A date with history

Madame Tussauds will soon open in India. bUT ARE WE A NATION OF MUSEUM-GOERS? WE PROFILE some prominent museums of the country to find out how they are faring—in terms of public interest and staying relevant in these times of technology

National Museum, New Delhi
National Museum, New Delhi

Last month, Merlin Entertainments, the parent group of world-famous wax museum Madame Tussauds, announced that the museum will open its first venture in New Delhi in 2017. Part of the India-UK Year of Culture, 2017, the company said it will invest 50 million pounds in India over 10 years. Needless to say, the news evoked a lot of positive reactions. After all, Madame Tussauds is no ordinary museum. Founded by sculptor Marie Tussauds, it is home to life-like wax replicas—each replica costs around $45,000 and takes six months, over 250 precise measurements and more than 1,000 kg of wax to be ready—of some of the world’s most famous people, including many Indians like cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and actor Shah Rukh Khan.

However, amid all the excitement and fanfare, let’s not forget the keepers of history, culture and heritage in our own backyard. There are around 1,000 museums—some of them almost 200 years old—across the length and breadth of India. These include government and private museums, museums under universities, among others. Their collections are a historical spectacle, with artefacts and antiquities from India and around the globe—at these repositories of history, you can view the intrinsic objects of the Indus Valley Civilisation, as well as admire the beauty of rare Persian paintings.

Back in 2011, though, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) came out with a report on the shocking condition of some of India’s top museums. It cited poor maintenance, lighting and signage, among a host of issues plaguing these establishments.

However, things are slowly changing now, as museums in India are on the cusp of reinventing themselves. Keeping pace with the demands of modern visitors, they are embracing technology, social media and digitisation—some of them even have plans to digitise their entire collection for online viewing. There is a focus on region-specific exhibitions and programmes for regional audiences, as well as plans to revive and air never-seen-before collections.

What’s encouraging in all this is the fact that these initiatives are being taken up to not just attract foreign visitors, but locals as well.

Here, we profile three of the country’s most prominent museums and find out what they are doing to be in step with the times…

National Museum, New Delhi

Crown jewel: Miniature paintings, coin collection, sculptures
One of the largest museums in the country, New Delhi’s National Museum houses artefacts dating back to the pre-historic, as well as the modern era. Located on a quaint stretch of Janpath, it owes its inception to a 1947-48 exhibition of Indian art in London, which was organised by The Royal Academy of Arts, London, with assistance from the Indian and British governments. It was a huge success and proved to be the catalyst behind the 1949 opening of the National Museum. The artefacts displayed at the exhibition were used to build the museum’s core collection. Construction took place in two phases—the first part of the building was inaugurated on December 18, 1960, by then vice-president S Radhakrishnan. The second phase was concluded in 1989.

Today, the museum is home to almost 200,000 objects, including sculptures, paintings, ethnographic objects, textiles, decorative arts and coins, among others. Of these, only about 10,000-15,000 items are on display. “The two strengths of our collection are sculptures and paintings… We have one of the largest collections of miniature paintings in the world. It’s very rich and represents several painting schools of the country. We also have a collection of objects from the Indus Valley Civilisation on loan from the Archaeological Survey of India. Then there is the large collection of sculptures, which is spread across dynasties, states, periods and styles,” says a spokesperson of
the museum.

With its average visitor inflow in the range of six-seven lakh a year, the National Museum might not find itself in the same bracket as some of the world’s biggest museums, but to make sure the visitor number keeps heading north, the museum is focusing on some key areas. It is extremely active on social media and has a website that is updated on a daily basis. “We have to understand that India is still warming up as a population that goes to museums. People go to temples, malls and theatres, but museum-going is not that common… And that is a big challenge,” the spokesperson says.

To meet that challenge, plans are underway to digitise all the museum’s collections and upload them online. “This started almost two years back. If you go to our website, there’s a section called ‘NM Collections’. Under this, around 8,000 objects have been digitised and catalogued for public viewing. We hope to upload more by the end of next year, so that at least our primary collections on display are completely digitised,” the spokesperson adds.

The museum is also focusing on attracting specific audiences. Recently, it held an exhibition on ‘Buddhist Art of India’, artefacts for which came from Indian Museum, Kolkata. The exhibition, which showcased 91 objects, including sculptures and manuscripts related to Buddhism and the life of Buddha, has, in the past, travelled to countries like China, Japan and Korea. “We also had a one-object exhibition that came from the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal, in August 2015. The exhibition, which had one Manipuri ritual object, resulted in a lot of Manipuri students coming from Delhi University. This is something we are encouraging, so that we can have the participation of regional audiences as well,” the spokesperson says. The museum will be holding another such exhibition in March next year. Called ‘Everlasting Flame’, it will showcase the Parsi/Zoroastrian heritage of the world and will be sponsored by the ministry of minority affairs. “It will actually involve three exhibitions—one at the National Museum, and others at the National Gallery of Modern Art and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. The National Museum exhibition will have a large number of international lenders, with over 300 objects. It’s interesting how the story of this community will be told through objects, some of which are extremely rare,” the spokesperson says.

About 60% of the museum’s annual visitors are students, 18-20% are foreign tourists and the remaining are Indian visitors, as per the spokesperson. Keeping this in mind, the museum has introduced ‘Yuva Saathi’, a young volunteer’s programme, for schoolchildren. “Earlier, children would come with their teachers and just walk around the galleries. We had no clue as to what they were learning or observing. So we started the Yuva Saathi programme, for which we train young people interested in guiding children across the museum. The tour is one-and-a-half-hour-long and highlights 30-35 objects from all the galleries. Children are also told in short about each object, so that when they go back, they have something substantial in their heads,” the spokesperson says.

Recently, the museum also reopened its nine-section bronze collection, which had been away from the public eye for almost seven years.

The museum’s prime attraction, The Veiled Rebecca (right), was acquired by Salar Jung from Rome, Italy, in 1876
The museum’s prime attraction, The Veiled Rebecca (right), was acquired by Salar Jung from Rome, Italy, in 1876

Salarjung Museum, Hyderabad

Crown jewel: The Veiled Rebecca, a sculpture by Italian artist Giovanni Maria Benzoni
Not many museums in the world can boast of housing artefacts collected majorly by just one man. And that’s precisely the reason why Hyderabad’s Salarjung museum is one of its kind. The bulk of the museum’s collection, which features antiquities from European, Asian and far eastern countries, was collected by Nawab Mir Yousuf Ali Khan, a royal, who was popularly known as Salar Jung III. He became the prime minister of the seventh Nizam of the erstwhile state of Hyderabad in 1912, but resigned two-and-a-half years later. Khan, who passed away in 1949, invested a substantial amount of his income over 35 years to build the collection.

After his death, the collection was left behind at his ancestral palace, Diwan Deodi, where it was exhibited. A private museum, it was inaugurated by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on December 16, 1951. Ten years later, the parliament declared the museum an institution of national importance. And it was in 1968 that the museum shifted to its present location at Afzalgunj.

Today, it is home to over 42,000 priceless artefacts—some of them dating back to the 15th century—including sculptures, paintings, carvings, textiles, manuscripts, ceramics, metallic artefacts, carpets, clocks and furniture from Japan, China, Mynamar, Nepal, India, Persia, Egypt, Europe and North America. A total of 39 galleries are spread across the three wings of the museum. “The museum has a magnificent collection of over 42,000 art objects and antiques not only of Indian origin, but also of western, middle-eastern and far eastern origins. There is a children’s section as well and a rich reference library that contains 60,000 books and over 8,000 rare manuscripts,” says A Nagender Reddy, the director of the museum.

But among a plethora of rare objects, one of the most important and interesting ones is The Veiled Rebecca, a stupendous white marble statue made by Italian sculptor Giovanni Maria Benzoni. Famous for its flawless craftsmanship—especially the carved veil covering the statue’s face—it was acquired by Salar Jung from Rome, Italy, in 1876. No wonder then that the museum attracts an average of 4,000 visitors per day. “During summer and the holiday season in December, the number goes up to 8,000 per day,” says Reddy. Owing to the big numbers, the museum places a lot of importance on visitor amenities. It has a visitor orientation and information centre, as well as interactive kiosks for galleries. The museum is also expanding its online presence, says Reddy. “We are very active on Facebook and Twitter. There are plans to come out with a mobile app soon. Salarjung museum is also a partner in Google’s Art Project (an online platform through which the public can access high-resolution images of artworks housed in the initiative’s partner museums).” They are also working on getting integrated Wi-Fi at the museum.

Apart from all this, the museum is planning a dedicated numismatics gallery, which will display coins from the museum’s collection. A revamped children’s section and an Islamic gallery are also in the offing.

As per Reddy, barring a few technological advances, Indian museums are as good as their foreign counterparts when it comes to attracting visitors. Regular interaction between the two is key though. “There are regular interactions between Indian and foreign museums. The ministry of culture has also been sending Indian curators abroad for training at institutions and museums such as the British Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.”

Prince of Wales Museum of Western India
Prince of Wales Museum of Western India

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai

Crown jewel: The personal armour of Mughal emperor Akbar
Formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) has an illustrious history. On August 14, 1904, some of the most prominent dignitaries of Bombay, including political leader Pherozeshah Mehta and chief justice Badruddin Tyabji, decided to build a memorial in the form of a museum to recognise the visit of then Prince of Wales (who would later be known as King George V). It was also decided that the museum would be named after him. The foundation stone was laid by the prince himself on his visit in 1905. Although the building was completed in 1914, it was opened for the public only in January 1922, as it was used as a children’s welfare centre and a military hospital during World War I.

Since then, the CSMVS has had many major milestones, the most important being its rechristening in 1995, when the colonial name was replaced by the Indian one. The museum has also seen a lot of additions to its huge collection over the course of history.

Today, the CSMVS is home to 13 galleries, which cover a variety of sections—sculptures, Indian coins, arms and armour, natural history, etc—with items belonging to different eras. “The museum houses a multicultural collection of over 60,000 artefacts from India, Nepal, Tibet, Europe, etc. It has an archaeological and a natural history section as well, which are major attractions for children,” says Bilwa Kulkarni, education officer, CSMVS, adding, “The collections comprise purchases and generous donations of dignitaries such as (businessmen) Sir Ratan Tata and Sir Dorabji Tata. Several artefacts have been acquired from (art collectors) Seth Purushottam Mavji, Karl and Meherbai Khandalavala, and the Archaeological Survey of India as well.”

Some of the most notable attractions at the CSMVS include the personal armour of Mughal emperor Akbar, an Ashokan rock edict and a sculpture of Shiva. “We also have a comprehensive collection of miniature paintings that traces the development of the art since the 12th century,” Kulkarni adds.

The museum sees over a million visitors every year—the footfall peaks especially from October to May, with some days seeing as many as 6,000 visitors a day. The museum is now planning to bring in more of the local audience.

“We consider the CSMVS as a city for the people of Mumbai and, therefore, bringing in local visitors is one of our major targets. Over the years, the museum has been attracting local visitors through international exhibitions, educational and cultural events and outreach programmes. One such outreach programme is ‘Museum on Wheels’, which carries travelling exhibitions in a bus all over the city and even beyond the city to other parts of Maharashtra.

The idea is to draw people to the museum to explore more,” says Kulkarni. The museum is also a hub for many cultural and educational activities, with courses in museology and conservation on offer.

Plans are already afoot to make the CSMVS more engaging in the new year. “Come 2016 and we will see some very interesting shows, including some internally-curated exhibitions. In January 2016, we will be opening an exhibition on Indian medicine and health called ‘Tabiyat’. This exhibition is being organised in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust in London. The end of 2016 will see an exhibition called ‘India and the World’, which the museum will be co-curating with the British Museum, London,” Kulkarni adds.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the museum’s director-general, says Indian museums today face no single challenge, but many problems. From funding to a leadership crisis, there’s a lot these bearers of history have to worry about.

“Funding is a major issue. When you look at foreign museums and the amount of money that is poured into art and culture in other countries, you see a huge gap here. Another challenge is the lack of trained staff. There aren’t adequate trained staff and curators at Indian museums, which has led to a leadership crisis,” says Mukherjee, adding that it is imperative that museums evolve with time and incorporate available technology to communicate with visitors. “The museum of the future will be a community space. And for that to happen, we need to change with the times. You have to adapt to the demographics, the cultural, social and political changes, and restructure accordingly,” says Mukherjee.

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