Search for a soul
A government-appointed committee has recommended a massive upgradation project to make the country’s most important museums in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai more popular for visitors. The Tribune reporters check out the situation at the ground level

Old museum, new look
Shiv Kumar

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum, formerly the Victoria and Albert Museum, the oldest in Mumbai got a facelift as part of a joint effort by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The museum was originally built in 1872 after the one in London by the former British colonial rulers as a mark of honour to Queen Victoria. The museum itself is situated in the middle of the Jijamata Udyan or Victoria Gardens, also known as the Byculla Zoo.

The building itself is a quiet unassuming single-storey structure with elegant arches, slender pillars and wrought-iron railings typical of the mid-19th century. After the restoration, the yellow paint has been peeled off and the original gold ornamentations that embellish the interiors of the museum have been brought to light. The museum was first conceived of in the 1840s when the city, then known as Bombay, came into hands of the East India Company from the Portuguese. However it took several years for the East India Company and the subsequent British administration to formally set up the facility. Help came from prominent businessmen of Mumbai like Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Framji Nusserwanji. One of the earliest supporters was Bhau Daji Lad who originally conceived of naming the museum after Queen Victoria. According to officials at the museum, one of the most priceless collections in its archives is the history of the communities that migrated from across the country to the city. Rare maps and old manuscripts that form the facility’s treasure trove have been restored with care.

Mumbai’s mayor Dr Shubha Raul says the civic body has decided to hire the services of trained museumologists. Earlier there were 25 employees of the BMC with little expertise in running a museum. The new staff include two assistant curators, four technical assistants and six gallery assistants."All of them have been trained in understanding the importance of the artefacts store in the museum," says U. S. Tiwari, chief curator of the museum. A "conservancy laboratory" has been set up to repair and restore damaged objects within the museum premises, says Tiwari. The museum has a collection of 3,500 artefacts and 300 pieces of furniture. For the first time in its history, the museum has established a "conservancy laboratory" within its premises to repair and restore damaged art objects. The museum got the UNESCO award for heritage conservation. It was inaugurated and thrown open to the public recently.

Revamp required
Parbina Rashid

Space constraints affect the display at Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh
Space constraints affect the display at Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh. — Photo by Pradeep Tewari

LOOKING at the beautiful campus of the Government Museum and Art Gallery in Sector 10, one often wonders what has actually gone wrong with this Le Corbusier’s creation. A total number of 36,000 visitors last year which came in two clusters —12,000 from January to September which fortunately rose to 24,000 within the months of November and December. And to believe its Director V.N. Singh, this is one of the highest figures the museum has recorded in the recent past.

Chandigarh itself is not a happening place as a tourist destination. Despite being the gateway to many a scenic tourist spots of the North, the city has remained just that — a gateway. And this is what is being reflected in the museum’s visitor’s book.

A matter of concern, more so, as Chandigarh is all poised to attain world heritage city status. The museum building happens to be one of the few original buildings designed by Corbusier!It has an enviable collection of Gandhara sculptures (601in total), the second largest collection in India and about 5,000 Indian miniatures. A round of the museum from a visitor’s perspective brings forward the lacunae.

First of all its location. Though centrally located, the fact remains that this area looks a little isolated. Without life the sprawling campus that houses the Art Gallery, the Natural History Museum and the Chandigarh Architecture Museum, it looks eerie. Even sound and light shows have not been able to attract much crowd.

A good cafeteria and a souvenir shop, which will not just cater to the tourists but also the locals, will add some life to the museum. Inside the spirit dampens looking at the tired faces of the officials. The space constraint is evident from too many exhibits placed in each section, giving it a cramped feeling. "We are trying to accommodate more and more art objects by relocating the previous exhibits," says Singh. However, their efforts have not yielded much as only 200 Gandhara sculptures and 150 miniature paintings are on display. It takes more than just a good collection or a good display to attract people. There have to be interactive activities. At the National Museum of Tokyo, the authority makes it a rule to give a sketch-book, pencils and colours to each visiting child. The purpose is to attract youngsters.

Rich treasure, poor display
Vibha Sharma

The National Museum in Delhi looks more like a fortress
The National Museum in Delhi looks more like a fortress. — Photo by Mukesh Aggarwal

On the surface there seems nothing wrong with the National Museum in Delhi. The grand building on Janpath has in its possession over 2,06,000 works of exquisite art. The works, both of Indian and foreign origin, cover more than 5,000 years of India’s rich, bold and varied culture. This treasure has been scientifically categorised and displayed in wide galleries on three floors of the building.

The galleries showcase ancient Harappan civilisation, Buddhist art, Indian miniature paintings, evolution of Indian scripts and coins, decorative art, jewellery, pre-Columbian and western art, wood carvings, musical instruments, traditional lifestyle of the North-East. Each artifact has a piece of history attached, a story to tell.

The museum regularly holds exhibitions. Till January 20, there was an exquisite display of Tapi collection "In adoration of Krishna- Pichcwais of Shrinathji". Before that there was a display of Nizam of Hyderabad’s awesome jewellery.

The museum has facilities of guided tours, film shows, also a decent cafeteria that serves hot coffee besides reasonably-priced South Indian food, buffet lunch, snacks and soft drinks. The building is grand, the location is superb, the entry fee very affordable even by Indian standards. Just Rs 10 for Indian citizens and Rs 150. Students have to pay Re 1 to enter the museum. Yet something is amiss. Even for someone not so culturally inclined, the National Museum somehow appears to be lacking a soul. National Museum Director (Exhibitions and PR) RRS Chauhan says that on an average, the museum gets around 1,000 visitors every day. A walk around the museum shows that most visitors are foreigners. A couple of Indian visitors around seem either to be students or young couples who appear to be wandering around aimlessly.

Incidentally, the Louvre Museum of France attracts around 50,000 visitors every day. Perhaps the problem begins at the beginning, at the entrance of the heavily-guarded building. The parking space, for instance, is a narrow space that the museum shares with its neighbour, the Archaeological Survey of India. Security threats have ensured that the building looks more like a fortress than a place that houses art and artefacts of a culturally-rich nation.

Uniformed guards complete with metal detectors are the first people visitors encounter. After that they are everywhere. The fact that the museum is a government institution and not a sleek, beautiful place for a quick rewind into the past is further magnified by the unsmiling and bored staff. Chauhan admits the museum doesn’t get the public attention it deserves. "Why talk about visitors from outside Delhi, many Delhites would not have seen it. The museum does not attract many people and it is not because we do not have enough artefacts. Our inventory has quantity as well as quality works. But we do need to improve the way we display the objects, in terms of space, lighting and colour schemes`85and for that we need money. The fact is that we have no financial powers to make the changes we would like to see".

To make any changes or reforms, the museum authorities have to approach the government and anyone with even the slightest knowledge of working of government departments will know how long, how tedious the exercise can be. "The system is like that. There is no reward for good work, there is no punishment for defaulters. We are government servants first. I would like to discard wooden showcases and get the ones that are moisture and dust proof. Today there is technology that ensures that electric lighting will not harm artefacts on display and prolong their life. Ideally we would like to move in the direction that if the museum wants to organise an exhibition we should be in position to get the best writer, outsource, but`85"Actually it is "but" that sums it all up.

The fact, however, is that let alone modernise or get technologically upgraded display windows, believe it or not the National Museum that was thrown open to the public on December 18, 1960, is still not complete, even after 50 years.

Number of visitors shrinking; children’s museum holds appeal
Arup Chanda

The children’s museum is a hit with visitors
The children’s museum is a hit with visitors. — Photo by Sriram Selvaraj

The 156-year-old Government Museum in Chennai is perhaps one of the oldest in Asia. Though set up by the British in 1851, it took more than 45 years to construct the impressive building and formally open it.

The museum was formally opened on December 5, 1896, by Sir Arthur Elibank Havelock, the then Governor and named after its progenitor, Lord Connemara, Governor of Madras. Designed by H.Irvin, the then Consulting Architect to the Government of Madras, it had a magnificent hall with a splendid reading room and beautiful teak wood shelves, which still exist.

Initially, the museum also had a small zoo with a young cheetah and a tiger and an aquarium and drew large number of visitors particularly on Sundays. However, later the zoo and the aquarium were shifted.

The museum has nine sections: archeology, anthropology, art, numismatics, botany, zoology, geology, children’s museum and chemical conservation.

The museum has an impressive collection of world famous South Indian bronzes, Amaravati sculptures, Tanjore armoury, inscriptions on stones and copper plates, the Dowleshwaram hoard of gold coins of Raja Raja I and Kulothunga I, the Chengam hoard of copper coins, artefacts from the megaliths of Adichanallur, the Bruce Foote Collection of prehistoric stone implements, Roman and other artefacts from the famous site of Arikamedu (near Pondicherry), the exquisite crystal reliquaries from the Bhattiprolu Stupa and the enormous skeleton of the whale obtained from the shore near Mangalore.

The number of visitors in the museum, however, has been dwindling over the past years. Tourists who come to Chennai hardly visit the museum. On a weekend, the museum does draw more visitors but they are mostly students from various parts of Tamil Nadu who are brought in batches in buses as part of their excursion or study tours.

Said T. Kruttika, a Class XII student from a village in Tirunelveli in southern Tamil Nadu who visited Chennai for the first time, "I am amazed to find so many things to learn in one place inside such a huge building. But we have too little time to see everything in all the sections."

People living in Chennai hardly visit the museum. But the sprawling garden around the museum with huge trees is a popular joint for young couples and college students seeking privacy.

According to Thiru Devadas, who manages the ticket counter at the museum, "During season, which is in winter, if it does not rain then the daily sale of tickets is around 500 only. On Sundays and holidays, the figure reaches between 1,000 and 1,500 but that too if batches of students and children are brought here."

It is the children’s museum which is the star attraction for most visitors. Other than the galleries which consists of various sections like civilisation, science and technology, the costume dolls gallery is where most of the kids throng. It has dolls from all states in India.

There is also a fountain operated by solar power and water pumping unit operated by windmill, and life-size tyrannosaurus and stegosaurus fibre glass models — added attractions of the children’s museum.

In dire need of a makeover

The Indian Museum in Kolkata requires renovation
The Indian Museum in Kolkata requires renovation

Prior to the stealing of Tagore’s Nobel Prize medallion from Visva Bharati at Santiniketan on March 25, 2004, there were a series of incidents wherein rare items like Buddha’s bronze statue and other antiques from the country’s oldest and largest museum in Kolkata went missing. The missing medallion went unnoticed since there was not much hue and cry. Following the CBI probe, the security arrangements at Kolkata museum which had been altogether neglected throughout were tightened. The museum authorities also adopted several measures to maintain the museum assets and properties so that the museum could draw more visitors on all the days of the week. It was felt that research scholars could benefit by using valuable historical documents, relics and antiques preserved at the museum as source material.

The Indian Museum in Kolkata was set up on February 2, 1814 at the Asiatic Society premises on Park Street by Dr Nathaniel Wallich, a botanist at Serampore. He, incidentally, was the Museum’s first curator. Prior to the foundation of Calcutta museum, eight other museums were built at London, Vienna, Philadelphia, Paris, Holland, Budapest, Pennsylvania and Denmark between 1759 and 1807. But in the early days, both London Museum and Calcutta Museum were considered to be the best, what with well-preserved valuables and rare historical documents and relics.

Nowadays, though the London museum has still maintained its past glory, the Indian museum in Kolkata, has lost it. Still the country’s oldest and largest national museum in Kolkata, located in the Chowringhee area on J.L.Nehru Road opposite to the maidan, occupies a special position. It is a tourist attraction in a city, where hundreds of foreigners and other people from the rest of the country throngnot only for the sight-seeing but also for gathering knowledge and experience. The Indian museum in the city which was shifted to a splendid mansion at Chowringhee from the Asiatic Society premises some time in 1878, now exhibits the Egyptian mummy, Buddhist stupa, the Buddhist ashes and the Ashoka pillar whose three-lion symbol is the official symbol of the Republic of India. Several fossils and skeletons of dinosaurs, an art collection, rare antiques and a collection of meteorites enrich the museum. The museum library contains over 50,000 rare books and other valuable documents of historical importance. While during the pre-Independence and post-Partition period the museum in Kolkata occupied a unique position as a knowledge-bank in the country and elsewhere in the world, these days, it is considered the most neglected and ill-managed national institution. Both the Centre and the state government have not paid much attention to either upgrade or modernise the museum.

As result, the number of visitors has gradually declined and the research scholars and students too become disinterested. Tourists also started skipping the Indian museum and preferred visiting Calcutta Zoo, Victoria Memorial etc. The museum authorities hope after the modernisation and renovation programme, the Kolkata mueum will regain its past position and emerge as a major attraction for people from within the country and abroad.