A Way Out Of The Labyrinth

Rasshme Rao, Deccan Herald, conducted the following interview with internationally recognised heritage conservationist Vinod Daniel about the possible resurgence of museums post-Covid.

As a kid, one of my earliest memories of a Saturday outing was a visit to the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum in Bengaluru, or a weekend trip to Mysuru with the extended family to see the Mysuru Palace and its exhibits. Having grown up in an era where malls were unheard of and the Internet was still an unknown entity, we enjoyed visits to museums, parks, palaces, etc. But, children and young adults today don’t really appreciate visits to museums.

Much of their social interactions are online and getting them off the couch into sunlit outdoors is a task only few families manage. The pandemic that swept the world ensured that the rest of us stayed indoors too. Businesses shut down, jobs were lost, people tightened their purses. But we all realised that the Internet is a dear friend that could take us places, just by sitting at our desks peering into laptops and PCs with dilated pupils! Slowly, businesses have started limping back digitally. It is this momentum that even museums all over are trying to catch, with one click of the smart gadgets we have.

DHoS chatted with Vinod Daniel recently to know more about the challenges that museums face in post-Covid days and measures that would help overcome them. Mr Daniel is the CEO, India Vision Institute and the Chair, AusHeritage (the Australian Heritage Industry Network), besides being a second-time member of the Executive Council of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). He believes that merely unlocking from the pandemic will not bring back footfalls like earlier. So, he is of the view that museums should have a five-year revival plan during which they must use technology to increase digital footfalls, provide better interface between visitor and museum and rethink how exhibitions are to be held now.

Optimism abounds

Vinod Daniel works with museums globally. His interactions with museums in the recent months have revealed some stark findings. “Nearly 20 per cent of museum spaces globally have closed down due to the pandemic, including India. Less than a third of people previously employed now work on site. Museum staff have had job cuts and salary cuts too. Since most museums in India are state-run, the losses will be higher, but initial survey estimates peg the total loss of income to be 50-70 per cent of what they earned before. Now, nearly all museums want to go online, but this is different from a museum wanting to hold an entire exhibition online. Whether that can be a business model is a challenge; because in which case, a visitor pays a user fee for access. It is to be It is to be seen if museums want to take this route.”

However, there is much optimism that people will return to visit a museum by the end of 2021. After all, a museum is a physical space that can be experienced better when one visits it in person. Could people imagine not visiting the Sistine Chapel or the Uffizi Gallery? Or the National Museum in New Delhi or the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, the Sree Chitra Art Gallery housing original works of Raja Ravi Varma, or any of the National History Museums across the world? “I agree. Physical interest will always remain for museum shows and exhibitions. But globally, there has also been a dramatic increase in digital footfalls since lockdowns began. But many are still trying to figure out how to convert an online audience into a paying audience,” says Mr Daniel.

He suggests that museums use digital experience to spread awareness, but look at the marketing opportunities with some elasticity over a five-year horizon during which time, a transition ought to happen towards a revenue model. The challenge will also come in the form of making museums an attractive place to hangout for youngsters in the 18-35 age bracket. “Yes, this age group is the hardest to attract into museums. Abroad, museums make visiting them an experience with something for everyone. They have vibrant cafe and bars/pubs in their vicinity where people can take a break during the museum walk. In India, coffee and snack bars work the same way. So, museums must innovate with Instagrammable features, which will draw youngsters in and use technology to create awareness,” Mr Daniel advises.

Innovation needed

Difficult times call for innovative approaches to problems. And this is probably the time for governments, including India, to think of a different working model. “Globally, museums get 35-70 per cent of funding through grants while the rest, they raise privately. I appeal to the Indian government and to museums to tap into funding models, get more revenue streams and allow for autonomous functioning to a little extent. Let them function with public guidelines but work independently. For example, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum in Mumbai has a board of owners, but the government has provided land and guidelines. They will no doubt find a way out of these difficult times. But the Government Museum in Chennai is wholly government-funded and will not be able to stand up to new challenges if funding is reduced,” says Mr Daniel.

He says the recent budget was promising for museums as the central government had announced a separate allotment for museum development for the first time. “India was at the cusp of doing something big. But the pandemic put it on hold.” We have great history, masterpieces in art and sculpture, a culturally rich heritage — all that a museum requires to showcase. What’s lacking however, according to Mr Daniel, is skilled manpower resources. “With skill, brilliance happens. But this sector doesn’t have the requisite skills. India probably needs one lakh trained people to be part of its museums — both state-run and private. The two sectors could work together to revive India’s museums. Covid-19 has stirred the pot and we need to emerge stronger,” says he. Will our museums seize the opportunity and make their mark?

Read more at: