Finally, India has a museum dedicated to the prime ministers of India. It is heartening that the Union Government has thought of celebrating all PMs with a modern and interactive museum in the heart of the Nation’s Capital. But why are most of the other museums in the country museum pieces in themselves?
Mentality. And boredom. Lack of vision from those responsible for these things and non-involvement of Indian companies. More importantly, India is a living culture. Putting things in museums means it’s a historical and representative look at what was. Take the greatest of museums: Prince of Wales in Mumbai, renamed after Shivaji. A tall gothic building with a huge staircase and ceiling. But display? Age old. Everything is fine. Take the National Museum of Delhi. India’s finest treasures, some lying in the open. He is undersized. Take Egmore to Chennai. Chola bronzes exposed to sea salt. Need to say more? We don’t care about our cultural heritage. Period. We have too many, so what’s a few hundred years (lost or plundered) between friends?
Or do we have too many? In this context, then, where do the new disciplines fit? Stamp Museum? In a post office of course! Doll Museum? In a shopping center of course! Currency Museum? In a bank of course! (RBI Bombay.)
The main problem is vision or lack thereof. Sarkari museums are like someone decides, someone does, and nobody sees. Look at Ahmedabad, our best city for museums. Each is a private and well-kept museum: textiles, utensils, even kites. Yes, Ahmedabad is the museum capital of India. Dakshinachitra, outside Chennai, is the best open-air museum, featuring habitats from five southern states. Kolkata has the best colonial buildings, one of them housing the greatest of Asian treasures, at the Indian Museum. Salar Jung in Hyderabad is the most soothing museum. The Mathura Museum has the best Buddhist artifacts in the worst exhibits. Ditto for the Patna Museum. The Partition Museum is quickly becoming a must in Amritsar.
Museums are not a place of mummification of culture but can be the father of cultural spaces. Ah! That’s the word. Cultural space. Museums should be spaces of cultural symbols and learning, not padding. Do you know the most visited cultural sites space in India? Mumbai International Airport – 30 million steps per year. Have you ever walked from section to section? Artifacts from all over India, India’s finest talents through contemporary art on baggage belts and paintings from Tanjore meeting decorative arts from Rajasthan in the aisles. This is possible if the client gives the charge to an experienced and qualified expert (Rajiv Sethi in this case). Make a connoisseur like Aman Nath, president of the Neemrana group, in charge of Mission Possible museums of India and experience the magic he created in real dead places. If he can revive a fallen fort and help reforest the surrounding areas, then he can do more if he gets the chance and charge. The starting point must be right. Abroad, it is professionals – and not administrators – who are entrusted with a project: the Bilbao, the Bubble or the Boston Museum. Tourism is a by-product of culture, not just a servant.
Cultural illiteracy is high if you see the hodgepodge produced on TV. Jobless B-level Bollywood characters in skimpy dresses talk flute like they’ve seen an alien. How and what will our children learn? From where? Wikipedia? This general, half-baked information platform? Why can’t we now create museums that stand the test of time, use technology for educational content and use Indian symbols to make it interactive and interesting? It’s possible.
Delhi’s worst museum was for clay models stuffed with animal replicas housed at FICCI, Mandi House, which was emptied a few years ago. The best in Delhi was the Handicrafts Museum where you could see craftsmen at work. Bengaluru has a good aviation museum by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and now a good music museum by a builder. Over the past 40 years, I have been trying to save our dance heritage and create a space to learn about its history and heritage, which I hope the Indira Gandhi National Arts Center (IGNCA), under the leadership of Sachidanand Joshi, will perform in his new space; so that what Lincoln Center New York wanted for whatever sums and we suffered from scarcity but did not sell these treasures to remain in India and benefit our future generations be seen and savored here , soon.
Society must also emphasize art, heritage and learning. Buy tickets for museums, music concerts and dance performances. Children buy expensive dresses, shoes and bags worth thousands of dollars and their parents give them lavish pocket money in metropolitan India, but none gave them a museum membership or a lifetime pass to culture. Being a member of the Met (it’s the Metropolitan Museum, USA, not the weather department here!) is an honor. Americans have very little historical culture but they have the best museums. Sweden, a small country of 10 million people, has some of the best museums in Europe. Italy is a living, breathing museum. France too. A small butterfly museum in Cheboyan County, Michigan, USA, where I got married, has more visitors and materials than our natural history museum!
There is still time before it is too late. A special directorate of museums with 1 percent corporate CSR or education cess funds should be budgeted. Each state must have a window on its culture and arts. If I’m going to Odisha and don’t want to see its famous beaches and temples in the heat of May when it’s 42 degrees Celsius outside, there must be somewhere I can learn about it more about Odisha as a whole. Same as Karnataka or Himachal. Why haven’t we done it until now? Better late than never.
—Ashish Mohan Khokar is a cultivation expert with 40 years of fieldwork in theory and practice
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