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Egmore museum is dead, let’s revive it!

A mummy restoration project at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, 2017 overseen by museum expert, Vinod Daniel. He says Egmore Museum can focus on just 8-10 significant collections which would be more attractive than a cluttered set of numerous exhibits

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The Madras Museum can be the pride of Tamil Nadu. With its vast collection and resources such as an in-house high-quality conservation laboratory, it could offer an interesting, educative, fun and immersive experience.

For people of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil diaspora who can often be seen visiting to learn about their own roots, the museum offers little but a vast campus with trees and dead but numerous exhibits. The old building badly needs a sprucing up but the government seems more keen on a CCTV system now.

The ticket counter itself is as much a museum piece as the exhibits themselves. It only costs Rs 15 per person – certainly, a higher user fee can be collected – but has to be paid in cash. Change is often not available at the counter. No one’s heard of digital payment here.

The strengths of the museum include its bronze idols, Ravi Varma painting collection, the Amaravathi section and so on. But they are often lost.

At the contemporary art building, for instance, one gets to see not-so-artsy busts of freedom fighters on the ground floor, although the mezzanine floor is where the Ravi Varma gems are. Tucked away in the far end on the ground floor are more recent gems including one from R B Baskaran’s Cats series. One wonders how much information these paintings can convey beyond the exhibit and the description itself. And whether that is all that can be provided to the visitor. The LCD display in this building was about, incongruously enough, about the bronze collection. It gave no information on the contemporary art collections.

The National Art Gallery building in the Egmore museum

The Egmore Museum is crammed with priceless, rare, ancient and recent exhibits but they are there for us to merely see. The readouts offer a little bit more.

Across the world, however, museums have become experiences with sound-and-light exhibits and contextual ambience. “Indian museums often leave out the context and exhibit more than they should,” says Vinod Daniel, museologist and CEO/Managing Trustee, India Vision Institute.

Daniel, who has extensive experience working with museums across the world, spoke to about how the Egmore museum can truly live up to its potential.

You speak about how extensive the Egmore Museum’s collections are. So where do they go wrong?
Where this museum and other public museums in India go wrong is how they communicate. What kind of audience connection are they making? Do they give an experience to the visitor? These are the questions they should ask themselves.

Collections should have the right environment. Most international museums put much energy in creating the environment.

In most museums, 90% to 95% of the collections are stored, not exhibited. Storage areas should have the right temperature, humidity, fire resistance and so on. There shouldn’t be too much light. There should be proper supports. The care arrangement is well established internationally.

The museum’s head can’t be rotated around. He or she has to have a tenure of eight to ten years. Professionals have to be there in leadership with a vision to make the change.

The audience-friendly approach is where we lack. There are many types of audiences. The exhibits should be such that everyone, from the average person to the scholar, can learn one or two things. But those who want to know more should be given that information.

We have technology now. We can recreate sights. We can create a lot more impact through documentaries.

So you are saying the Egmore museum has too many exhibits, yet doesn’t give enough information.
We don’t need to exhibit too many collections but the context should be explained.

In the bronze section, the making of the idol can be a documentary [the film showing this now has no visuals of the lost wax method of making]. How the idol is consecrated in the temple could be another documentary.

The setting could be recreated. Holograms, 3D etc can be used for visual impact.

Catering to the scholar alone won’t help. The scholar can get what he pr she wants through installations with bar codes.

Vinod Daniel with Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan at the newly opened E K Nayanar museum. A feature of the museum is an exhibit of Nayanar that speaks answers to questions asked of him. This kindles audience interest and enhances the museum experience

The EK Nayanar museum you designed was recently inaugurated by Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan. Explain what you did there?
We used a hologram to re-create the personality that Nayanar was. You can ask him questions and have him answer, for instance. This kindles the interest of the audience instead of just static exhibits. It brings E K Nayanar to life for even those who probably never saw him in person.

But won’t too much technology be overkill?
You are right. What might work for the bronze will not work for Indus Valley.

If you look at the Amaravathi section in the Egmore museum, it is old style museology that uses just objects and text. It’s like the time when we were writing letters.

Static information will not work. There could be interaction through social media. You can start debates. That will attract a more diverse age group.

In the natural science section of the museum, for instance, static objects have been put on display. That’s about it. But the exhibits can be oriented towards how they are related to current debates in natural science such as biodiversity and climate change.

The Amaravathi section is old style museology that uses just objects and text, like the time when we were writing letters.

What can you tell the government regarding the Egmore museum?
They are making an effort but they need to go back to the drawing board. What is the master plan? This they need to be clear about.

You don’t need to modernize too much. The ambience can be the same.

They should come up with a master plan though. In my opinion, they can focus on eight to ten significant collections they have and put them up in six to seven buildings. Use each building for a different collection. Right now, there are too many things and they are cluttered.

Then they should explain the context through technology so audience interest is kindled. The museum should have multiple layers of information available. Scanning a QR code could open a window on one’s mobile that can give much more information for the scholar.

Can the government execute this?
There have been successful cases of museum renewal such as in Singapore and China.

The museum’s head can’t be rotated around. He or she has to have a tenure of eight to ten years. Professionals have to be there in leadership with a vision to make the change.

The government is one of the biggest supporters of museums. Some money can come from the government but private money should also come in. There has to be some autonomy for the institution.  

90% of the staff often have no relevant skill sets. They are all public servants without specialized knowledge. More experts in museology, archaeology and so on can be brought in.

In India we need at least 50,000 museologists to handle the 1,000 public museums. But only 5% are trained museologists.

We need a cadre of trained people. A new approach is needed.

The government is one of the biggest supporters of museums. Some money can come from the government but private money should also come in. There has to be some autonomy for the institution.

A good plan will have a 20-year vision. Currently, the heads are transferred frequently, sometimes in six months.

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