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A trust and not the government who should be in charge of a museum: Vinod Daniel

A trust and not the government who should be in charge of a museum: Vinod Daniel

| @indiablooms | 06 Mar 2019, 10:25 am

Vinod Daniel, Chairman, AusHeritage, and Board Member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), during his recent visit to Kolkata, tells IBNS correspondent Godhuly Bose, how Indian museums need to come out of their dependence on government funds and transform them from a house of curiosity to vibrant and interactive knowledge centres. 

Vinod Daniel is an Australian citizen of Indian heritage. He received degrees in chemical engineering (B.Tech & M.Tech) from IIT Delhi and IIT Madras, and has worked with institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum, NY, and J Paul Getty. He has worked extensively on museum preservation across the world, as also in India (Kolkata, Shantiniketan, Prince of Wales, Mumbai, Madras Museum, Indira Gandhi Museum, Delhi etc. Soft-spoken and incessantly polite, Vinod Daniel discussed his work with our correspondent at length over a cup of masala chai. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

How did you start working with museums? What does it mean to be a museum specialist?

I did my BTech and MTech from IIT Delhi and IIT Chennai, respectively. After that I went to the US to do a second Master’s degree. There I had an opportunity to start working at the J Paul Getty Trust, which is the largest philanthropic body in terms of museums and museum related things. My role there was to conduct research on how to better preserve collections. It included working with the preservation of mummies in Egypt and developing new methods for getting rid of insects, which pose a big problem in cultural preservation.

I moved to the Australian Museum in Sydney in the mid-90s where I got more involved with education and outreach, etc. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to work with museums in over 45 countries and I’ve also been involved in a broader role with global museums. I had a special interest in museums in the developing part of the world.

I am also a board member of the International Council of Museums (ICON), which is based out of Paris and has a membership base of about 20,000 museums and has national committees in more than 145 countries.

The museum movement is very active in the developed parts of the world, especially in countries like France, Netherlands, etc. They try to make visiting museums very attractive there. In the past few years, the US, Canada, and Australia have also done very well to popularise museums. In recent times, Singapore has been very proactive in developing their museums as well.

What do you think needs to be done to improve the conditions of the museums in India?

I believe that the next big movement in terms of museums needs to happen in countries like India, Nepal, Indonesia, etc. I think that in order to capitalise that, there are some time-tested successful broad approaches that are essential components in museum revival.
Consider this, globally you cannot consider anything a museum unless it is non-profit. All of the vibrant countries have museums as independent entities that are not government-controlled but rather report to a trust. This has been a huge incentive to push for museum reformation and revival. I think that this has to be implemented in India too in order to have vibrant museums. It would make it easier for the museums to be more aggressive in organising programs, fundraising, curating exhibitions, etc.

A good example is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum in Mumbai, which I think is the only Indian museum that has performed very well in recent years. They have an independent trust. There also needs to be a broad master-plan that addresses any lags that may be present in the physical infrastructure, and also ensures the preservation and maintenance of the collections and their relevant databases.

Aside from these, the plan needs to include a good educational unit, have committees that work on establishing and maintaining communication with the public, and curate vibrant exhibitions. This plan may take 10 to 15 years to complete; it cannot be done in the space of a few years with a light-hearted mindset. Just take a look at all the good renewal programs – the CSMBS renewal project took nearly two decades to complete, and now it is an excellent example of what a good museum can look like in India. In order for all this to be accomplished, you need strong leadership in the form of a museum director who is there for at least eight years.

What is the role of museum staff in generating interest about museums among the public?

It is very important for dedicated staff to be available alongside a strong leader. There is a particular skill set required in order to successfully run museums. Currently, there are only a handful of good programs in India that teach Museology. The National Museum in Delhi has a few programs, as does the University of Calcutta. I think that educational programs directed towards this will automatically gain momentum when the museum revival projects go underway. Working in a vibrant museum will then be a prestigious job like it is in many other countries today.

What can be done to popularise museums among the public in India?

Aside from a holistic approach to reviving museums, which does not solely focus on celebrating centenaries or such, there is another effective approach that is being practiced in the west. Exhibitions are being designed to specifically appeal to sections of the public. In order to do this, there must be enough information to suggest the current interests of the people, which can be acquired through public outreach and surveys and such. Successful exhibitions are curated with the help of audience interest evaluations.
If a museum is not independently managed and rather fully funded by the government, then there is no incentive for them to find ways to attract larger audiences and curate exhibitions that will appeal to them.

In the West, they try to find innovative ways to do this – they keep certain spaces of the museum open after hours, open bars or cafes etc. to generate more interest and attract more people.

If one museum per state takes the initiative to show the way, then I think the museum scene will greatly improve in India. It is important for the government to give them enough operating funds to keep them working and motivated but to incentivise the venture by allowing them to gather the rest of the funds by pulling larger audiences. If this can be done then it will spread a lot of knowledge and also feed into the education sector, giving rise to more courses in conservation and museum management etc.

Despite the lack of specific museum-oriented courses, do you think that other graduates can look towards museums as a career prospect?

History and archaeology can always help to work at a museum. It is important to be excited about it, and if the opportunity to work there presents itself, then one can transform. Currently there’s a lot of inertia in the system, so, I think there needs to be a radical shakeup. Museums need to generate excitement in India just like other countries have done. It is a great honour to be the director of the British Museum, but there just isn’t that much interest for museum work in India. For that to occur, museums themselves need to market themselves as a possible career option that is vibrant and exciting.

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