Sunday, July 12, 2015

Remaking the Ajayab Ghar

If you walk into the National Museum in fall and winter, you will a sight that is less reminiscent of a place that houses over 3000 years of cultural heritage, and more like a prisoner of war camp. School children squatting down in hundreds in front of the entry, in lines, arranged in class and uniform, waiting to enter the museum. In the museum, they are chivvied along by a guide; in a single line, on an abrupt tour of the museum. The disinterest of the students is evident, as they chatter among themselves in front of sculptures of Buddha and paintings from the Mughal era. A reprimand from the chaperone silences them for scarcely a minute, and they are back at it again. We can scarcely blame them, for the blame lies on the museum professionals and the educators, who can not engage them enough. Parents in India often complain about the spoon feeding of students. A visit to the museum is ample demonstration that they are not being spoon fed, they are being force fed.

Educators frequently talk about a need for holistic education for the newer generation of Indian students, to free them from the tyranny of rote learning and regurgitation of facts. An important aspect of creating well rounded students is an appreciation of culture and the arts. Sadly, we as a nation have dropped the ball completely on the matter. Departments of museum studies in universities all over the country talk about the “new museology” and investigate the role of museums in the modern society. However, the practitioners, and by extension, the institutions of cultural heritage that they run, are still trapped in the hoary days when the museum was an Ajayab Ghar, a house of curiosities.

A museum is more then that. It is a space not only for curation, but also for creation of culture. We should not forget that the British Museum was host to the leading minds of the 19th century. Marx wrote Capital almost entirely in the library of the museum. The Smithsonian is not only the haunt of the cultural elite but a publishing house of valuable texts ,music and photographs. The Louvre and the Vatican Museum are must see affairs on any tourists itinerary. This is so because the museum serves an important role for all sections of society. For the powers that be, it is a means of creating and presenting a national identity, for the academics, it is an invaluable resource of objects and information; for the children and visitors, it is their first exposure to culture, art and beauty; and for the jobless, it it a wonderful opportunity to spend time in air conditioning. Purveyors of cheap air conditioning is the most charitable thing that can be said for most museums in India.

A museum should grapple with the creation of the cultural identity. An ideal museum and its staff should not only curate, but also aim to engage and educate. And of course, because all these things are done with the implicit support of the museum and all its backers, the museum serves as not only as a repository of culture, but also as a mascot and promoter of the culture and the people it represents. If applied to the museums in India, Indian culture to an unbiased visitor of our museums will appear half baked and poorly thought out.

I have spent a good chunk of last year at the National Museum in New Delhi, and have seen a fair amount of how the museum functions. The place is a wonderful showcase of all the bad things that can happen to a cultural institution.  There are galleries at the museum that are state of the art, with lighting that accentuates the objects, and audio-video resources to provide context to the objects. Recent short term exhibitions even feature resources in Braille for the visually handicapped. And right next to them are galleries that smell of mold, with fluorescent lighting, old paint, poor seating, and decaying objects. I still remember when I brought a friend from Nepal to the museum, and showed her the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro, a touchstone of Indian cultural history. In the next vitrine was a toppled terra-cotta sculpture with what appeared to be blue-tack on the base.

This institutionalized neglect is partially due to bloated bureaucracy. The National Museum is full of government servants with guaranteed term, and no motivation to apply themselves more than mandated in their job description, if they do even that. The National Museum Institute, a part of the museum, has 4 professors for 3 departments, and administrators in the double digits. The same can be said for the many wings and departments it has. The need of the hour is energy and drive, but the red tape hampers the forward movement of the National Museum. The government that proudly puts up billboards announcing “Make In India”, doesn't really expend similar energy preserving and displaying things that have been made in India.

It would be uncharitable to say that the National Museum hasn't been taking strides into the right direction in the past two years. Recent exhibitions on art from the Deccan, and musical instruments of the Indian east, have been spectacular. A summer program for children has also been started. These were put into being under the administration of Venu Vasudevan, whose unceremonious removal, (over a year before term,) was in the news recently. 

Venu, and his dismissal is symptomatic of the malaise that strikes deep in the bureaucratic cultural complex. Generally, the directors of the museum were drawn from the Archeological Survey of India, or were art historians. The ASI is the poster child for a moribund governmental organisation that has shown no energy or inspiration since it was formed, well over a century ago. A good metric of the culture of a place is the guidelines on how work is done. The ASI is still using preservation protocols proposed by Sir John Marshall in 1923. An audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India says it all:

“No mandatory requirements for inspection by Superintending Archaeologist were prescribed, Non preparation of inspection notes after site inspection, Absence of complete documentation of the works estimates, Faulty budgeting of the conservation works resulting in inclusion of extra items, Delays in completion of works and Non preparation of completion reports along with photographs after conservation.”

With such an entrenched culture of institutional lassitude and incompetence, it is fitting that the ASI offices are right next to the National Museum.

Venu was different, because he was not of the ASI, and nor was he an art historian, enmeshed in and co-opted by the system. He was a Secretary in the Ministry of Culture, an IAS officer from the Kerala cadre. He instated institutional oversight on all departments, and suddenly everybody had to hand in weekly reports on work done, which were not only read, but often sent back, with corrections

I remember hearing scuttlebutt that in one case, a department head was called up to the office and told that not only were there factual errors in the report, there were multiple spelling mistakes. This approach of due diligence and energy turned the museum around in the space of a year, and made Venu the darling of the press and the culturally inclined. It also made for a lot of internal resentment against an outsider who was coming in and making waves.

At the same time as Venu was being feted by the press because of the successful shows at the museum, he was also being invited to foreign symposiums, talking about public engagement processes like Yuva Sathi, a volunteer guide program, and the National Museum Institute, an institute of cultural and museum studies inside the museum. Yuva Sathi has been a widely celebrated program, drawing in volunteers ranging from college students, to retirees, and training them to be guides for the general public. Engaging the general public rejuvenated the museum and the increased visitor numbers were proof of the success of the program.

The National Museum Institute was, on the other hand, not such a glowing success. In principle, getting students of museum studies to engage with the museum during their studies and serve as sources of critique from within is a step in the right direction. Founded in the late 80's, it produced most of the practicing conservators in India, and a large amount of museologists and art historians. However in 2010, the NMI was in the list of 44 universities that were recommended for de-recognition by the HRD ministry. The Ministry in its report said that the universities were offering courses “fragmented with concocted nomenclatures” and taking on more students then their actual intake capacity. They "neither on past performance nor on their promise for the future have the attributes to retain their status as deemed to be universities". Even now, the three departments have only 4 professors teaching over 60 students and supervising additional PhD scholars.

Venu, of course, was the vice chancellor of the NMI, so it can be assumed that most of his energies were occupied in the matters of reigning in the rampant inactivity of the museum, otherwise in his characteristic fashion he would have turned the NMI around too. I am in no position to state whether his transfer to the sports ministry was politically motivated. I have talked to many people with opinions on both sides, but what I can say is this. The amount of control the present government is exerting on institutions is telling. The situation at FTII are enough proof that there is a deliberate agenda to mold cultural institutions to the party line. It is likely that Venu also fell victim to this Modification of Indian culture.

Much can be said for the propagation of a monolithic cultural ideology, and how it affects the real culture of a country. I still remember getting copies of Wendy Doniger's book on my email after it was banned in India, and reading about the protests against it. In taking to a hardline and foisting a saffronised version of our past on us, the government is doing our country a gross disservice. So how
does Venu fall in this scenario?

I have a pet theory. I firmly believe that institutions of culture, like museums, archives, theaters, concert halls and art galleries serve not only as places to transmit culture, but also to show people a different reality then what they are exposed to. Going to a museum or a gallery, you are faced with an object that forces you to engage and think critically about what the object entails and what created it. This also on occasion makes the viewer question the dominant narrative.

How do you stop that from happening? You could conduct Fahrenheit 451 style book burnings, or you could just make it so that that reading books is not an enjoyable experience. I feel that what Venu's work was doing was making the National Museum an engaging place where culture, and possibly dissent, could be had in the company of like minded people. Removing Venu made it so that the museum would drop back to the doldrums and stop being a place that could question the monolithic history and culture that is being foisted upon us. A wise man once said that an age is called dark not because the light stops falling, but because people refuse to see it. Maybe the powers that be are taking this to the heart.

Regardless of why Venu was transferred, the question here is can we learn from the things that he did in his tenure that did good for the National Museum. Having defunct galleries and being a glorified warehouse of antiquities was what the National Museum was known for, and in a short while this troubled institution was taking steps towards recovery. This was abruptly curtailed, and the future looks bleak.

I might have written a lot about the National Museum and Venu Vasudevan here, but this piece is not about them as much as it is about the museum movement in general in India. You can easily replace National Museum with the Salar Jung, the Indian Museum, the NGMA, or of your own city museum, and see the same problems, and come to similar conclusions. Mediocrity and bureaucratic inactivity are destroying the very concept of a museum as a place of cultural and civic engagement, and rendering them into mausoleums of cultural heritage.

I still remember to this day my trip to the Guwahati Museum. The building looked vaguely colonial and showed its age, and there was a ill maintained garden in the front. As I was passing through the musty galleries, an old Harappan pot caught my eye. When I was right next to the mirror looking down on the pot, I saw spirals on the inside. These spirals, called throwing marks, are the impressions of the potter's fingers formed on the insides of the pot as it is made on the wheel. I was suddenly struck with the thought that around 3000 years ago, there was a person, holding and manipulating a hunk of clay to make a pot. The pot probably shattered somewhere along the line, and by the time a conservator joined the pot to put it on display, all traces of this person; home, family,possessions, memories; all were lost. All that was left were imprints on a clay pot.

People often think of museums as places that serve as memento mori, full of remains of the past and of things of greatness that passed. I remember talking to a fellow of an advanced age who refused to enter the National Museum on the grounds that the place reminded him of his own mortality. A large part of going to the museum for me is not only going into an envelop of beauty and greatness that our collective humanity can achieve, but also coming to terms with the fact that even the great and the good can fall, and be remembered by nothing but scraps and remnants.Shelly's Ozymandias comes to mind.
“And on the pedestal these words appear:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Of course, museums all over India are not only full of things dead and decaying, but they are in a state of advanced decay themselves, and if we and the powers that be don't take action, with swiftness, energy and zeal, we might come to days when we ourselves may see our museums and places of cultural activity, and despair.

It is fitting that the National Museum is on a crossroads, between the Janpath, and the Rajpath in New Delhi. A place where the paths of the people and the government meet. Its blame for its state lies not only on the government, but also on the people. We all have let our cultural institutions down by being complacent about them and how they are run. And by letting them down, we have let But again, the crossroad metaphor comes in. We as a people are on this crossroads. It is on us to engage with our cultural history and the institutions that curate and mediate it. We can make a conscious choice to go the museum, to the archive, to the art gallery, and truly engage with it. And if we see something that is not up to the standards that the place deserves, we do something about it.

Complain to the curator, and the director of the place. Even the red tape ridden babus can not ignore irate museum goers picketing their offices, writing letters to the editors and sending in complaints to their bosses by the dozen.

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