Met the challenge: A 143-year-old legacy

Mar 28, 2013, 22:40 IST | Kanika Sharma

Dr Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is in Mumbai to deliver a talk about the institution, tomorrow. In an interview with Kanika Sharma, he reveals plans to organise an exhibition on the Deccan, why technology is crucial to museums and the challenges of heading it

How did the idea of visiting Mumbai at this point germinate, specially considering that it’s your first trip?
We have been negotiating with the Ministry of Culture about a Memorandum of Understanding under which we will embark on a number of projects with the Ministry of Culture and Indian Museums. Among the various provisions is an exchange where conservators from Indian museums will come to the Metropolitan (to learn and exchange). We are also in the process of organising an exhibition on the Deccan for Spring 2015. More broadly, since I became Director five years ago, I have been trying to travel to different parts of the world so I have a better understanding of the context of the various collections that we show.

A man looks at the display in the exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Pic/AFP

Could you share about the Met’s 143-year-old legacy that you hope to cover in your talk tomorrow? Also, what are the current challenges that you face at the Met in this information age, as it is referred to?
I plan to give an overview, I imagine that many of the audience won’t know about the Metropolitan at all or else know a little bit. So, I’ll talk about the history of how it developed and how it became this encyclopaedic museum with collections that represent the whole globe. In the past, we were primarily addressing an audience who physically came into the museum. I mean, our audience, it’s expanding but, in addition, because of technology, last year we had something like 45 million discreet visitors to our website and that number just seems to be growing.

Thomas Campbell, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the interview. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Why go to a museum? Especially when they can be visited simply at a click of the mouse?
The ultimate is to be always face to face with the object. What a museum like the Metropolitan or the Prince of Wales Museum (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) provide is, not only a nucleus of these research objects but also provide cumulatively much larger people to see a number of objects together. However, technology and the Internet are the only means that can be (reaching to) a vaster number of people. On our website there’s a project where we have a timeline of art history; it has about a 1,000 different short essays illustrated by about 6,000 great objects. That’s a great resource for us to share with the global audience.

What is in the offing for India — will any of the famous exhibitions from the Met such as the 2002 Tapestry one or the popular Alexander McQueen be showcased here? What about the Deccan exhibition that is in the pipeline?
At the moment, as far as I know, it’s an exhibition that we are planning for, likely, a single venue — at the Metropolitan. I suspect that it is difficult for the objects to travel to a second venue. That said, it's two years away, you never know what might happen. Since the late 19th century, we have (had) quite significant collections (on India). A new head of a department is interested in collecting contemporary Indian Art. In the last
25 years we have (had) a sequence of major exhibitions…the Deccan is the latest in this ongoing series.

Would we be seeing anything from the Met in the next five years?
Here in India? I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. We have collaborated with institutions around the world and it is exactly this sort of visit that I’m engaged in now that hopes to build the foundation of these collaborations in the future.

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