Meet the people behind the treasures inside Indian museums

May 18, 2013, 09:22 IST | Dhara Vora and Fiona Fernandez

On International Museum Day today; two visionary change makers, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, at the helm of Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, speak about the challenges of bringing footfalls back into these spaces, home to some of India's most invaluable treasures

Sabyasachi Mukherjee is a stark contrast from his namesake, who is constantly in the spotlight, making waves in the fields of textile and design, having been responsible for bringing Indian textiles back into public imagination. The person in question, on the other hand, has not only been responsible for bringing the textile culture of India, to today’s generation but has also ensured that India’s art, culture and history are in safe custody. No mean task, this, especially when one is dealing with a nearly 100-year-old legacy that was built to showcase the grandeur and glory of colonial India’s treasures. Mukherjee wears his title without much fanfare. When asked about the changes that he brought about, he corrects us, “It’s not just me. There are hundreds who help me run this museum; private donors and trusts that make significant contributions in aiding our financial section, and the entire staff, especially our Education Officer, Bilwa Kulkarni. I consider myself fortunate to have trained staff, which is a rarity in this field.” He adds that one must not forget that it was the public fund contribution that led to the completion of the Museum (in 1914), and it is the public support and the visitors that will play a great part in making the Museum a success in the future.

Wow daji lad: The stunning interiors of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum.Pic/ Pradeep Dhivar

But it is continuing to bring in the visitor that makes for the biggest challenge. “We have to constantly innovate, to bring in young adults; everyone is glued to computers and Facebook. The impact of technology and Internet has led to information being readily available, at the click of a mouse. So, we need to curate more than static art exhibitions to sustain curiosity and create a niche,” believes Mukherjee.The Museum is home to a great collection of Indian miniature paintings, personal armour of Mughal emperor Akbar and the Natural History section. But the past few years have seen specially curated exhibitions such as the Indian Lives and Landscapes exhibition in association with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, an exhibition of items from the Art Deco period and the most recent, Mummy, The Inside Story. The diversity of these exhibitions is a well-thought process. “The type of exhibits must bring in newer audiences. For example, we did an exhibition on India’s musical heritage, which was inaugurated by Lata Mangeshkar. A musician would otherwise rarely visit a museum, but with such exhibitions we open doors to newer audiences.” Mukherjee also cites the example of the exhibition of film posters, songbooks and lobby cards from a personal collection in memory of actor Shammi Kapoor.

Textiles vs: Hi-tech: Sabyasachi Mukherjee. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

While the Museum might be working hard on its audiences, there are several other problems that prevail. “Administrative inefficiencies, financial constraints, lack of proper trained staff; and not just conservationists or archeological experts but also lighting experts. Mumbai’s weather; its high humidity in the monsoon is a major concern. Since the Museum building is a heritage structure, we can’t make changes such as making the galleries climate controlled, very few galleries in the Museum have this facility.” Mukherjee, who was attached to the Museum before becoming its Director General in 2007, reassures us that despite these problems, one can look forward to an eventful 2013 on the Museum’s calendar. “We are re-organising the existing galleries and also working on some new galleries. The Museum café will be revamped and The Cyrus Cylinder exhibition will be held in December. Also, for the first time, Mumbaikars can witness the works of master Belgian artists including three works by Rubens. We have computerised the entire library; besides, there are several participatory creative activities for children,” reveals Mukherjee. One of the major additions this year will be a section that will be specially dedicated to Indian textiles.

As told to Dhara Vora

What also may be unknown to Mumbaikars is that the Museum works with 30 different NGOs who work for different communities such as HIV+ people and Commercial Sex Workers. “There are a lot of people from different marginalised communities who do not have access to the Museum. We want them to know that they too are a part of the society and should have access to our cultural heritage,” explains Mukherjee. Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, Managing Trustee & Hon. Director, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (formerly Victoria and Albert Museum) When the Victoria and Albert Museum (renamed after Dr Bhau Daji Lad) was completed in 1872, it was the only public building to be built at a distance from the Bombay Fort area, in Byculla in the 19th century. This stunning Italian Renaissance structure is the city’s oldest museum. Located at the entrance to the Jijamata Udyan, popularly referred to as the Byculla Zoo or Rani Baug, it stands out amidst the chaos and buzz of Dr Ambedkar Road.There was a time when the Museum seemed to have fallen off tourist itineraries and the building, in dire need of more than a cosmetic overhaul. Enter INTACH along with Convener, Mumbai chapter, Tasneem Zakaria Mehta whose vision and dedication engineered a complete structural restoration and revitalisation of the Museum. It was formally re-opened on January 4, 2008, and was the first time that an Indian museum’s management and development was formed by a public-private partnership management trust. Today, the museum draws in crowds with its path breaking initiatives and collaborations — including bringing the Guggenheim Lab to the city, its focus on modern art, and its tie-ups with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. There is a concerted thrust to move from being platforms to showcase history and heritage but to also be a space for the arts and culture from India and the world.

Direction and vision: Tasneem Zakaria Mehta

When asked about what International Museum Day means to Mehta, she says, “Celebrating International Museum Day in India evokes mixed feelings. There is a great need to celebrate museums to bring about an awareness of the importance of these great institutions and the enormous potential they have to alter the discourse about human civilisation both past and present.” However, she adds, “But it also makes me even more keenly aware of how backward we are in this area. We must be the only country in the world with such a plethora of extraordinary collections and an incredible biodiversity of culture who have shamefully neglected this heritage. The statistics are shocking. Our four Grade One museums are without directors not to mention the appalling state of the smaller museums. Not because there are not good people who will not join but because the salaries offered are so low that no self-respecting person will apply.” Mehta believes that the rot in the system is so great that even if monetary considerations were not important, the impossibility of making a success of the enterprise would prevent even the most dedicated professional from coming forward.

Putting things into perspective regarding Mumbai’s museums, she shares, “In this moribund situation, the success of Mumbai’s two premier museums, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), the erstwhile Prince of Wales Museum, and the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDLM) the erstwhile Victoria and Albert Museum, are a welcome beacon of what is possible with an enabling system and dedicated staff. Both institutions have functional autonomy and independent control of their finances. Both have supportive Boards of Trustees. The directors are free to develop the creative agenda of the institution. The public footfall at both institutions is very high. The CSMVS gets about 2,000 people a day on weekdays and 5,000 people a day on weekends. The BDLM gets about 1,000 people a day on weekdays and about 3,000 to 4,000 people a day on weekends, depending on the season. These figures match the best in the world. Both institutions devote resources to outreach and education programmes and the response from the public has been encouraging.”

When asked about the biggest challenges at hand, pat comes her reply, “At the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, our greatest challenge has been the dearth of space. (The museum is 2,500 sq feet). We have a highly qualified and dedicated staff and many more applications are flowing in as the Museum develops an international reputation. But with no space to expand education and exhibition activities and seat staff we have had to curtail our ambitions.” She adds that its fortunate that the city’s Municipal Corporation who owns the Museum has been most supportive. However, what will come as great news is that plans are in progress to establish a new building in an adjacent area, “This will enable us to develop state-of-the-art exhibition, education, and conservation facilities. Our aim is to make the Museum a centre of excellence for the presentation and research of the cultural development of Mumbai and issues related to Contemporary Visual Culture,” Mehta tells us.Meanwhile the Museum has planned many wonderful activities for this special day starting with free entry, a competition with prizes, free tours and workshops. “So, if you are wondering what to do today, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum will be a fun place to stop by,” she reminds us.

As told to Fiona Fernandez

Other Museums
>> Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Museum
Where: Ground floor, Amar Building, PM Road, Fort
Why: First of its kind in India, the museum has exhibits ranging from Neolithic axes to stored value cards, some of the smallest coins in the world, and a gallery that shows the evolution of money from the barter system to the present currency system. It has a special information kiosk for children to learn about money by playing games.

>> F D Alpaiwala Museum
Where: Khareghat Memorial Hall, Khareghat Colony, NS Patkar Marg, Kemps Corner
Why: It is the city’s only community museum and counts, among its treasures, an archaic chest belonging to Dadabhai Nowroji, a silver clock belonging to Sir Jamshedji Jejeebhoy and rare photographs and documents. The museum is open to visitors of all communities.

>> BEST Transport Museum
Where: V N Purav Marg, Anik Nagar Bus Depot, Wadala
Why: Miniature models of early BEST buses, trams and displays about the evolution of this public transport in the city are some of the highlights of this museum. Rare photographs and old handwritten signboards are also on display.

>> Mani Bhavan
Where: 19, Laburnum road, Gamdevi
Why: A museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, it is situated in the house where the leader first learnt to spin cloth on the charkha. Miniature tableaus depict important days in the freedom struggle. The room where Gandhi lived and his possessions have been preserved in good condition.

>> CST Museum
Where: CST building
Why: The museum traces the history of the Central Railway, earlier known as the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. On display are old artefacts, reproductions of the original drawings of the terminus, made by the British architect FW Stevens, rare photographs and miniature models of the early engines.

>> Samyukta Maharashtra Museum
Where: Veer Savarkar Sankul, near the Mayor’s bungalow, Shivaji Park
Why: The museum is dedicated to the struggle for a separate state of Maharashtra. It has three floors and shows the chronology of the struggle. The museum reminds visitors of how heroes such as Mrinal Gore, Ahilya Ranganekar, Bapusaheb Raut, Krishnarao Dhulap, Dadasaheb Gaikwad and Malini Tulpule fought during the struggle. 

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