To roll out the red carpet for the seventh Non-Aligned Movement Summit held in New Delhi in March 1983, the National Museum in Delhi had mounted an impressive exhibition titled ‘Masterpieces of South Indian Bronzes’, a breathtaking selection of more than 80 metal sculptures from the Pallava and Chola dynasties of Tamil Nadu. A review that appeared in a publication described it as ‘a show to beat all shows, that is not only painstakingly put together but presented in so professional a manner that it easily competes with the best of art shows anywhere in the world’. The exhibition was widely regarded as a trailblazer that promised a revival of an institution housing the finest of Indian art.
In 2010, a Unesco report came out with an assessment of the National Museum. This is what it had to say: ‘The museum building and facilities visibly lack maintenance. The lift is not operational, spotlights have no bulbs, wall paint has peeled off and the auditorium has tattered seats…. Proper signage is missing for each gallery. And despite the size of the museum, there isn’t enough space for people to sit and relax.’ Even as early as 2013, media reports decried the abysmal state of upkeep and display of rare documents and objects at the Museum, as the Manuscripts gallery, the Decorative Arts gallery and the Central Asian Antiquity gallery were shuttered for years.
But the Museum was in the spotlight again in 2014 for hosting what was hailed as one the biggest ever exhibitions of Indian art; titled ‘The Body in Indian Art’, it was an extraordinary showcase of 300 artefacts culled from 44 collections, all put together to explore the place and meaning of ‘the body’ over 4,000 years of artistic endeavour. The show signalled an image makeover of sorts for the National Museum as it continues to strive for greater visibility, and attempts to stay relevant at a time when museums around the world are redefining their existence to become active intellectual and social spaces. Jawhar Sircar, CEO of Prasar Bharati and former Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, speaks of some key factors for the resurgence of the National Museum, “Change in leadership being the most important, followed by the application of Museum Reforms Agenda (2009) and training of hand-picked museum officials from India, in collaboration with the British Museum.” After many setbacks and episodes of internal rivalry at the Museum, Sircar claims, they found the man for the job—Venu Vasudevan, the Museum’s director general who came on board in 2013 as a part-timer and later in 2014 on a full-time basis.
In his spacious office on the first floor of the Museum, Venu Vasudevan does not betray any of the self-satisfied nonchalance usually associated with senior bureaucrats. Comfortably dressed in smart casuals, the 50-year-old bespectacled man, a 1990-batch IAS officer of the Kerala cadre, is articulate, watchful, patient and—most importantly—receptive. While his predecessors were primarily concerned with keeping things the way they were, Vasudevan has approached the management of the National Museum like a passion project, drawing on his rich pool of relevant experience. A former joint secretary in the Ministry of Culture, Vasudevan has had successful stints at the Department of Tourism, Kerala, as well the Tourism Ministry of India. He played an important role in the ‘Incredible India’ campaign, and has helped get the Kochi Biennale going as well. This explains his penchant for ‘visitor first’ strategies, the payoffs of which are evident. Unlike in the past, a visit to the Museum is a lively and friendly experience. An assessment of feedback forms over the last two years has consistently registered an upward swing on visitor satisfaction metrics, also revealing a 60 per cent footfall increase since 2013.
An active thespian, Vasudevan still performs with his theatre group Abhinaya, a hobby that perhaps makes him all the more appreciative of an institution that holds over 210,000 objects of art spanning 5,000 years of Indian civilisation, a museum that has on display the ‘Dancing girl’, the most iconic figure of Harappan era art, the ‘sacred remains’ of Gautam Buddha, and the world’s largest collection of Indian miniature paintings, among various masterpieces.
From reopening six galleries that had stayed closed for years to refashioning the rotunda at the heart of the Museum as a garden cafe, Vasudevan’s achievements in his stint so far have been impressive. “I am a nutcase for museums,” he says, “The Met and the British Museum are two of my favourites. These are two museums which inspire me day in and day out. Every time I visit those museums, I come back with 10 things to do for the National Museum.”
Today, the Museum shop has expanded to include more replicas, guide books, catalogues and other scholarly publications; previously unusable washrooms have been spruced up; there are more coolers for drinking water; half the exhibition galleries today have LED lights. “Now if there is one light that is not working, the curator gets a rap on his knuckles,” says Vasudevan. The Museum’s signage system is also set to be refurbished by the end of this year. “After this, find one spelling mistake and I will give you a gift,” says the director general. The volunteer guide scheme, under which trained volunteers lead clueless visitors on informed tours of the Museum, has been a runaway success since it was first introduced in 2013. A whistle-stop tour can be had with the aid of a funky yellow guide book called The Museum in Ninety Minutes. In addition, there are fancier guide books that run into hundreds of pages.
With the creation of the Museum’s Outreach Department last year, press coverage has received a boost. Over the past two years, it has hosted eight exhibitions, compared to a mere six in the entire decade before 2012. The calendar for the next two years is packed with exhibitions to be mounted in two newly built galleries. In 2014, the Museum initiated a series of public talks—its National Museum Lecture series, Conservation talks and Art History and Archaeology talks—all delivered by eminent scholars on topics as diverse as ‘Amravati Stupa: Early Excavation and Interpretation’ to ‘Iconic Contemporary Artists of India’. There are symposiums around ongoing exhibitions, dance performances and music shows as part of a special Performance Art series, apart from short courses on Indian Art, weekend activities for children, and fortnightly screenings of Indian movies.
Interestingly, all the exhibitions held in the past two years have sought external expertise for their conception, design and curation. “Earlier, we were quite reluctant to share our resources with others,” says Vasudevan, “We did not have the spark of new experiences here.” Under his direction, the Museum now actively collaborates with experts—from scholars to professional exhibition designers—to re-mount old collections with new perspectives. Several of the shows have sought to create unique experiences— by employing iPads, for instance, to help visitors browse through an ancient manuscript encased in glass, or having an audio clip of a dhrupad recital to go with a show on Deccani art. The thoughtful execution of ‘The Body in Indian Art’ was a fine example of the Museum’s effort to engage an audience in new ways. “Objects were juxtaposed so as to lead the viewer into making connections between diverse ideas,” says Naman Ahuja, the curator of that exhibition.
Even though the National Museum does not yet have a definite digital strategy in place, it has already changed the look and feel of its once banal website. Its social media presence has been enhanced with the use of Facebook and Twitter. The Museum has a target of digitising at least 20,000 of its best art objects by the end of the year, apart from holding five online exhibitions. In the meanwhile, a National Museum mobile app is on its way.
There is surely room for further upgradation. As Ahuja points out, “We underestimate the amount of work and energy it takes to make sustainable exhibitions. Museums in India are not familiar with the technology necessary for displays: using soundscapes in exhibitions, or making interactive exhibitions or using lighting that can change luminosity periodically so as to sustain the lowered exposure some artworks demand.” Effective curation is another area that may require attention. Ahuja emphasises the need for curators to understand and communicate the contemporary importance of ancient objects. “The Museum bears the responsibility of being both the keeper of peoples’ identities and memories as well as the state of knowledge in society.”
The National Museum’s revival has coincided with similar success stories at other museums in the country. Eminent art historian BN Goswamy says that he has seen a marked change in the way a clutch of museums in India have been functioning. “There is a stirring in the museum field today as some of them are turning into centres of culture. For example, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai has expanded enormously with its range of activities. It is a transformed institution today—an inviting place to go. The international community of museums is now taking a serious note of some of these museums in India and this is extra- ordinary.” Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum and The Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad are two other museums that Goswamy believes are reinventing themselves imaginatively. The National Museum, he says, has undeniably begun the process of discarding its old skin.
Vasudevan is well aware that the National Museum is not in the same league as the Met or British Museum, but that doesn’t unduly bother him. For he knows that all the greatest museums in the world—big or small—work on the same premise: to create experiences for the visitor. So when he says, “A museum is only as good as its connect with the audience”, you can be sure that the National Museum’s revival is for real.