A Repository for Emotions

Australia-based museum conservator Vinod Daniel on how museums can be more than exhibition sites.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Published:June 21, 2017 12:34 am
(From left): Vinod Daniel; a woman from the island of Vanavatu inspects bark clothing

From village crafts to submarines, museums are instruments for anecdotes. They sit on the fine line between being tourist attractions and centres of study. How then does one preserve its innate value as a culture’s conscience keeper? Vinod Daniel, Executive Board Member, International Council of Museums, and Chairman, AusHeritage, Australia’s International Cultural Heritage Network, was in Delhi recently. He shares how museums ought to be hungry for innovation, and autonomous enough to chart their own course. He is in the country for numerous projects in different cities such as Chennai, Jaipur, Kolkata and Hyderabad. His latest Hyderabad consultation was for an Egyptian mummy that was being preserved by the State Museum in Telangana.

Excerpts from an interview:

How did a chemical engineer from IIT Delhi get involved in museums?

My first real job was with the Getty Conservation Institute as Conservation Scientist, because they wanted someone with a chemical degree background. This is one of the high impact fields where you do a little work and you end up giving lectures and writing papers. I was offered a job at the Centre for Materials Conservation at the Australian Museum. I had wanted to work in the Pacific region, so I shifted base to Sydney in 1995. In these two decades, I have worked in over 45 countries. In India, on multiple projects including the Tagore Museum, Shantiniketan; the JC Bose Science Heritage Museum, Kolkata; and the Telangana State Museum.

How do Indian museums compare to others internationally?

Most international museums also double up as cultural centres. The minute you arrive there, you will see numerous shops selling replicas and prints of exhibits, there will be a café, where you could grab a drink. It’s a festive mood on weekends. In India, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), the old Prince of Wales museum is doing well. They had a strategy in place that began in the ’90s, it’s now that they see the fruits. Museums are long-term projects. You are competing with malls and amusement parks for footfall. Most of the museums in India haven’t evolved into a phase where they understand what the audience wants, and how to cater to those needs. Internationally, they focus on audience evaluation. It helps define the kind of shows that are presented, from the title to the themes, to even the text of the panels which are sometimes run past the audience. It brings a greater level of involvement and ownership.

What needs to be rectified?

Besides understanding the audience, museums need trained staff. Lack of training undercuts a range of stuff, from logistics to management, and conservation. There aren’t many courses, except for the one offered by National Museum, Delhi, where students can learn about art and cultural heritage. If Australia, a small country, has two full-fledged courses, India should have atleast eight. And lastly, granting autonomy to these institutions will make a difference.

What have been your memorable museum experiences?

There are many. But what stays with me are the ones where communities were involved. I have been fortunate to work in the Pacific, where you hear and see so much. There was this one instance when a museum artefact was taken out for a traditional dance. It’s also a part of repatriation. It’s instances like these that create emotions, which trigger creativity. Another time, the elders of a tribe had visited a museum which exhibited traditional bark clothing. They spent about five to six weeks, and then returned to their villages to recreate it. Of course, its success is that they can sell it. It won’t be an exact replica, but a tradition is reborn.

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