May 15, 2017



By Georgina Maddox

On international museum day, we look at some of the most successful projects that have revived our forgotten treasures while experts forecast the changes needed to make India’s museums international destinations 

Gone are the days when museums were the place one played truant, where the lazy guard at the gate yawned and let you play hooky with your girlfriend or boyfriend as you pretended to gaze at dust-covered cases showcasing god-only-knows-what. These days museums are dynamic spaces, with state- of-the art lighting, spiffy display cases, informative labels, audio guides in multiple languages andmuseum-shops, selling all kinds of designer products related to the museum. This was besides the roster of curated exhibitions of modern and contemporary artists alongside the medieval and ancient art and culture on display, there film programs,live folk music, curator’s talks and if you are really interested in getting involved there are museums that offer courses in art and culture.

“At the risk of sounding immodest, I would like to state that the restoration work done in 2003 at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (erstwhile Victoria Albert Museum)really shifted the needle on what museums could be and what they are meant to do in our society,” says Tasneem Mehta, Director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDL Museum). When it was the Victoria and Albert Museum,whichopened to the public in 1857,it was considered one of India’s finest museums. However, it fell into a state of terrible disrepair with white ants eating into its precious books and displays in the late 1900s.

Then in February 2003, a tripartite agreement was signed between the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and INTACH to restore BDL Museum to its former glory and more. The museum got more than a face-lift. A complete makeover of the BDL has ensured it’s a spot among the international museums, since it is the only Indian museum to be featured on Google’s ten most important museums.

“I was invited by the Prime Minister to visit Bangladesh to advise them on the restoration programme of their museums as well,” says Mehta who has often faced an uphill task while dealing with certain state elements that have dubbed the museum and elite space. In fact, the entry fee of Rs 10allow everybody to access the museum, from those who come to visit the zoo to those who come specifically to see the art at the museum.

The renovation of another historic museum in Mumbai also owed to the vision of restorers and groups of concerned trustees. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS)(earlier known as the Prince of Wales Museum)when it was opened to the public in 1922. This museum building is a fine example of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture and designed by George Wittet a celebrated figure and also was a Consulting Architect to Government. Set against a well laid out garden, which retains its original plan even today, this building is listed as a Grade I Heritage Building.

However, it suffered from the same disease that befall most Indian museums, one of neglect. In 2009, however the CSMVS found its second lease of life, when the museum’s trustees, Director Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Architect Rahul Mehrotra put their heads together to come up with new plans for the centre. Themuch-neglectedchildren’s wing was torn down and a 1,500-foot gallery was added, replete with a museum shop and café. “One has to move with the times,” is what Mukherjee said back in 2009. Museum now boasts a team of 25 to 30 people. 

An insight into the Indian mindset is provided by Abha Narain Lambha, one of the consultants on the project. “We are not a museum going nation and prefer bright shiny malls to take our families on the weekend. Unfortunately, the problem lies not in our people, but in the manner in which we present our museums and art. One has to create an aura of excitement around art, make it a happening place and use good communication tools to create an interface between people and objects of historical relevance," said Lambha in an interview to this writer.

Delhi’sKiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) is an example of a private collection museum that has brought art to people in the presumably accessible space of a shopping mall. In 2011, when Kiran Nadar opened her doors to the public,some of the assumption was that being situated in a mall like Select City Walk in Delhi’s Saket shopping district, would alone draw in the crowds. “We needed more footfall and being in Delhi ensures that. While the KNMA in Noida, at the HCL premises, was a good beginning, we wanted to be located at the heart of things. We hope people will come and be curious about art since currently entry is free for all,” said Nadar who is Chairperson, KNMA.

However, it took programming, signage and several collateral events to bring or rather lure the general public in. On a typical day at the museum, the footfalls are not anything to write home about. When programmes are on, one can expect anything between 50 to 300 people daily. Once again, majority of the footfalls come from those already initiated into art. But occasionally the odd shopper who had come to pick up a pair of jeans, will step into the museum. 

The revolution at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, was primarily led by Professor Rajeev Lochan, an artist and art education specialist, who became the Director of NGMA in March 2001. “I believe that my position as the Director of a museum provides me a dream opportunity to work with the wide spectrum of art. Art has various diverse attitudes—functional, thematic, conceptual and so on,” said Lochan in 2001. The first milestone that he posits as an achievement for the NGMA was the Picasso exhibition titled ‘Metamorphosis 1900 -1972’ in New Delhi and Mumbai in 2001, done in conjunction with Picasso Museum in Paris.

“I believe this exhibition gave the (sic) viewer the first opportunity to witness and appreciate the works and the life of an internationally known artist,” said Lochan. The show was displayed on a grand scale—it was the first time that the gallery walls were painted red—after which many galleries copied the idea,with several collateral programmes that helped disseminate and popularise the exhibition.

Flying on the wings of the success of the Picasso exhibition, new life was pumped into the otherwise sleepy ‘sarkari’ atmosphere that is known to surround government run spaces. The NGMA got a new wing, a museum shop and adigital archive. The NGMA currently boasts 17,000 works of art. This was followed in 2010, where the new wing was ‘blessed’ with an exhibition by international diaspora artist Anish Kapoorthat was the toast of the town. Keeping the spirit of the contemporary alive, the NGMA also hosted exhibitions featuring artists Subodh Gupta, Sudarshan Shetty and recently Jistish Kallat, along with a retrospective of one of Indian’s pioneering women photographers, Homai Vyarawalla curated by Sabeena Gadihoke.Even the National Museum in New Delhihosted Dr Naman Ahuja’s exhibition Body in Indian Art in the year 2014.The 11-week-long landmark exhibition showcased over 300 artworks, sourced from 44 museums across the country and attempts to cover the timeline of Indian art history — from ancient to contemporary — through the human body.

Recently we saw how Bikaner House (New Delhi), an erstwhile outpost of a time of the British Raj, turned into a cutting-edge space, by the likes of Rajshree Pathy, the woman behind the Indian Design Forum. Working with scenographer Sumant Jayakrishnan,Pathy created an installation titled ‘Chakraview’, that posited the notion of urban Utopia, against the lens of Indian mythology. Besides changing the entire atmosphere of the staid auditorium at the Bikaner House, the installation captured the cacophony and colour of the Indian approach to design.Pathy opines that curators and entrepreneursin India can work if there is change in the outlook of the government. “Art is not elitist. One has to change the attitude around it and it automatically becomes more accessible,” she says. Staring off with the textiles and sugar mills of Coimbatore to the contemporary space of Delhi, Pathy has brought design to the forefront till it is jostling for a place with art.

Mehta is also of the opinion that in order to change attitudes around the museum space and make it a dynamic space, the government needs to invest more in their employees. “One must send museum staff for international workshops so that their skills are upgraded and they feel motivated to give more to their work,” said Mehta who has nurtured and trained a dedicated staff. “We need to pay our staff more and we will automatically find that the level of skill and enthusiasm will improve,” she adds.

All these projects, that we have mentioned are examples of time converging where stately buildings become contemporary spaces and are enlivened with projects inspired by the here-and-now. It gives us hope that the Museum can in fact come alive and engage with our great Indian masses, constantly seeking entertainment.