The following article was prepared by Vinod Daniel, Board Member, International Council of Museums and Chairman, AusHeritage for The Hindu on 4th June 2021
A planned decision to move the National Museum could serve the institution’s interests well
The National Museum in Delhi is a repository of India’s rich history and proud heritage. Over the past few months, many critical pieces have been written about the government’s decision to move the museum to the North and South Blocks. However, examples from other countries show that a planned move can serve the collection, comfort, and audience experience needs of the National Museum better. In addition to Egypt, where the impressive Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza will replace the crowded Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo, many national museums have moved to new premises.
The current building, though impressive, has limitations in being a national institution. The new location will provide a space that is over four and half times bigger than the current space. The museum has over 2,00,000 cultural collections and less than 6% of them are in display. The move can provide an opportunity to bring more collections from storage to be displayed through the creation of several more galleries. Additionally, it will also provide much more space for storage, especially with more collections being constantly added from excavations, donations and repatriations.
From the time an exhibition of Indian art was organised at the Royal Academy in London, and later in Rashtrapati Bhavan, which led to the creation of the National Museum, the collection numbers have been increasing manifold. They will only increase further in the next few decades.
The North and South block buildings are a prominent part of Delhi’s landscape. Once they are retrofitted to provide a fitting external façade (without compromising on heritage), international standard exhibition and collection storage areas, and spaces for education and visitor services, they can become a landmark location. The increase in space would allow for more gallery spaces to include both ancient and contemporary Indian art and culture. The current museum also struggles in terms of finding a space with adequate environmental controls for travelling exhibitions. There will be an opportunity in the new location, with the increased space available, for accommodating both international and national travelling exhibitions. The National Museum as the nodal agency for all outgoing and incoming cultural collections, including repatriated collections, will be able to serve these collection needs better.
Key skills for students
The National Museum Institute (NMI), whose highly skilled graduates not only serve the needs of the museum but also the broader needs of India’s cultural sector, will benefit much from the move. The students could gain a lot from the collections, their storage, conservation and interpretation. They can greatly benefit with a large increase in laboratory, gallery and teaching facilities. There is also an interest to expand NMI and incorporate its programmes in Museology, Art History and Conservation along with other programmes in Archaeology, Archival Studies and so on, under a new institute. The benefits would only be greater from an expanded operation.
The exhibition areas in the current building are still operational. A new Buddhist gallery is being opened at the adjoining Archaeological Survey of India building. In this context, keeping the collections safe in the current building and getting the new location ready before carefully moving the collections with safe packing and transport is important. The risks of damage to collections during transit can be greatly minimised. A better designed and new collection storage area in the new location will minimise risks from the environment, disasters and pests.
A revamped National Museum that looks at both people and collection comfort; has galleries that provide excellent audience experience; good education spaces; and uses technology creatively for interpretation, outreach and education could become a ‘must visit’ for every visitor. In fact, it could become the anchor for a vibrant museum movement in India.