Making our museums vibrant community spaces

Museums in India are generally seen as boring places with dusty exhibits and disinterested curators. Tejshvi Jain talks about ReReeti, her new initiative to transform museums into lively and engaging public spaces.

If you happened to pass by the State Archaeological Museum in Bengaluru on any day between May 18th and 21st, you would probably have been in for a pleasant surprise. In observance of International Museum Day (May 18th), the venue was host to a variety of informative and interactive events and activities over the weekend–from story-telling sessions to creative writing workshops, bringing together a diverse audience and fostering new connections and relationships not often associated with the Indian museum space.

These events were funded by Karnataka Tourism and organised by city-based organisation ReReeti, which seeks to revitalize museums, enabling them to connect better with visitors and support them in fostering new audience relationships.

The most common reaction among the urban Indian citizenry towards our state-run museums could typically be characterised as one of either disappointment or indifference. Those who have usually visited one or more international museums and have been exposed to the rich and vivid platforms they provide for engagement and assimilation are deeply disappointed at the state of affairs in our museums. You will hear them frequently lamenting the fact that despite having much to showcase, Indian museums have by and large failed to provide the kind of experiences that globally famous museums do. The indifferent rest have had their general enthusiasm for culture and heritage stymied by the dearth of attractive, imaginative and engaging enough spaces.

This is what ReReeti wishes to change. Transforming museums, with the help of a network of curators and museum professionals has been their motto since inception, and if Museum Day 2017 celebrations in Bengaluru are anything to go by, they are taking slow but sure steps towards reinvigorating the space.

Here is an account of ReReeti’s journey so far, the vision behind the initiative, its mission and the way ahead for Indian museums, in the words of its Founding Director, Tejshvi Jain:

The genesis

When I was working at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) at Bengaluru, I had the opportunity of attending a few workshops in London and Germany. When I went to these places, I realised the enormous potential and power of museums. I also came to know of active support networks of museum professionals. These are not necessarily people working as insiders in museums, but more like a community where one could exchange thoughts, discuss challenges and collectively come up with solutions for problems peculiar to modern day museums.

Coming back to India, I found there was nothing similar. After a lot of research and probing, I found there were only two organisations in the entire country, but they were also far behind the times in the way they were functioning, focusing mainly on the historical exhibits and not involved in the overall management of museums or resolution of challenges that museums face today.

A fellowship that led the way

Around this time, I also received the Arts Think South Asia (ATSA) Fellowship instituted by the British Council and Goethe Institut, for my proposal to evolve a collective outreach programme for museums in Bengaluru. I suggested a programme that could initially start with a series of workshops delivered by experts from India and abroad, and at the end of the pilot project, there could be an outreach programme for museums. This proposal was approved, but at that point I had to make a choice between working at NGMA and pursuing the Fellowship. I chose the latter.

I also tweaked the project a bit. Instead of restricting it to Bengaluru, I decided to open it up for museums across the country. ReReeti–the name, mission and vision statements–came about during the first two weeks of the Fellowship Programme at Delhi, where we were exposed to the various aspects of management of Arts.

Preserving the tradition

“Reeti” means tradition. Our museums are storehouses of traditions of thought, and our aim was to revitalise these spaces. Hence, ReReeti.

We have two main segments: capacity building and audience development. The first step in capacity building was to create and host an online blog on which experts from around the country would share their knowledge. Since this is an online forum, it pretty much connects all museums and museum aficionados.

Curated programmes by ReReeti and audience engagement programmes are currently only offered in Bengaluru. We are open to working with museums in other cities too in the consulting segment in 3-year or 5-year programmes where we will help them build and develop audiences. However, right now we do not have a running project in any other city.

A slow and steady positive shift

The Indian museum space has not evolved as it has globally. The three main reasons are lack of exposure, inability to employ and integrate the right people, and policies and systems.

While the staff at the museums run by the central government are regularly sent for workshops by experts in the field, the state-owned or university-owned or private museums miss out on this opportunity. Over the last few years, there has been a significant change in the museums run by the Ministry of Culture, thanks to the exposure given to the museum professionals. There is definitely a  positive shift in the attitude of the government towards museums.

However the shift has only just started and there is a long way to go before a majority of the state governments in India come on board. Many capable people wish to enter the museum field, but low pay scales and contradictory skills and eligibility requirements for posts is a huge roadblock.

The science of museum management

While there are other aspects of museum management too, such as curation, display and restoration, there were a few organisations already doing very good work in these areas. But the lack of a strong community of museum professionals and a strong outreach programme for Indian museums were the two sectors where I did not find any significant work being done and that was something I wanted to change through ReReeti. Hence, to follow Gandhiji’s famous words, “Be the change you want to see.”

ReReeti specialises in capacity building within the museums by getting together professionals, and audience development or community engagement. Even in these, there is so much that needs to be done. For example, when we are conducting the events at the state museum, we are also collecting important information on the people who are attending, where they are primarily from, the kind of activities that appeal to them etc.

An installation at the Museum Day celebrations to collect visitor data. Pic courtesy: ReReeti

Attention has to be given to the most minute aspects; for example, what kind of forms should you have, or what are the questions you should ask to elicit the right kind of information that you can then feed into your projects and actions? Or, even the seemingly simple task of writing the label texts: how can you tell the entire story of your museum in a way that will engage your targeted audience?

Based on the data, we can design future programmes and chart suggested courses of action for the government to follow. For example for the data collected it is evident that tourists form a larger portion of the visitor footfall. Since we strongly believe in involving the local communities, we will try to conduct activities for locals, the results of which will help fulfill the requirements of the tourists.

All this comes under the ambit of our activities. There is a science around this that has not really been explored in depth in the Indian context and our initiative aims to help museums do that.

A journey of hope and involvement

There is huge scope for museum development today in India. But it may take some time to convince museum authorities to wake up to an idea like ReReeti, because they have never heard of something like this – an outsider conducting outreach programmes or advising them. Education, interpretation and outreach are not words that museum managements in our country are very familiar with. Each word has a different meaning and approach.

For example interpretation looks at the way information is communicated, be it through label texts, signages in the museum or communication on the website. This is especially true of the state museums which comprise 33% of the entire museum sector in our country. Just making people in the sector aware and making inroads into the space have taken a lot of time and effort.

We started two years ago in 2015. Our first engagement was at the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum. That same year, we observed International Museum Day on May 18 with the Karnataka Janapada Loka (Folk art) Museum. The museum itself being on the outskirts of the city, the authorities were not sure that people from the city would travel all the way. So we celebrated the occasion in their Bangalore office itself – with all of eight people.

To add to that, power failed us during the events and there we were celebrating International Museum Day with candles! From there to International Museum Day 2017, when we had a thousand people joining us for various events at the State Archaeological Museum and media covering it enthusiastically – it has been a long but fulfilling journey!

The top museums in India

Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur, Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CMSVS) , Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDL) are some of the leading museums in India. The Directors have a vision and are steering the institutions with a systematic and structured approach.

While some of them are looking at accessibility and inclusion seriously, others are working towards processes and management. Besides these, there are some very interesting museums up north with interesting displays like the Anokhi museum in Rajasthan or the Shastra museum  in Amritsar.

What can a citizen do to make museums vibrant?

We believe in an inside-out and outside-in approach, which is why we have chosen the two segments of our work. So while we work with the insiders–the museum authorities and management to make the museums more interesting and appealing, we also work with the ‘outsiders’–the citizens and visitors, trying to inculcate in them a love for culture and a habit of museum visits. You see, the two have to go hand in hand if we want our museums to be the kind of vibrant, immersive spaces that we want them to be.

Families playing the treasure hunt game on their smart phones on the occasion of International Museum Day celebrations. Pic courtesy: ReReeti

The other thing we strongly believe is that a good city museum must include its people and they have to feel a strong sense of belonging. And so, before we suggest any changes, we would want to involve the people. This, I feel, should also be the approach when it comes to curation or refurbishment of city museums.

For Rereeti, since we are building outreach programmes, we ask the people what they want to see in their city museums, what sort of activities appeal to them, what would make them proud of their museum.

For example, if you visit the Glasgow Museum of Transport, even the migrant community of Pakistani taxi drivers have a voice, a presence. So they feel a sense of oneness with the museum and with the city. Then again, if you visit the Liverpool city museum, it is a beautiful and sensitive depiction of the entire history of Liverpool and the various aspects of life in the city. Every city museum needs to be built with that sensitivity and inclusive approach.

Striving towards more engagement and improvement

This is just the beginning of the journey though. Awareness is important, but we need to give the programme a structure. For the ReReeti vision to be fulfilled we cannot do things in an ad hoc manner. It’s not about creating a hype on one International Museum Day and then again picking up the threads next year. We need to have consistent and systematic improvements.

The Tourism Department in Karnataka has been very cooperative and enthusiastic so far in implementing the initiatives, and have themselves taken the lead in extending the programme to a network of 30 museums other than the state-run museums. I hope this interest can be sustained and we are able to work on a long term basis.

(As shared in conversation with Satarupa Sen Bhattacharya)

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