The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 16, 2003
Lead Article

‘Museum Friends’: Novel way to learn
Vikrant Bhasin

Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai
Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai

INDIAN tourists are never known to be great museum hoppers. Even locals would generally spend their Sundays with the family at the cinemas, amusement parks, shopping malls or wining and dining.... rather than visit the city museum.

In Mumbai, such behaviour becomes all the more apparent as all its museums bear a desolate look. Barring the occasional trickle of foreign tourists and conducted tours of school children in uniform, these repositories of India’s cultural heritage are neglected by the public at large.

All this would change very soon with the formation of Young Friends of Museums — a voluntary group of heritage activists, which has taken upon itself to popularise a "museum culture" in Mumbai’s populace with periodic lectures and workshops, heritage walks, art meets and the like.

"A museum can be a pretty intimidating place from the outside," says Tripti Dhawan, a ‘friend’ and former guide with the city’s Prince of Wales Museum. "What we are trying to do is generate some public interest through increased interaction with visitors... We are facilitators in this process."

Dhawan’s colleague, Neeta Premchand has already initiated some programmes to get children interested in the many wonders behind the glass panes. "Most kids consider the museum a drag," she observes. "They want to get through as fast as they can and be done with it. The challenge is to make a museum tour more like a treasure hunt for them."


In her first workshop recently, Premchand met with such enthusiastic response that some children had to be sent back because there was no place to accommodate them. " All I did was to narrate the story of Nala Damayanti and showed them a children’s book on Gandhiji," she says simply.

According to Dhawan, a couple of disturbing incidents recently led to a few like-minded friends getting together to work for museums from "outside the system". One was a news item about the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the second oldest in Asia after the Indian Museum in Kolkata, lying in total disrepair and neglect.

Nestled in the Byculla Zoo in down town Mumbai, the Bhau Daji edifice is named after the great doctor and educationist from Goa and houses some priceless ethnographic material, besides curios and artifacts collected by the British during the Raj years.

"It is jewel of a museum," Tasneem Mehta of the Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) points out. "But because of its derelict condition, it has long since fallen off the tourist path. Since the whole area in its neighbourhood is gentrifying, this will too."

Some time back, the industrial house of the Bajaj has rushed to its rescue and donated Rs 150 million towards the restoration of the building. Mehta says that the funds would be enough to dust off the cobwebs and let the gold gilding that covers almost 40 per cent of the building to shine through.

The second incident, although amusing, similarly reflects the utter ignorance and cultural apathy of the public towards museums in the city. Early last year, telephone lines of newspaper offices in the city were choked following the announcement of a documentary film screening, titled ‘Breasts’.

"Everybody wanted to know the address of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA)," narrates Dhawan. "They were all naturally, male callers. If it were not for the film screening at NGMA, they would probably not be even aware that such a huge complex existing in the city."

But then, Dhawan does not blame the public for its indifference towards cultural institutions. "Clearly, museums do not fit into their scheme of things," she explains. "The pressures of urban living are so strong that whatever free time they get, they would rather spend on entertainment, even if it means staying locked up at home, watching television."

The government too, has its limitations, she adds. "As it is, every museum in the city is going through a cash crunch and there is never enough funds of restoration and repair. Acquisitions come later. In such a depressing scenario, how’d you expect a public awareness campaign to be launched for pulling in crowds?"

With her group affiliated to the World Federation of the Friends of Museums, Dhawan is hopeful that its activities would gather momentum and in turn, attract public attention. The ultimate objective is to make this a "mass movement with people’s participation", she states.

(Maharaja Features)