The Indian Museum in Kolkata is in the dock again. Its chief conservator, Sunil Upadhyay, has been missing since July 3 and his friends suspect he may have been abducted by criminal elements whose activities he was threatening to expose. "An antiques-trafficking racket is active and operates with the connivance of senior museum officials," alleges a colleague who, for understandable reasons, does not want to be identified. The charge is not far-fetched – remember how a 5th century AD Buddha bust was stolen from the museum in 2004?
Upadhyay's disappearance follows a series of accidents at the museum. On July 2, rainwater had seeped through the roof of the 140-year-old building and flooded the galleries on the ground floor. Seepage had ruined four 19th century masks on the third floor. And earlier, in December last year, the priceless, 2,200-year-old Rampurva Lion Capital broke while it was being shifted from its gallery.
The decrepitude of the Indian Museum, the oldest in Asia, makes news. But what of the numerous small museums that are in worse condition and just wasting away in absolute neglect? Take Delhi's Srinivas Malliah Memorial Theatre Crafts Museum (SMMTCM) established by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the doyenne of Indian arts and crafts, in May 1968. The museum has a large collection of costumes, headgear, ornaments, effigies, puppets, masks, props, photographs and audio-video material associated with traditional and folk theatre. Some of these are associated with little performed or extinct theatre forms, which makes the SMMTCM collection all the more valuable. But does anyone really care about the national cultural heritage in the museum? The artifacts are arranged in drab wall-mounted cases with bland captions such as "Masks, Ramlila", "Ramnagar Hanuman (brass)" that tell you nothing; a thick layer of dust covers the life-size clay models of dancers and actors.
Other Indian museums are as bad or worse. A 2011 UNESCO report on eight large Indian museums had pointed out a long list of deficiencies, among them poor lighting and maintenance, incorrect signages and lax security. In 2012, a parliamentary committee report was scathing, "Our museums are in a bad shape. Only 10% of the acquisitions are put on display and those are not even rotated regularly. Museum stores and galleries are in poor condition."
There are several reasons for the sorry state of Indian museums – the lack of qualified, forward-thinking professionals being one important factor. "Where are the curators and directors to man our museums?" asks Gerson Da Cunha, actor, advertising professional and culture activist. "The National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai has been without a director for the past 10 years."
And the main reason the government fails to attract talent, feels Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, director of Mumbai's Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDL), is that it does not pay salaries that are comparable with what they command elsewhere, and also does not give them due respect and autonomy to function."Directors are treated shabbily, like junior civil servants, and the salary is ridiculous. It's ridiculous that works of art worth millions are under threat due to neglect but the government will not change its salary structure. We have to move with the times."
Pramod Kumar KG, managing director of Eka Resources, a company that helps plan and create archives, museums and cultural complexes, feels the problem is that museums are headed by bureaucrats who neither have any training in art history, nor an interest in the area. "They may be in the agriculture department one day, and transferred to culture the next. What we need is an independent cadre of art historians/museologists to head our museums," he says.
The other major problem is lack of finances. Indian museums have very low entry fees and so few people walk into museums anyway that they are not financially self-sufficient. Government doles are needed, and though allocations for the ministry of culture have steadily gone up in recent budgets, it's clearly insufficient. Then there is the inevitable corruption and inefficiency in using the funds. As Mehta points out, the culture ministry regularly gives back about Rs100 crore a year that it has not been able to spend. The lack of funds is especially hard on small museums like SMMTCM, which is why the Indian government launched a Museum Grants Scheme in 2009 to enable them to renovate and modernise their galleries, conserve their collection, and expand facilities. In 2011,
SMMTCM received Rs34.16 lakh under this grant, which is being used for much-needed conservation work.
Perhaps the problem is that Indians are not interested in museums. Even a museum as accessible as the National Gallery of Modern Art at Colaba junction gets a footfall of just around 100 a day, says Da Cunha. "Museums must go out and attract people," he adds. "Look at the amount of effort and funding that the Museum of Natural History in Washington and Hall of Science in New York put in to make the place interesting. Museums have got to be marketed." "Society is changing and Indian museums must evolve to keep pace," agrees Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai. "Museums were just repositories of ancient relics earlier. Today, they must become infotainment and educational centres and cultural spaces that address civic issues."
It's a new way of thinking that has transformed the two Mumbai museums, BDL and CSMVS.
In a bid to keep up with the excitement with bigger, better shows, CSMVS has partnered with museums of international repute such as British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cotswald Institute, and Los Angeles County Museum to mount special exhibitions. Last year, it got a show of 17th century Flemish painters, including the master Peter Paul Reubens, the 500 BC Cyrus Cylinder, and another of Egyptian mummies. Besides, it has organised exhibitions showcasing the city's rich cultural heritage – the ongoing Pravaha-Glimpses of the Art of the Bombay School, curated from its own collection, and exhibitions of Bimal Roy and Shammi Kapoor. Besides workshops, lectures and concerts, CSMVS also has special programmes for children from slums, special needs and HIV+ communities. The effort has paid off with footfalls going up from 6.5 lakh a year in 2007 to nearly a million now, this despite the increase in entry fees from Rs15 to Rs60.
Similarly, BDL has grown into an exciting cultural destination with imaginatively curated exhibitions by leading contemporary artists such as Jitish and Reena Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty, Sheba Chhachhi and Ranjani Shettar. The museum's collection has been enlivened by well-curated shows such as Social Fabric on aspects of the city's history and growth, and The Artful Pose, a show of early studio photography in Mumbai. The Museum Plaza which hosts theatre, performances, film and other projects, cafe and shop have been added to attract visitors.
"Our programmes have been hugely successful," says Mehta. "We are now increasingly a destination visit. We have mothers asking to have their children's birthday parties at the museum. That's a real compliment."
Because of these measures, BDL and CSMVS have succeeded in attracting sponsorship from the private sector. "I think bringing in civil society in any form either through donors or through friends is the best way forward. It creates a stakeholder base that will itself act as a system of checks and balances," says Mehta. BDL's restoration was undertaken as a private-public-partnership with Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation; ZegnArt, the cultural wing of fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, backed Reena Kallat's show. CSMVS too has had several backers – Bank of America, Jet Airways and the Mumbai Port Trust.
Delhi's National Museum is better off financially as it is directly funded by the government. But it too languished under official apathy, until very recently, when there has been a flurry of activity.
The most visible of these was Body in Indian Art, a path-breaking international travelling show that was advertised on an unprecedented scale by the museum and brought in around 60,000 visitors. Three of seven galleries lying closed for many years have opened in the past 12 months. The National Museum lecture series has been instituted, and a posse of volunteer guides appointed. The museum has finally opened an air-conditioned cafe one its premises and widened the offering in its store. Contemporary artist Dayanita Singh put up her current project, Book Museum, there – quite a revolutionary step for the conservative administration.
Besides, National Museum has now unveiled a second large show of its museum collection. Called A Passionate Eye, it unveils for the first time an important donation of art objects made by dealer and collector CL Bharany in 1976. The exhibition comes 38 years after the donation. But in the case of National Museum and other Indian museums, perhaps, it is better late than never.