Beyond a jewel box institution ( Culture, Role of Museums,Gs paper 1, The Hindu)


Museums are not just repositories of objects that educate the public. They can also be social and interactive places where a viewer’s experience becomes important
The new Whitney, a great museum devoted to 20th and 21st century American art, opened in lower Manhattan on May 1 with Michelle Obama as the chief guest. I couldn’t wait to see the much heralded building designed by the celebrated architect, Renzo Piano, a favourite of many museum trustees and directors in the United States.
And what a thrill it was to see the spectacular site! It was less about the iconic building, à la Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, and more about its place in the surrounding community that made it so exciting. First, even before I reached the entrance, it was evident that this was a building for the people: its street-side ground floor, encased in glass, had a restaurant on the one end and a public gallery and information services on the other. The outside and inside were further connected by a loggia with a cantilevered roof. This was meant to cater to the visitors of the adjacent High Line Park, an urban oasis made out of old train tracks meant for the meat packing industry of the past.
An azure blue late afternoon New York sky over the gently waving waters of the Hudson River beckoned the visitors to the western vista of a busy lower Manhattan. Art was all around — from the visitor-friendly sculptures in the lobby to the artists-designed elevators, to the exhibition galleries and the art education studios.
A cultural centre
At every step of the way, it was evident that this was not a jewel box institution, to be protected from the everyday hustle and bustle of the city. This was no longer a temple of learning in the Western classical tradition, but a cultural centre for the people. Both objects and visitors were important in equal measure.
This was a social place that invited outsiders in, as if to say: ‘why don’t you come in and join us in exploring some parts of American art that may interest and amuse you?’ And while you are at it, you may want to share a meal in one of the restaurants ran by the famous New York Chef Danny Myers or go out on one of the several outdoor galleries, filled with some of the finest sculptures by American artists.
Every aspect of the museum — from the floor narratives to labels — reinforced the idea of a museum as a socially active place that could make the museum experience more interactive and less forbidding.
I couldn’t help but compare the new Whitney to the old one. Designed in 1966 by another celebrated museum architect of the time, Marcel Breuer, the old Madison Avenue building reflected the idea of a museum experience that shielded the visitor from the noisy, messy realities of New York.
The galleries were protected from daylight and noise, lest they distract from your viewing experience of precious objects. The art experience was to be serious and intense, requiring full attention of the viewer.
The new Whitney, by contrast, allows daylight to flood in. It has multiple outdoor spaces and staircases that allow viewers to exit the galleries and bask in the Manhattan sky light. In some galleries, you can even just take a break and sit on a couch to take in the shimmering sunlight bouncing off the Hudson river.
This movement towards making museums of the 21st century more people-friendly, which in turn profoundly changes the definition of the institution itself, does not include only the new Whitney. For much of the 20th century, museums were seen as the repository of objects; their primary mission was to acquire, preserve and present objects that could educate the public. The new Whitney shouts out the transformation of museums, now as lively cultural centres where the experience of the viewer and his or her interaction with the objects is accorded primacy. It is now understood that in order to create museums as destination spaces, they must also be an integral part of a community that sees the institution as part of its life.
Indians go to museums too
These new directions in museum-building and managing create huge opportunities for a resource-rich country like India. Indian museums are surely not short of quality objects, especially of Indian art. But the sad truth is that they continue to be stuck in the conceptualisation of the previous century.
Museums collect and categorise objects, but there is little awareness or inclination to create active pathways for visitors to engage with the rich collections. Many used to argue that the problem was the lack of resources and expertise. When large numbers of museums continue to be run by Indian Administrative Service officers, who are generalists by their own admission, it is difficult to see where imaginative ideas that are deeply rooted in the indigenous traditions but are well aware of the latest practices in museum development could come from.
While India spends far less on its cultural treasures than countries like China do, it is fair to point out that the crisis is less one of resources and more one of imagination and commitment. It is also often said that Indians are not a museum-going, art-appreciating lot. But this is not true: young people throng the Kalaghoda festival in Mumbai and the December music festival in Chennai, among others, and engage with art, music, and food. This shows that there is a thirst for more substantial cultural spaces. The issue is not that Indians are not interested in a cultural experience; it is more about connecting their expectations with the actual experience of a museum, not unlike what the new Whitney has done for its audiences.
Some have argued that there is plenty of culture to go around on Indian streets and homes. Indians don’t need to worship at the altar of a colonial institution such as a museum. This flies in the face of substantial research that shows that museums and cultural institutions can be both engines of economic growth and sources for community stability.
They can also be powerful catalysts for understanding a country’s past, and for future creativity.
A year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a case for India to be the Jagadguru (teacher of the world), as articulated by Swami Vivekananda, because of its civilisational strength. If India is serious about being a cultural leader and a spiritual teacher in the world, it will have to figure out fast how to activate the potential of its moribund museum sector and bring it into the 21st century.

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