markham and H. Hargreaves in 1936 to review the conditions of Indian museums and to recommend possible remedial measures.
This committee surveyed the museums of India and submitted their joint report to the government. The detailed report served as an eye opener both for the Government as well as those who were principal organizers of museums in India. The report included two significant observations which probably persuaded the Government to introduce Museology as a discipline in the University system.
• Scarcely a single museum in India is there which has the knowledge as to the way in which manuscript, exhibits, pictures or wood works should be preserved or exhibited.
• The low standard of curatorship and sheer dearth of knowledge in museum management were considered two major reasons in 1936 for thedeplorable conditions of museums in India.
The low standard of Curatorship means the future generations will be deprived of important documentary evidences of India’s past greatness.
Due to outbreak of World War II, the above recommendations made by Markham & Hargreaves were shelved. However, it all started changing steadily after independence due to the spread of education, industrialization and technological advancement.
Unfortunately, Indian museums have not progressed very far from the days of their inception due to the age old traditional approaches and also complete indifference on the part of local authorities and the National Government. Though the collection over this long period was significant, hardly any attention was paid to the problem of conservation, exhibition and educational services apart from a few exceptions, the museums did not try to publish any literature and article.
The National Museum, New Delhi and several provincial and University Museums were established in the two decades immediately after independence. Other new specialized and archaeological and anthropological museums were set up in different cities and archaeological sites. A group of science and technology museums were founded in Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western regions. This was the time when few Universities also came forward to introduce the subject ‘Museum Management Studies or Museology’ in collaboration with the provincial museums. Though many new museums and University training institutes were established in different geographical locations in India and the subcontinent, the general approach of the Government and museums remained unchanged even after 66 years of India’s independence.
The concept of 21st century Museum or Museum of Tomorrow actually started in Europe and America as well as in some progressive countries in Asia in 1990. ICOM played a vital role in developing the concept of Universal Museum for world community. The main objective was to re-unite all likeminded countries on a single platform and also to encourage them to develop a universal approach towards the preservation of a common cultural heritage to be shared with the world. The Museum of Tomorrow has to reformulate its set of objectives keeping in mind the demographic, social, economic and cultural changes taking place in the contemporary society and restructure them according to the needs of the society. The bigger museums in Europe and America in the late 20th century seriously felt a need for these changes and therefore incorporated these points in their policies before the dawn of the 21st century. It was also felt by some of the South-East and Central Asian museums but very few could take advantage of this.
As Homi Bhabha, Head, Mahindra Humanities, Harvard University, emphasized in his keynote address to the Indo – US Sub- Committee for Asian Art Initiative in 2011, “Globalization has produced new proximities, a compression of space and time. Through worldwide travel and digital technologies, people find themselves side by side, yet with asymmetrical relationships in terms of power and position. Globalization has brought large swathes of the world’s population closer together in overlapping communities of late. These newly networked societies are capable of beneficial exchanges and collaborations, yet their proximity does not necessarily ensure shared understandings or interpretations of complex cultural forces. We have not arrived here from the same place or at the same time. Will the dissemination of new technologies of communication and representations provide a way of resolving cultural conflict? Will the spreading internet provide its users with a new humanism, a developing universalism? Globalization and Universalism begins at home, with the way people treat those who are alien, yet close by”.
Unfortunately, museums in India completely lagged behind this international movement due to lack of practical experience and a well meaning vision. It is said that even after 66years of India’s Independence not many museums could meet the basic parameter of a standard museum as defined by ICOM. The National level museums which primarily showcase Nation’s Heritage and other important state level or regional museums have not changed much their basic approaches towards museum principles. Of course, there are many factors responsible for today’s state of affairs which we need to study systematically from the point of view of modern museum practice.
• Increased competition from other Asian museums
• Technological advancement
• Impact of Internet
• Static art collections and other resources
• Government indifference
• Inadequate human resources
• Lack of human interest and awareness
• Inefficient processes
• Fast growing urban life
• Seeking experience that is authentic and personalized
• Cultural conflict and world politics
Keeping these points in mind, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (CSMVS in short),Mumbai, had taken adequate measures at the turn of the 21st century to transform all its existing galleries, and also its basic approach towards museum practice. The CSMVS has achieved several of its goals with a combination of indigenous skills and foreign expertise and not merely as a showcase of antiquities. Today, the Museum is moving towards becoming a high impact, audience- centred institution, valued by community, artists, other institutions, and the Government.
A vision knows who you are and where you are going. A vision defines what an organization stands for and why it exists. It also defines what the organization aspires to become, its goals and what significant changes are required to achieve the same.
Realizing the need to modernize the Museum- its display, maintenance, visitor facilities, education and security the museum began its modernization program seven years ago with the idea to transform the Museum from a national level repository of antiquities to an institute of International standard.
Since the CSMVS is an autonomous body, it is difficult to undertake major projects and shoulder the entire financial responsibility without any State or Central Government aid. Therefore, the support provided by the Ministry of Culture has been of immense value to the Museum in its initiative towards the modernization. The modernization plan aims to highlight the components of the Museum from its historic built fabric to collections, support services, visitor influx etc, and also the necessity for upgradation of the Museum, and outline future projects which need to be undertaken to achieve the highest vision for the Museum.
• To make the Museum visitor-friendly and also cater to a range of
different visitor profiles.
• To strive towards an integrated display of museum objects.
• To create a clearer and better understanding of the collection in
particular and Indian arts in general.
• To strive towards high quality educational programs and outreach.
• To establish a state-of-the art conservation studio for the preservation
and conservation of its collection.
• To provide information, education as well as enjoyable visitor
• To create a civic space for social debates and also to initiate Inter-
Cultural dialogue within different faiths.
At the outset, it seemed like an uphill task particularly in view of the fact that the Museum was not supported by either the State or the Central Government. But things started moving very positively with the determination of the Staff & Trustees and overwhelming support from corporate houses and interested public. The efforts generated a support from a range of public participation models and have also received financial support from the Central Government through the Ministry of Culture.
Educational activity is one of the strongest means of engaging public with the collections. Museums are using educational activities designed in an interesting manner to appeal to all segments of the public. Many specialized programmes are designed at CSMVS to meet the needs and interests of a wide ranging audience.
The Museum mainly identifies three segments as its core target audience – school children, young adults and special groups. It is believed that the non- visiting sections of the public can be converted by reaching out to these core groups. The Museum is a social space. It is a meeting place for individuals and communities to engage in dialogue and exchange of ideas. Being a platform for free experience, it is imperative that museums be inclusive. Museum education is therefore important for social inclusion and community engagement.
Intercultural dialogue is ultimately a conversation between individuals engaging in a relationship with each other, and through the pilot projects, CSMVS fostered several of such projects. The common thread connecting all the activities initiated by the education department of CSMVS has been a desire to rethink the role of the contemporary museum. Its starting point is the present, from which it explores the past and imagines the future, guided by the needs and expectations of its actual and potential visitors, which values as ‘heritage’ not only objects or collections, but first and foremost the individuals and the richness they embody: stories, ideas, emotions, values, desires, fears and hopes.
The Museum is a vibrant, dynamic institution, buzzing with cultural activities, rotating exhibits, outreach events and educational programmes. It is actively engaged in collaboration with international museums and cultural organizations and is in no way a stratified museum.
The Museum has successfully completed Phase I of the Modernization Plan with the help and support from the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India. The Museum now intends to take the initiative further by undertaking Phase II of the plan aimed at a range of Modernization and upgradation of its facilities, outreach programmes, research & publication and infrastructure. The Modernization Plan will benefit almost a million people who visit this Museum. It will also enhance the image of the Museum in India and would be helpful to tourism, both national and international.