Framing the Future
The All India Museum Summit 2019 provided American and Indian experts a platform to share ideas and best practices for museum modernization.
The All India Museum Summit 2019 in New Delhi convened a gathering of museum professionals, including curators, administrators, conservationists and educators, from across the country. Over three days in July, they discussed ways to enrich the role that museums play in the lives of Indians and means for building institutional capacities to manage collections and resources. Led by American and Indian experts, the summit provided a platform to share expertise and best practices for museum modernization. It will result in a white paper for presentation to the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, recommending actions to advance India’s leading museums.
The summit was organized by the American Institute of Indian Studies, with financial support from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. It focused on topics like challenges and strategies for India’s new museums, reaching audiences, and preventive care and conservation. The summit initiative was led by Susan Bean, chair of the Center for Art and Archaeology of the American Institute of Indian Studies, which is headquartered at the University of Chicago and has offices in New Delhi and Gurugram. An associate of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, Bean is also an independent scholar and curator specializing in the visual arts of modern South Asia.
Excerpts from an interview with Bean on the summit and Indian museums.
How did the plan for the All India Museum Summit develop?
We began by speaking with a lot of colleagues in the museum field, mostly in India but also some in the U.S., with experience of Indian museums. Based on those discussions, we formed a planning committee representing the diversity of India’s museums—large and small, based in the north and the south, art and culture, etc. The committee members were Naman Ahuja, professor of Indian art and architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Madhuvanti Ghose, Alsdorf associate curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan and Islamic art at Art Institute of Chicago; Pramod Kumar K.G., managing director of Éka Cultural Resources and Research, New Delhi; Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai; Manvi Seth, dean (academic affairs) of the National Museum Institute, New Delhi; and Venu Vasudevan, principal secretary of tourism, Government of Kerala, and former director general of the National Museum, New Delhi. Over the months of planning, there were many meetings to discuss topics and possible presenters.
What was the focus of the summit?
The aim was to bring together a critical mass of professionals who are actively engaged in running and working with museums. They talked about the state of the field and aspirations for the future to cover a broad range of museum functions, and considered how to move forward productively. The title of the summit was “India’s Museums in the New Millennium.” India and its museums are on the move. So, it’s a good moment to assess and articulate wishes, hopes and dreams for the future role of museums in the lives of India’s citizens.
Many people, myself included, treasure museums as public places. They offer opportunities to look at things otherwise hidden from our everyday lives, and to think about what they meant in their original time and place, how they came to be on display in a museum, and what their significance is to us here and now, and in the future.
Each day of the summit had a theme, beginning with “Reimagining museums for the 21st century.” It opened with morning presentations from several people instrumental in founding new museums. It was such a great way to get at what a museum is about, what it presents to the public, what it hopes to achieve and what impediments are encountered that must be overcome. The afternoon was focused on what it takes to support museums’ progress—funding, of course, public and private, but also philanthropic interest and engagement, international connections, and a well-trained, professional staff.
Over the next two days, we discussed how to conceptualize and realize exhibitions—the centerpieces of art and cultural history museums—to draw people in and get them looking, thinking and talking with one another. We also looked at ways to connect with different constituencies like old and young, well-educated and new learners, teachers and shopkeepers, etc. We also focused on the responsibilities of maintaining collections of art and visual culture. This includes taking physical care of objects, using them to learn about the worlds and situations they represent and communicate that knowledge to people who view them. We focused on devising electronic means for keeping track of museum collections and sharing them with the public, including those who can only visit a museum online.
What were some of the key outcomes of the summit?
I hope the museum summit is a beginning of a more robust nationwide dialogue among museum professionals. This would be directed toward finding ways to use the resources of their collections in creating public forums that people can use to enrich their lives and their understandings of India’s incredible artistic and cultural achievements.
Could you tell us about some of the Indian museums you have enjoyed visiting?
I’ve loved visiting museums since childhood. I like museums where visitors are talking to each other, pointing out objects, seeking information—museums where there is activity and engagement. In January, I was in a museum gallery and watched a very traditionally attired elderly grandpa and his little grandson hand-in-hand, leaning close to glass cases and looking inside. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but their interest in what they saw and in each other was in their body language.
Recently, I especially enjoyed my visits on weekends to DakshinaChitra in Chennai and the City Palace museum in Jaipur. There were a lot of families and groups of friends finding things to share and finding mutual interest in those collections and displays. I love going to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, where there is always something new and interesting to see. Both museums could have just rested on the displays of their permanent collections but, instead, have found ways to keep their offerings lively and timely. I also enjoy smaller museums with specialized collections, like the Sanskriti Museums in New Delhi.