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‘When the situation improves, people will visit museums… culture gives us hope’: Sabyasachi Mukherjee

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general of the 98-year-old museum, tells The Indian Express that the institution has incurred a loss of over Rs 10 crore, but the people of Mumbai rose to the occasion by adopting galleries and artifacts to help tide over the Covid-19 lockdown.

Written by MAYURA JANWALKAR | Mumbai |
Updated: November 30, 2020 9:21:17 am
Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Maharashtra coronavirus crisis, Maharashtra Mseum, Mumbai news, Maharashtra news, Indian express newsSabyasachi Mukherjee

Home to about 50,000 artefacts, including sculptures, bronzes and excavations from Harappan sites, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) that has an annual footfall of about a million, has not had any visitor since March. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general of the 98-year-old museum, tells The Indian Express that the institution has incurred a loss of over Rs 10 crore, but the people of Mumbai rose to the occasion by adopting galleries and artifacts to help tide over the Covid-19 lockdown.

CSMVS has been closed for over eight months. When is it expected to reopen?

The museum has been closed to the public since March 15 and completely shut since March 21. We are going to reopen the museum in a phased manner. In the first phase, we have opened our museum shop and library. From the first week or second week of December, we are going to share a part of the garden with friends and well-wishers. Two families can come at a time and spend the day. In phase two, we also plan to open six galleries. They are ready, but we are awaiting directives from the state government. Since management undertook the conservation project of the big building (Grade 1 heritage structure), after observing the situation, by May or June 2021, we will open another six galleries. We have 18 galleries in all. In the third and final phase, when we complete the renovation of the main building, may be in January 2022, we will open the entire museum. On January 10, 2022, we will be celebrating our centenary.

What is the plan for reopening the museum?

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We are ready to open and have developed a post-Covid strategy, an SOP (standard operating procedure) for staff and for visitors that we shared with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums. We have decided that a maximum of 20 visitors will be allowed to visit galleries and, when they come out, we allow another set. If you allow people in groups of 20 to visit in a time-bound manner, give them two hours, offer guided tours, it is much safer than many other places. We’ve opened the museum shop and library, but hardly any people are coming. People have to visit markets to buy vegetables, but Indians are not museum-going people. Our anticipation is that few people will visit initially and with no ‘Mumbai Darshan’ (sightseeing tours), we will be losing tourists for at least one more year.

During lockdown, what challenges did you face with the maintenance of artefacts and antiquities?

We are fortunate because we are one of the pioneering institutes in the country. We created a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled storage space. Few museums in the country have such facilities. Despite staff shortage, we moved all important objects to a safe storage place. Safety was a prime concern. During April-May, only four residential members would move all the objects. In September, when the government considered relaxation, our staff started visiting. We moved all the inorganic material to climate control storage space, particularly miniatures and textiles. We emptied our galleries. There are galleries with air-conditioning but, with no maintenance staff, we decided we could keep things in one storage area that could be maintained regularly. We have 300 staffers, including permanent and contractual staff. In our first meeting for risk assessment, we decided not to discontinue any staff member. Some of our staff gave 10 per cent of their salary, some senior members gave 30 per cent and even some pensioners sent cheques.

What is the scale of revenue losses and what is the path to recovery?

A museum like ours, unaided by the government, has not generated any income. Like other institutes, we also suffered a lot. In eight months, the museum lost over Rs 10 crore. We have developed our strategy for recovery. We faced challenges initially during lockdown like non-availability of human resources, anxiety, mental health, non-availability of funds and uncertainty about the future. We did some risk assessment towards the end of March. We realised the museum will not do any business for a year and the present budget had no meaning. We started looking at how we can cut down our administrative expenditure. We approached our friends and well-wishers and came up with a scheme. For three categories of objects – treasures, masterpieces and antiquities – we approached people and said if you adopt a treasure for two years, you donate Rs 5 lakh, for a masterpiece Rs 2 lakh and for an antiquity, not historically significant, Rs 50,000. We came up with a scheme requesting people, corporates to adopt an entire gallery and we acknowledge it. And we are grateful to the people of Mumbai. They came around and adopted important objects and galleries. A little over 100 people supported us. It was not an easy job during the pandemic.

Museums across the world have gone digital. Is that the way forward?

My observation is completely different. When the situation improves, people will visit museums and monuments. It’s an organic experience and culture gives us hope. I don’t think that post-Covid people won’t visit the institute and that everyone will enjoy technology. They are all getting bored with technology. People would like to go out, interact with others, see beautiful things. It’s human nature and, particularly Indians, they always expect the organic experience. Technology is playing a positive role at the moment in reaching out to people. In the future, for certain programmes, we will take the help of technology but it is not an alternative to physical space.

Are there any concerns about re-opening the children’s museum?

Reopening the children’s museum depends on the state’s directives. If the state allows children to visit public places, we have already developed an SOP for them. We will have to restrict the number of children visiting the museum. Maximum eight to 10 children will be allowed at a time. If they come with parents, if we follow proper SOPs, then I don’t see a problem.

Going forward, what role will the museum play in the city?

The museum is an open space for conversation, which you need at the moment. Culture makes us resilient and that is something we should not forget.

Culture is also an important ingredient for human development and growth. When you come to a museum or any cultural institute, library or archives or performing arts, you tend to forget all your stress and absorb the beauty, joy and happiness.

Were new acquisitions interrupted by the pandemic?

To date, we have not received any offer from any collector. At the moment, nothing is happening but as a part of our international projects, we are creating a section for world history. It is a part of Getty’s Ancient Worlds Now. In collaboration with Getty, we are creating more space for the ancient world where people will get to see ancient civilisations, an interconnected world, how India connected with the rest of the world form pre-historic times to 5th to 6th century AD. That is shaping up well and it is going to be the first ancient world gallery in India, highlighting the contribution of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Few people know how the Harappans connected with the rest of the world. It might take a little time, but it is a part of our centenary project. Towards the end of 2022, we are aiming at opening a new gallery dedicated to the ancient world. It will include some antiquities and artefacts from the British Museum. They have agreed to give us a number of objects.

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