The National Museum of Natural History is a popular museum, especially for schoolchildren. The fire that broke out in the early hours of April 26, spread to five of the six floors that the museum occupies, and large parts of its collections were destroyed. As the Union environment minister observed, “The museum is a national treasure. The loss cannot be quantified.” One shudders to think of the dimensions of the tragedy if the fire had broken out during working hours. It takes a disaster of this devastating scale for the concerned ministry — of environment, forests and climate change — to take note and initiate a review of fire safety at the 34 museums under its charge.
But what of all the other public museums in the country, which come under a variety of ministries? One can safely assume that most of our public museums would perform miserably in a fire audit. And what of all the other disasters happening and waiting to happen? Like fire, water leakages and flooding can wreak enormous and immediate damage, to museum collections and the public. Inappropriate sewage and drainage systems, unhygienic and offensive garbage disposal arrangements, including heaps of junk and malba that are left to lie around for months and years, mosquito-infested environments, all pose health and safety hazards in government museums. But what of wrong storage, handling and display, the dust, the humidity, the insects, the incomplete accessioning of invaluable objects, theft, which also plague our public museums and that slowly, often not so slowly, destroy the treasures held in the collections?
In the particular case of the natural history museum, it was housed in a building not designed for it. But even in public museums where buildings have been purpose-built, almost inevitably over time additions and changes are made in completely arbitrary ways, without any reference to original design and function. Circulation, ventilation, light and safety are the usual casualties, as planned features — exit points, staircases, landings, windows, open-to-sky areas — are encroached upon or closed off for space, sometimes “security”, reasons. “Temporary” construction of this type is often with cheap and harmful materials like asbestos, adding further to the risk. Maintenance is never adequate. Regular fire and safety drills are rare. Even in the best of our public museums, toilets are filthy, galleries damp and dusty, and very often much worse.
The fire at the natural history museum might spark demand for more rules and controls. But excellent rules already exist, like the National Building Code, prepared under the guidance of the Bureau of Indian Standards and updated periodically, which lays down the ground rules for correct building practice and maintenance, including detailed guidelines for fire safety. The problem lies not in the mandatory regime but in the callous ways that rules are bent and flouted in practice at the museum level.
To bring all public museums under the charge of one ministry, like the ministry of culture, could help if there was domain expertise and scope to standardise and streamline rules and procedures, including safety protocols. The concerned ministry could become an advisory and watchdog body for the adoption and upgrade of museum best practice across all public museums. But the ministry would need first to develop competence in these areas where new developments are happening all the time.
But the deep malaise that afflicts our public museums has to be dealt with at the level of the museum itself. The implementation of best practice in every sphere of the museum’s functioning requires a thorough overhaul of the fundamental structure of the public museum. Autonomy is key. A museum cannot be run efficiently as a subordinate office of a ministry. Quite apart from the fact that the rules and procedures are totally inappropriate, cumbersome and staggeringly slow, there is no possibility to develop the institution according to museum norms and goals. For a museum to achieve standards of excellence, it has to be run with a vision, a long-term plan, and the freedom to hire the best professionals. Audit and accountability are critical, alongside a work ethic that valorises output and makes inaction culpable. A public museum should be government-funded but not government-administered, and must have a very carefully designed constitution that allows the selection of appropriate trustees and their independence.
Ours is an incredibly rich country. We do not lack scholarship; we do not lack talent. Indeed, there are now many young people trained in disciplines such as art history, museology, conservation, design, looking for challenging work in the museum sector. Our museums are repositories of invaluable wealth and beauty, and there is unprecedented interest, both nationally and internationally, in them. What we lack is the enabling, facilitating environment — the alchemy that can bring these hidden riches to thriving, throbbing life.
Government museums are able now to explore public-private partnerships which often work extremely well to raise the quality of output, transparency and accountability, and contribute significantly to the income that a museum is able to generate on its own. A well-functioning museum also generates confidence and many opportunities for exciting collaborations with other institutions. But, for this virtuous cycle to take effect, the existing, mangled and stifling management architecture has to be dismantled. This is long overdue. The government must seize the moment and place trust and faith in museums by devolving power. Only then can we reasonably hope our public museums become sites of interesting, enriching, pleasurable, clean and safe experience.