13 Sep 2016 12:10 IST

Getting museums to trend

Government projects and private investments are helping museums make a comeback in the public mind

It might be as grandiose as the upcoming Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Statue of Unity near Vadodara, or the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Statue in Mumbai, but JPN Singh is counting on the new Bihar Museum to bring back the pride of Biharis.

One of the biggest projects of its kind in recent years, the museum will be spread over 13 acres with a built-up area of 2.5 lakh sq ft. The Bihar government headed by Nitish Kumar is spending ₹498 crore to build the museum. Two of its galleries opened last year, and the remaining seven will open in March 2017.

“Biharis are a socially condemned lot and are stereotyped as backward and uncultured,” says Singh. The Bihar Museum, adds the Director of Museums of Bihar Government, will not just narrate the State’s complex story to outsiders, but also will be a space for locals to embrace their history and “instil Bihari pride.”

The Bihar Museum will house 25,000 objects, including some of the collections held by the Patna Museum. While its older peer was built by the British exactly a century ago, the Bihar Museum has the makings of a first-of-its-kind international collaboration. The government has roped in the Canada-based Lord Cultural Resources as the project’s principal consultants. L&T is building the massive structure, Japan’s Maki and Associates and Indian firm OPOLIS are the architects, and Singapore-based Kingsmen Group is the exhibition fabricator. The other Indian collaborator is Lopez Design, which will handle the new museum’s design and branding.

This project, given its scope and scale, has created a flutter in the country’s growing museum community, which of late has had many reasons to smile. The governments at the Centre and states may still be the primary custodians of museums in post-liberalised India, but increasing global interest in the past of a country with a rising economic profile, has led to a mushrooming of private museums, and new possibilities in commerce and employment for showcasing treasures of yore.

While there are some 800 museums across India, “there is a growing recognition of their importance in the cultural, social and economic life… and a consequent desire to build new museums and upgrade existing ones,” says a 2014 report by the British Council.

“Every year, 5-10 new museums come up,” says Deepthi Sasidharan, Director of consultancy firm Eka Resources. “There’s a demand for museums -- from people who own collections or have interest in specific topics, and from people who are interested in the history of the nation,” says Sasidharan. The Delhi-based Eka offers tailored solutions for museums and archives.

One of the persons to spot the opportunity was Tarun Thakral. The COO of Delhi’s Le Meridien Hotels is also the MD and Founder of Heritage Transport Museum (HTM). Thakral shows off his vast collection of vintage cars, bikes, cycles and train coaches in the museum. Though located near Manesar, about 40km from Delhi, the museum draws many visitors, says Thakral. Based on the public-private partnership model, the museum opened three years ago and broke even in the first year.

Thakral says building the HTM cost ₹12 crore, including the infrastructure support of ₹6 crore provided by the Haryana Government. Over three years, HTM got 1.6 lakh visitors.

The HTM relies on various sources of revenue including ticketing, renting out lawns and conference rooms to companies, sales from the cafeteria and souvenir shop. Revenue generated through these activities foots the ₹72-lakh bill per year that keeps the Transport Museum going. But cafes and souvenir shops aren’t enough to entice visitors; a museum, at the end of the day, should tell a story, and stocking historical objects in a chronological order may just not be enough.

“You have to create sustainable new public spaces that can engage younger people and citizens from all walks of life,” says Thakral. This, he explains, involves conceptualising and implementing a revenue model right from the beginning. Private consultants are making a difference here.

But if one thought that the museum sector in the country was finally taking off, a fire melted some of that hope.

The monumental fire

In May this year, Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) fell to a devastating fire, taking with it treasures that included a 160-million-year-old dinosaur bone.

What raged thereafter were debates on the government’s apathy towards history and laxity in safety plans. One doesn’t know if an effort was made to ascertain the value of the destroyed artefacts. It would be naive to assume that the Environment Ministry, which runs the NMNH, was only being philosophical by refusing to quantify the loss. Perhaps, it just didn’t know.

On the other hand, antique objects and precious stones lying in museums abroad have always evoked much nationalistic chest-thumping and stirred sentiment demanding their return. A month after the fire at the NMNH, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US, where it was announced that over 200 artefacts, including bronzes and other statues of gods, would be returned to India. These objects, smuggled to the US over years, have been valued at $100 million.

But where the objects would be housed upon their ghar wapsi is a question no one seems to be raising.

Few museums in the country could count as worthy hosts. Most government-run museums are a colonial creation, set up in the 19th and 20th centuries to be the caretakers of history by safeguarding objects and manuscripts. But most of these repositories of history suffer from neglect.

Apart from bureaucratic hurdles that include unceremonious shuffling of top officials and attempts at revisionist history through museums and cultural institutions, the biggest challenge government-run museums face is funding for restoration and exhibitions.

Of the Union Budget outlay for 2016-17 of roughly ₹7-lakh-crore, the Centre set aside ₹2,500 crore, or less than 1 per cent, for the Ministry of Culture. This amount is split between the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) cultural institutions, museums, libraries and archives, Kala Sanskriti Vikas Yojana and several schemes. The sum that will eventually reach the ASI is ₹680 crore, which will be spent on maintenance of museums, monuments, and scores of excavation projects. Apart from this, rest of the non-ASI museums, including the National Museum in Delhi, will get ₹409 crore.

Ministry of Culture Funding

While limited funds cannot support an overhaul of such spaces, the Ministry of Culture last yearstill couldn’t utilise ₹687 crore of its outlay, as on December 2015. A back-of-the envelope calculation of expenditure reports reveals that the Ministry has failed to spend more than ₹2,000 crore of the allocated funds since the 1980s. This prompted a Parliamentary Committee to declare that the funds allocated to museums need not be increased. Little wonder that the Bihar Museum’s ₹498-crore-outlay caught the public eye. Acting on a March 2015 PIL, the Patna High Court asked the government to justify the huge expense, specifically the consultation fee of ₹22 crore given to Lord Cultural Resources.

Though the PIL was dismissed, Singh is quick to defend the government’s outlay. “Why is this considered an expense? It should be seen as an investment in education and knowledge. The museum is our brand ambassador. We aren’t spending it frivolously on ad campaigns featuring stars. For us, Bihar Museum and the history of Bihar will be the stars that will shine through.”

There is merit in his argument. The Gujarat Tourism’s Khushboo Gujarat Ki campaign, featuring Amitabh Bachchan, cost ₹71 crore. Similarly, the Statue of Unity, touted as the tallest in the world, will cost ₹2,063 crore. While the Gujarat government has committed ₹600 crore, the Union Budget 2016-17 set aside ₹200 crore.

A step-child

Museum enthusiasts are quick to point out that while such ‘monuments’ capture public imagination, a museum, and similar knowledge-driven activities are given a step-child treatment by the government.

Ask R Balasubramaniam, the retired senior curator who worked at the Government Museum, Chennai. He knows how lack of funds has affected the growth of the State-run museum. From stalled galleries and restoration projects, to little or no upgradation, he has seen it all in his three-decade-long career.

Balasubramaniam’s career-long battle has been to secure funds for the restoration and opening of the Museum’s gallery containing the remains of the Amravati Stupa. It is only after the Andhra Pradesh government announced its new capital at Amaravati that the history of the remains gained renewed attention. In history and archaeology circles, Amaravati has for long been the Holy Grail.

The remains of the circa 2nd century BC-3rd century BC Amaravati Stupa were excavated in the 19th century and were split into two major collections. While one is at the British Museum, London, the other belongs to the Government Museum in Chennai.

At the British Museum, the Amaravati collection found a large space in the Asahi Shimbun Gallery, which opened in 2012. Reports say Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun contributed around €500,000 for the collection.

In 2002, the Indian Government, which co-funded the project along with the state, had recommended that the collection be restored and opened to the public. However, lack of funds delayed the project. While restoration became a challenge over the decades — the limestone pieces, weighing several tonnes each, need to be moved using heavy machinery, and are susceptible to corrosion and degradation — time was running out for Balasubramaniam’s career as well.

Over time, funds came in small tranches, but Balasubramaniam maintains that the spending for the Amaravati Gallery in Chennai was minuscule when compared to what was lavished on the London museum. After being closed to the public for decades, the gallery re-opened just around the time Balasubramaniam hung up his boots in 2014.

Hope in partnership

Consultants opine that government museums can tap into public-private partnerships and also use the new CSR norms to supplement their funds. One government museum that took both roads — PPP and CSR — is the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai. The Museum is run by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, with financial and strategic support from the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage).

Poulomi Das, who was a Senior Assistant Curator at the Lad Museum, explains that as the first PPP-model museum, the institution transformed from a derelict set-up to adopting international best practices. The Lad Museum organises tours with curators and art history courses, and has a digital archive, heritage club, international collaborations, cafeteria and a store. It even has a “Friends of the Museum” plan.

While these activities increased revenues, the Lad Museum received ₹1.8 crore from Mukesh Ambani, Chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd, as part of the latter’s CSR expenditure.

The museum sector has also benefited from the rising interest among the well-heeled to showcase their collections. This, says Eka Resources’ Sasidharan, has spurred projects.

In October 2015, as part of the Hinduja Group’s ‘Ancient Coins of India - The Lance Dane Bequest’ exhibition, Eka Resources handled 35,000 rare and antique coins on display, and also lent their cataloguing expertise, apart from putting together a coffee table book of the collection. A newspaper article quoted Ashok P Hinduja, one of the promoters of the Hinduja Group, as saying ₹1 crore was spent on just the cataloguing and research for the exhibition.

With the coming together of public and private agencies, there is hope that the hitherto neglected cultural institutions will become sustainable and engaging public spaces.

(The article was first published in BusinessLine)

Recommended for you