This book is the first-ever compilation of
essays by cultural practitioners about the
changing and unchanging dynamics of
India's museum landscape. The essays
highlight Indian cultural institutions?
ambitious beginnings, missed
opportunities along the way, and the
canvas for future imaginings.
At a time when museums in India are
undergoing a sea change, this publication
provides an invaluable insight into
museum design, curatorial narratives,
documentation and cataloguing and
visitors? experience that will soon
redefine museum perspectives in India.
The book is a welcome resource for all
museum planners, curators, conservators
and researchers in the field.
Rama Lakshmi is the curator of
Remember Bhopal Museum, and has
been a correspondent with The
Washington Post for 27 years. She lives in
New Delhi, India. A museum studies
graduate, she has worked with the
Smithsonian Institution in Washington,
D.C., and the Missouri History Museum.
Shikha Jain is the Chief Editor of
Context, an annual journal of DRONAH.
She is also Director, DRONAH, an
interdisciplinary organisation working
on several museum planning projects
There is a palpable sense around us these days that our museums in India are going to change, that there is an
impending Renaissance. This volume attempts to capture the important moment as we prepare ourselves to make
the transition to a different kind of a museum dialogue; one that goes beyond just grand buildings housing precious
objects. This collection of essays represents the museum in India in all its exhaustive and expansive potential
including tangible objects, intangible cultural heritage, urban spaces, communities, performances, collections,
archives and life narratives.
The first section on communities brings the focus of the museum back to people's memories, lived experiences and
articulation of identities. Troubling events in contemporary India, like the India-Pakistan partition and the Bhopal
gas tragedy, raise questions about the promise and perils of museumising contentious events, as written by Urvashi
Butalia, Moulshri Joshi, Amritha Ballal and by me. But this conversation also offers us, in India, an opportunity to
dismantle the high-culture-Iow-culture divide prevalent in our museums and forces the museums to engage with
The traditional notion of a museum has expanded over the decades to include intangible cultural heritage found in
oral histories, ethnic identities and urban habitats grappling with change. The demolition and translocation of flower
markets of New Delhi marks a loss of cultures built around certain livelihoods, faith and urban lifestyles. This is
a culture that is invisibilised by the Indian capital's frenetic march toward becoming a 21 st century super-city. The
Dastangoi tradition, the Mughal art of storytelling, which has now found an exciting revival is not only an intangible
cultural artefact but can also easily tie into the performative teaching techniques in a museum. As Elizabeth Pickard
writes, gallery theatre can also be a rich way of facilitating visitors' meaning-making processes.
Indian museums have paid scant attention to visitors' comfort and experience. Visitor studies are only now taking off
in India, but Andrew Pekarik warns us that visitors cannot be viewed as passive receptacles. Deepti Mulgund writes
about how a new contemporary art museum in a mall frames the visitor in the context of conspicuous consumption.
Batul Raj Mehta outlines the continuation of the colonial curatorial template in state museums of the past few
decades, and offers us a glimpse into how they can be imagined differently - by connecting audiences to their
own local histories. Kishwar Desai's important contribution to developing a Partition museum that seeks to fill the
deafening silence about the foundational trauma of India and Pakistan. Amareswar Galla writes about the promise
of locating culture as the fourth pillar of social, economic and environmental sustainability campaign. Abha Negi
presents the glaring and acute apathy toward visitors in denial of universal access to people with physical, cognitive
and developmental disabilities, at historic monuments and museums, and highlights initiatives undertaken to close
In the past five years, new kinds of exhibition themes such as archival photographs, corporate memory, urban
transport infrastructure, manuscripts and newer audiences have presented unique curatorial challenges. Diverse
museum audiences visiting Indian exhibitions in the United States present their own set of questions about curator
Vidya Dehejia's hybrid ethnic identity and perspective.
Finally, the planning and maintenance of museums, and turning them into efficient and profitable entities requires a
wide range of professional expertise. How we train and produce these skilled professionals needs to be constantly
reviewed by scholars to bridge the gap between the academia and the industry.
This volume has been put together at a time of
tremendous churning in the museum world. There is
a severe crisis in museums in the Western nations; an
immediate economic blow that requires urgent attention,
and a long-term one that threatens to re-order the
fundamentals of the institution itself.
Hit by a massive economic slowdown, museums are
facing debilitating cutbacks in state funding like in the
United States. Others like Rotterdam's Wereldmuseum,
have even been forced to sell their African and American
collections to stay afloat.
But beyond the economic woes, the museum institutions
are grappling with a more fundamental challenge to their
identity and relevance. Through the 1990s, museums
have tried to find their niche in an environment where
visitors were drawn to other sources of entertainment
and amusement parks. Now, in recent years, museums
are also struggling to find relevance in a society that has
been transformed by the use and access to content and
knowledge on the internet, social networking sites and
smart phones. The autonomy and the opportunity for
articulation that You Tube, Twitter, Facebook, podcasts
and other micro-blogging sites offer are unmatched.
There is a general suspicion of mediated platforms that
offer authoritative, carved-in-stone, meta-narratives.
The reigning mantra these days is 'user-generated-
content' that is made possible by these sites. A new
book asks if the museum will let go of its historical
authority over content in a user-generated world. This
question can change the museum in unrecognizable ways
in the future. Will these two challenges, economic and
social, mean that museums will cede more and more
control to private sponsors, visitors and the community?
But closer home in India, we are facing a very different
kind of a problem.
It is not from the wired world or a shortage of funds.
We are confronted here with an immobilising crisis
of imagination. Most of our museums are trapped in
an uninspiring sameness; beautiful objects displayed
indifferently, stiffly-written labels and ponderous book-
on-the wall text panels, lack of storytelling, social
context or powerful experiences. There is a complete
and unforgivable apathy toward visitor comfort, learning
or entertainment. In this uncaring universe, some of the
most important narratives about who we are, where we
have been, are lost. The unspoken rhetorical code of our
museum landscape is: 'Collect it. Display it. Forget it.'
Somehow, having 4000 years of material culture has
created in us a sort of a civilisational arrogance and
ennui. We have the objects, so we do not need to do
anything else. Artefacts are labelled, but rarely explained.
Stories and experiences are not created around these
objects. Coupled with this is the cult of expertise,
a sort of Brahminical monopoly over knowledge, a
mistaken belief that sharing it or breaking it down for the
commoner would diminish its significance and perhaps,
even its purity.
To unpack the visual vocabulary of our museums, we
must look into its earliest impulses. During the colonial
period, our first museum was born from the British
excavators' and scholars' decision to store some of the
archaeological artefacts in India, instead of shipping
them all back to England. After Independence, the Indian
government made the museum a handmaiden of its
nation-building goal. The museums answered the needs
of a newly independent nation's prideful patriotism.
Between these storing and patriotic missions, our
museums froze. We had wonderful artworks and artefacts
but the museums did not communicate powerful and deep
There is an acute realisation now among almost
everybody in India that we have failed to create museums
that offer transformative experiences. But, there is also a
universal acknowledgement that Indian museums are on
the cusp of change and poised for an important leap. As
India goes through a second wave of nation-building by
means of industrial expansion, high economic growth,
urbanisation, farm-to-factory migration, accompanied
by disruptive changes in communities, ecology and
livelihoods, our museums must prepare to address the
difficult social, environmental and cultural anxieties that
inevitably follow such deep transition. We must change
our existing museums and create new kinds of museums
that will reflect not only the transition, but also what we
lose and what gets shaped in the process.
In a democracy, it is not always the argument that is
important. What is often as important, if not more, is
how the argument is conducted. What are the avenues for
these troubling social discourses? In contemporary India,
the arguments are conducted either in the political arena
or in the media. Both platforms tend to be visceral and
rhetorical. As museum professionals, we can work toward
gently nudging the Indian museum into the argument
by radically re-imagining it as a more constructive,
contemplative platform for contested issues.
Our history museums must not freeze our past, they must
weave it with our current turmoil, growth and aspirations.
Art museums must step away from the obsessive
discourse about how much each artwork is auctioned for.
Instead, they must unearth stories about artists, where
they come from, their caste, their homes, the prevailing
power dynamics that their artworks battle and reflect,
and what the art tells us about contemporary India's most
important arguments. Our science museums must integrate
stories about Information Technology growth and how it
has shaped cities, communities and the aspirations of the
youth. Our tribal museums must go beyond showcasing
their craft and culture and celebrating them as singing-
and-dancing calendar communities. They must help
portray some of the most searing debates that tribal
people encounter in India today, around issues of identity,
land, resources, development and displacement. While
telling these stories, we will be forced to reconfigure the
prevalent codes in the elitist, celebratory Indian museums
about what stories and objects are museum-worthy.
Museums must portray intangible cultural heritage that lie
embedded in our people, landscapes, urban settlements,
faith and folklore.
For over 200 years, museums have been enduring
repositories of the memory of human civilisations and
construction of knowledge. The museum's core function
of collecting, preserving and displaying have remained
constant over the years, but its perceived role has changed
We in India appear to have missed many of the stages of
the journey that museums around the world have gone
through in the past 60 years: from temples of knowledge,
museums slowly moved to becoming informal learning
sites that plugged the failures of the school system; then
became metaphoric town squares for dissenting dialogues
to play out; a safe place for community renewal, where
group ideologies are explored and interrogated, to carry
out the government's social inclusion missions and to
emulating the spectacular set designs of amusement parks.
The museum's goal kept shifting from education to social
change to tourism to amusement park, to a stage now
where visitors may become co-curators. Indeed, museums
in the United States invite visitors to upload their own
podcast tour of an exhibit. Some websites even run
podcasts of alternative curatorial tour of art exhibitions.
Some in the museum world talk about the Wiki-model of
co-constructing the narrative in a museum.
We have missed many of the stages in the steady evolution
of museums witnessed around the world. That is both
a crisis and an opportunity. The crisis is that an entire
generation of Indians has grown up without experiencing
the magic of what our museums could have been. The
opportunity is, as is true with all things in India now, we
can skip a few generations and leapfrog into the endless
possibilities of the future. We do not need to reinvent the
wheel in a catch-up game and make the disappointing
discovery that by the time we got there, 'the cupboard was
bare' 1. Let us accumulate the combined global learning of
the last 60 years in the museum universe and create a new
kind of museum that reflects and suits our unique needs
today. A museum that is born in and addresses a moment
in transition will remain prepared and open for more
changes in the future as well. Because even when the
artefacts are fixed, the stories around them remain fluid,
expanding and ever-changing.
In this age of hyper-communication, how knowledge
is generated and shaped is as important as what is said.
Museums that offer definitive, last-word narratives may no
longer work to capture this moment of transition in India.
The user-generated-content mantra, which is being posed
as a challenge, actually provides us with the solution to
the future of the museum in India. This technology
mantra, in the context of the robust, argumentative
democracy of ours, suits us perfectly because it allows us
to tweak the story constantly.
As a civilisation and a nation-state that is both changing
and unchanging, we do not move along a linear trajectory.
Notable poet and cultural activist, Ashok Vajpeyi said, we
live very comfortably with 'a simultaneity of cultures and
eras around us'. So we can use technology effectively to
create the kind of museums-fixed, physical, ephemeral,
intangible, virtual, oral, moving, performative-that will
leave plenty of open spaces for us to re-invent ourselves in
the future through our million mutinous arguments.
**Book's Contents and Sample Pages**
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