A day at the Museum

It used to be called The Prince of Wales Museum, and every kid growing up in Mumbai would remember the school trip that was dutifully made there, with students in uniform, trooping in single file, finger on lips if the teacher insisted, looking solemnly at the exhibits. Similar trips to the zoo, the aquarium and Powai Lake (before the real estate boom in those parts) and the school had ticked all boxes required to expand the students’ minds.

Cultural experience: How many people wake up on a weekend and fix up to meet their friends at the Museum, or take their kids for an impromptu visit?

The kids then wrote an essay on the outing, and forgot all about it. An experience that should have been one of awed discovery was turned into a dull academic exercise. No wonder then, the teeming population of Mumbai seldom revisits the museum -- now called the Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay -- unless there is a well-publicised event taking place (like the recent Mummy Exhibition), or maybe during the Kala Ghoda Festival. The magnificent building with its well-maintained gardens, has become just another stopover on the itinerary of tourists to Mumbai, taking the guided bus tour.

How many people wake up on a weekend and fix up to meet their friends at the Museum, or take their kids for an impromptu visit? They don’t know what a house of delights it is. And, the current Director General, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, is doing all he can to make the Museum an even more valuable cultural resource for the city.

On Saturday last week, he and his team hosted a wonderful meeting of friends and well-wishers of the Museum, a cross section that included artists, teachers, curators, NGOs, journalists, documentary filmmakers, students and others, who were then asked to come up with ideas on how to make the Museum experience more enriching and relevant.

After brief presentations by Mukherjee and his team — which revealed a lot more about the Museum than is generally out there — the gathering was divided into groups, asked to discuss among themselves and then get a team leader from each group to present their points.

The Museum has already taken great strides in the areas of conservation (Anupam Sah is the man with a mission) and education, and is collaborating with other national and international organisations, but the main concern of all groups was that not enough is known about the Museum’s many remarkable endeavours. In today’s times, it is not enough to do excellent work, it has to be communicated to the world as well, and the Museum does not have a PR cell.

Even though it has a good website and a presence on social media platforms, these information tools are not maximised. Its superb library and a fairly active Museum Society (that is not online yet) must be the city’s best kept secrets.

There was also the grouse that being in South Mumbai, the Museum was too far for people — students in particular — from the distant suburbs. For this, the Museum has already come up with a solution, a Museum on Wheels, a bus that can travel to far flung places with educational devices, audio-visual presentations and demonstrations. Once this level of outreach takes place, it might inspire parents and teachers to bring students to the Museum.

Museums the world over are going online with virtual tours and the best exhibits catalogued for anyone to access on the net. A large part of the CSMVS Museum’s vast collection is not even exhibited, but once put online, it can be opened up for people to see, without endangering the rare pieces.

A lot more ideas about documentation, digitisation, publication, merchandising, appointing docents came up. But finally it comes down to resources — and it is surprising to learn that the Museum gets no government aid for its day to day running.

Which brings up the question that should be asked more often — if an institution is a valuable resource for the community, doesn’t it fall on people like us to find ways of supporting it? It is not always the question of money, but sharing of time and skills. For instance, people interested in art, culture and history can volunteer as guides, students can help with social media and outreach; designers can help with publications or merchandise, marketing professionals, event managers and communications experts can chip in with their expertise. The society whose cultural heritage the Museum is preserving, needs to make sure that it is nurtured and periodically revitalised.

We have seen how so many institutions have languished under bureaucratic lethargy. When, at last, the Museum has a leader and a team that works with passion, they deserve to be cheered on.

Start by spending a day at the Museum...

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator 

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