13 Sep 2016 12:19 IST

The business of keeping the past alive

Museums bank on consultants to attract more footfalls

For Poulomi Das, narrating stories is her job. But it is not easy when the protagonists are antiques and manuscripts that are seen as academic.

Das is a museum consultant and has to find ways to make these pieces of history interesting to everyone, including school students, and accessible to the physically challenged. At the Buddha Smriti Park Museum in Patna, for instance, she tells the story of Buddha using illustrative panels, multimedia (animation film) and murals crafted by local artisans.

“People like us -- museum consultants and curators -- are transporting collections and information to an audience,” says Das, an independent consultant who advised the RBI Monetary Museum.

Professionals like Das are part of a niche, but expanding community, helping in museum management, specifically in exhibition planning and archiving. With growing interest in museums, both among governments and individuals with deep pockets, these consultancies now have a busy calendar.

One such consultancy was born in 2009, over a dinner conversation between Deepthi Sasidharan and Pramod Kumar KG. Both were independent museum consultants, and decided to join hands to launch Eka Resources. Sasidharan says Eka was like any other start-up. While consultants were offering such services independently, Eka became the first such firm in India and has over the years advised 50 projects.

But how does a museum consultant differ from a curator or an architect?

Batul Raaj Mehta, Principal Consultant, South Asia, Lord Cultural Resources, explains: “The one thing that is probably not widely known is that the kind of skills needed to plan, design and build a museum is quite different from the traditional architecture, engineering, interior design services.” Her colleague Aparna Khemani, Director of Operations -- South Asia, Lord Cultural Resources, elaborates, “We are required to have a knowledge base and skills merging fields such as design, management and history.”

Both Khemani and Mehta were trained as architects, but to be a museum consultant is more than that, they say. Research and fact-checking is a crucial part of the job, and so is conceptualising museums or similar cultural spaces, multimedia support, the treatment of each artefact or gallery, storyboard and graphics.

Firms such as Lord Cultural Resources, headquartered in Canada and operating since 1981, cater to governments looking to revamp museums, or trusts and companies hoping to start museums.

Eka’s most recent projects include the Manjusha Museum in Dharmasthala, Karnataka and it has advised the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur. The firm managed to break even shortly after it started, adds Sasidharan.

The sector isn’t bereft of challenges, says Das. She points out consultants are often asked for “opinion” without being given details of the project size and requirements.

Private projects also bring challenges such as personal biases in representation of history, and delayed payments. And not everyone welcomes them. R Balasubramaniam, who retired as a senior curator at the Government Museum, Chennai, says the state-run museum has never hired an external consultant. According to him the roles of curators and designers can be, and have been, fulfilled from within.

But Sasidharan maintains it helps to get consultants on board. After all, the final aim of both parties is to find the best way to conserve heritage.

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