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One does not really have to be a history specialist to realise how exotic remnants of the past are dispersed all over the Indian landscape. Be it magnificent monuments, age old aristocratic artefacts or objects of ancient religious significance, the past is forever in a consistent silent conversation with the present in India. In such an atmosphere of charged historicity, it becomes all the more important to preserve and relish vestiges of antiquity that do not just remind one of their roots, but can also have a rational dialogue with the community.
Australia-based museologist and conservator Vinod Daniel has been working on restoration projects in India and in several other countries for a while now. He currently chairs the AusHeritage, an Australian government supported network consisting of 40 conservation institutes. In recent times, the organisation has been working in collaboration with the Indian bodies to restore some of the best known heritage sites in India. Projects include the Indian museum in Kolkata, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai among several others.
In conversation with Indianexpress.com, Daniel speaks about the urgent need for museums in India to address challenges of audience and community involvement, a need for a strong leadership and staffing and also the extent to which repatriation of objects that are situated abroad matter. He also spoke about why museums are necessary for efficient nation building and what India can learn from museums abroad.
Why are museums important for nation building?
First of all, we need to know a bit about where we came from. We cannot completely do away with it. Look at ISIS, it’s trying to destroy the past, because they want to recreate history. We don’t want that to happen to the past of India. Secondly, coming to hardcore facts, it’s going to bring money. When tourists come to a country, they want to go to places where they can get things in a snapshot. They want to understand the history a little. The government needs to realise the monetary value of developing museums in the country.
What are the biggest challenges facing museums in India?
There are six major challenges facing Indian museums right now:
# It is very important that they appoint a permanent director. Across the country, most museums don’t have a director. You look at most western museums, they have a director for 4 or 5 years; because it takes some time to transform a vision to reality.
# In India all museums always report to the government. I think that is a challenge. If you look at museums around the world they have a degree of autonomy. They don’t report to the government of the day but to a board. It gives a certain degree of freedom in how they operate. So it’s not controlled by the agenda of the government, and that’s quite essential.
#You need the right staffing. Most staff in museums here do not have the capacity to be part of the museum. Part of the problem is with the system. A lot of them come through UPSC and then having the necessary skill set is not part of the selection criteria. A proper selection process needs to be put into place.
#One of the things that should be done is that they really need to figure out what would make museums more attractive for audience to come, and feel connected.
# In terms of collections, it’s going to reach a stage where they really need to prioritise what they are collecting. Museums need to rethink in terms of how they manage this whole aspect. In the West, many museums would have a collection development strategy. What they do is only a certain kind of collection can come under a certain museum, if not they can go somewhere else.
#The last point is important to most developing countries and not just India. That is the issue of intangible cultures- dances, stories etc.I think the museums need to bring the intangible aspects to the fold. It will drive more audience.
You have worked on museums in a number of countries around the world. Which countries would you say have the best methodology in sustaining museums? What can India learn from them?
You need to get your own model, but as part of the model you need to pick some of the best practices from other places. Singapore would be a good example to be inspired from in terms of how the museum sector was made an important part of nation building. In terms of audience engagement, I think the museums in London are a very good example. In terms of how museums connect to communities and societies, a lot of the Ireland’s museums are very good examples.
Is there an edge that museums in India have over those around the world?
At this point I don’t think from a museum side we have an edge. But we do have an edge on the intangible heritage part where museums are not involved. If you look at our dance forms and art forms; that is what the whole world comes here to see. Museums in India are incorporating very little of that. They need to find a way that objects can connect with dance forms and history. For instance, there might be a range of textiles that a museum has collected, but they no longer exist at present anymore. They might be able to bring in the community that produced it originally to recreate it again.
There is a lot of discussion about repatriation of artefacts that have been taken from India by Britain, in particular the Kohinoor. Do you think they should be returned to India?
With the whole issue of repatriation, you got to draw a line somewhere. It depends on what the case is for bringing it back and there you draw a line. Say for instance the case of Subhash Kapoor, it is clear that things were stolen and need to be returned. All over the world, there have been so many objects that have gone back forth. In any country there would be objects from other countries. But you got to draw a line somewhere and figure out what is right. As long as they are maintained well anywhere in the world, we probably should be quite happy to just have it and may be get it on a travel exhibition sometime.