The Indian Museum Makeover

 
The Homi Bhabha collection at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: S. Kumar/Mint

The “Aims and Objectives” section of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) website was so spot on, it took my breath away. It began with the usual stuff about acquiring, organizing and preserving art. It ended with the following lyrical lines. “Above all, the NGMA helps people to look at the works of modern art with greater joy, understanding and knowledge by extending their relationship with our daily life and experiencing them as vital expressions of the human spirit”.

Even for a sceptic of museums, the lines sing. Joy, understanding, link to life, and—this is key— “vital expressions of the human spirit”. What more can an art institution aspire to? Whoever wrote those lines had an intuitive understanding of art in the Indian context.

What does the NGMA do to further these aims? The Delhi website is a yawn. The Mumbai one is more vibrant. There is a workshop on mask making every Wednesday and Saturday, talks on Rabindranath Tagore, gallery walks and painting competitions. The Bangalore NGMA, without bias even though it is my home city, is the best of all. There are workshops, family days, school visits, and a whole slew of “Outreach” programmes that link films, theatre and dance to art.

I don’t go to the NGMA Bangalore nearly as often as I’d like to; and I am a confessed art lover. Many other people I know have never been to this institution. They don’t understand modern art, they say. Their children could have drawn something better. I feebly tell them that the museum is housed in a lovely old mansion with trees that will calm them down. Using trees to sell a museum is sad.

Wikipedia lists a total of 55,000 museums in 202 countries. India has, by my rough count, about 200. The list is somewhat confused by including planetariums and train museums along with art museums. There must be a dozen art museums of merit in India. What are the aims and objectives of these museums? In this Internet age, this isn’t a trivial question, given that more and more museums are putting up their collections online and anyone with a computer can see these. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has just hired my friend, Sree Sreenivasan to be their chief digital officer. Museums in India cannot afford to be just repositories of art. They have to be community centres. They have to reimagine the museum experience in the Indian context. It can be simple things. For example:

• Indians don’t like large empty spaces. Most museums are large empty spaces, designed along the lines of museums in the West. Indian museums are better off if they are a collection of small interlinking rooms that plays to our tolerance of, and comfort in, crowds.

• If you took a survey of art lovers who don’t visit museums, the reason most would state would be traffic. Museums have to figure out a way to take their art to the people (since the people are not coming to the art anyway). Rather than housing the art in a mansion, philanthropically inclined collectors should consider putting the art in a temperature-controlled warehouse, insure the heck out of it and then take it to large companies, colleges and other places where people congregate. Public art needs to be viewed in a new way in India. More like art for the public.

• Just as cricket reinvented itself with the Indian Premier League, museums need to rethink their function. The Guggenheim in New York holds music concerts within its spaces. You sip a glass of wine, listen to the music and look at art. The Museum of Modern Art could be rented by high-paying corporations for private parties. Why not do the same in Indian museums with their beautiful spaces? The model already exists in the West: they have figured out how to protect the art work and how much to charge. Dom Pérignon recently unveiled one of its vintages in Jodhpur at the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Why not rent the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai for events such as this? Companies such as Rémy Martin, which did an event recently in Udaipur, would certainly be potential clients. They have deep pockets and Mumbai is more accessible to international visitors.

In 1999, Stephen Weil, a scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, wrote a seminal essay about museums. Titled “From being about something to being for somebody: The ongoing transformation of the American art museum”, the piece argues that museums have to be exactly what the NGMA’s aim and objective is. Museums have to be cultural centres of communities, drawing people in. This should be understood “not as a surrender but quite literally as a fulfillment”, said Weil.

One simple way to wrap your head around this concept is to think of museums not as being in the “salvage and warehouse” business as a museum administrator put it, but as serving an educational purpose. Museums as malls? It may be heresy to some but that’s the way art was displayed in the past in our own country. Doubters need only to visit some of our ancient temples where thoroughfares to the deity were dotted with the art of the day.

-Shoba Narayan
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