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‘Museums are not merely storehouses of cultural relics,’ says Sabyasachi Mukherjee

As it turns 97, Sabyasachi Mukherjee of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, talks about how Mumbai’s largest museum has stayed relevant

Written by Pooja Pillai |
Updated: January 11, 2019 12:31:00 am
In 2017–18, the museum added 32 new exhibits to its collection received as gifts. Besides these, several display accessories were also purchased and received as gifts

Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) turned 97 on January 10. In an interview, Director General Sabyasachi Mukherjee talks about lessons learned since he took charge in 2007 and the road map ahead. Excerpts:

What are the lessons you’ve learned about running a museum in Mumbai?

There were many factors responsible for today’s state of affairs which we needed to study about modern museum practice. The challenges necessitating this are increased competition from other global museums, technological advancement, impact of the internet, static art collections and other resources, government indifference, inadequate human resources, lack of human interest and awareness, inefficient processes, fast-growing urban life, cultural conflict and world politics. With these in mind, the museum had taken adequate measures in 2008 to transform all its galleries, and its basic approach towards museum practice. The most difficult lesson was to transform the staff.

What has been key to making CSMVS relevant to Mumbai?

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We realised we had to modernise the museum — its display, maintenance, visitor facilities, education and security. The museum began its modernisation programmes 10 years ago with the idea to transform the museum from a national-level repository of antiquities to an institute of international standard. The main objectives were to make the museum visitor-friendly and also cater to a range of different visitor profiles, to create a clearer and better understanding of the collection and Indian arts in general, to strive towards high-quality educational programmes and outreach, to establish a state-of-the-art conservation studio for the preservation and conservation of its collection, to create a civic space for social debates and to initiate inter-cultural dialogue within different faiths. The modernisation plan has benefited almost a million people who visit this museum each year. It has also enhanced the image of the museum in India and the world.

Is the museum actively expanding its collections?

Our museum is perhaps one of the few museums in the country actively acquiring art. It purchases art objects from private collectors and licensed art dealers each year in consultation with experts and members of the art purchase committee. Besides antiquities, the museum also purchases contemporary miniatures, textiles, decorative art, contemporary crafts, and works in modern and tribal art forms. In 2016–17, the museum added 221 new exhibits to its collection, of which 205 were received as gifts. In 2017–18, the museum added 32 new exhibits to its collection received as gifts. Besides these, several display accessories were also purchased and received as gifts. Such accessories are important as they are useful to fill in the gaps in the narrative of various temporary and special exhibitions.

Is the museum’s collaborative model, which culminated in the ‘India and the World’ exhibition in 2017-18, going to be followed for future exhibitions?

To us, collaboration means friendship — a new relationship between institutes, organisations or individuals based on mutual trust and respect. The path-breaking exhibition ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’ for the first time in the history of museum movement in India, involved 28 Indian museums and three private collections.

What can we expect at the Children’s Museum, which will open this year?

The new Children’s Museum at CSMVS is going to create a model for the government as well as contemporary society. An attempt has been made to understand the importance of play and free environment in child development. We are planning to open it next month or the beginning of March. The Museum will be by the children, for the children. The first exhibition will be curated by a group of children who were selected through writing and painting competitions held at CSMVS. The CSMVS Children’s Museum will be an extension of the museum’s mandate to motivate learning through objects and artefacts in a fun-filled, interactive manner. It will display a collection of toys, children’s paintings along with some of CSMVS’ core collections such as miniature paintings, coins, natural history, and archaeological collections. Its objectives are to create a learning space for children, giving an opportunity for open-ended creative play that is free of performance scrutiny. It will be a space where children can seek answers in an experiential manner, and will introduce interdisciplinary creative experiences.

The museum has an extremely active education department. What role has it played in the museum’s own growth as an institution?

We have introduced a number of creative and innovative education programmes. The common thread connecting all the activities initiated by the Education Department of CSMVS has been a desire to rethink the role of a contemporary museum. We initiated Museum on Wheels (if you cannot come to the museum, the museum will come to you); Children’s Museum (by the children, for the children); School Education Programme; Academic Programme; and Metro City Outreach Programme According to me, museums are not merely storehouses of cultural relics but an archive of our tangible and intangible heritage and an innovation laboratory for the future.

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