Neil MacGregor,director of the British Museum,has many tips up his sleeve to make trips to museums attractive
It took Neil MacGregor 100 objects from the large collection of the worlds first public museum the British Museum to bring history to life in the celebrated book,A History of the World,and a BBC Radio series of the same name. Director of the British Museum,MacGregor is currently in India to conduct a trainee leadership programme as part of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Ministry of Culture (India) and the British Museum. During an interview,he talks about incorporating the modern museum experience into Indias unparalleled collection,bringing the exhibition of one of the museums most iconic possession Cyrus Cylinder to Mumbai,and how 20 objects tell the story of Shakespeare in his latest book. Excerpts:
How will the programme contribute to Indian museums?
The idea is to create strategies and a sustainable programme that would enable the museums to help engage with the public. We are training curators and conservators to manage a museum and build a pool of such museum managers for the near future. Through this programme,we want Indian museums to equip themselves for a modern museum experience,thereby getting a 360 degree expertise around its collection be it the display,marketing,technical aspects or merchandise which then reaches out to people through social media,radio and others. The recent Mummy: The Inside Story exhibition is an example where different storytelling techniques (3D films,interactive programmes for children) along with a well-charted strategy attracted many visitors to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS).
How has role of the museums changed over decades?
The purpose of the museum hasnt changed,but the world has. That has led to changes in the way stories need to be told. Another important fact is that objects can now travel,which was technically impossible before. The modern museum experience started with the historic Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972 at the British Museum. There were hundreds of thousands of people visiting the museum. It made the museums realise that the public has an enormous appetite for stories.
Can you tell us more about how the programme is being conducted?
There were 20 museum professionals in the first module of our programme that took place last year in Delhi. This years version has the same module,except that five of the professionals from last year will be teaching the new batch. The focus is on strategising the exhibitions this is something that the Indian museums dont do often. Its a paradox because unlike Singapore or Abu Dhabi,which have been trying to build a collection,India has a spectacular collection. It is not just to analyse who comes to museums,but also who doesnt,and why not? It is really like market analysis in a sense. One of the exercises that I used in the training programme was asking each of the museums to choose any one object from their collection and to build an exhibition around it.
How different is the average museum-goer in India from the one in London?
Pretty much the same. There too,parents take their children to the museum. But its the museums job to attract audience by finding out what people dont know but want to see.
Your book A History of the World in 100 Objects was a critical and commercial success. Tell me about your latest book,Shakespeares Restless World.
In this book,Ive tried to uncover Shakespeares plays through 20 objects. The playwright helped commercialise theatre that was earlier being written only for the elite. His plays featured both grandeur and the downtrodden. I have taken references from his various texts and linked them to the objects.
Which is the next exhibition that the British Museum is planning to put up in Mumbai?
We will be bringing down the Cyrus Cylinder as part of a travelling exhibition to CSMVS this year. It is an important document of human history where Cyrus,the king of Persia,made the great declaration of putting the state before religion. It will be especially significant for the Parsis in the city.
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