Tech and its role in museum makeovers

The following article was prepared by Ruth Dhanaraj for the Hindu on 19th April 2022.

Vinod Daniel. Credits: Special Arrangements

Vinod Daniel, an internationally-recognised museum expert, talks about the need for preventive conservation and for smart uses of tech in this field.

Gone are the days of yore when museums were trusty harbours for dusty relics. With a growing awareness to preserve cultural treasures for posterity, there has been a bid to make museums more visitor-friendly and the exhibits simpler to understand. Over the past decade, India has been sending its conservators to attend programmes abroad, such as at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and SRAL The Conservation Institute in the Netherlands, to better equip themselves in terms of various conservation techniques.

According to Vinod Daniel, an internationally-recognised museum expert based out of Australia, far more goes into the conservation of collections than the repairing or restoring of textiles, paintings, furniture and other artefacts. “We need to minimise damage beforehand. Preventive conservation is important as it can decrease the impact of ‘agents on collections,” he says. Agents could be factors such as exposure to heat and light as well as the more obvious ones of fire, water and insects.

Surprisingly, 90% of collections are not in museums, but in private hands, says Vinod, who was in Bengaluru to conduct a workshop organised by the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) on ‘Preventive Conservation for Museums’. He believes even those with paintings or antiques at home should read up on the best ways to preserve what they have as well as invest in basic technology to aid them with the same.

Light meters, heat and smoke detectors, temperature controllers and automation codes and chips to track exhibits in case of theft, are a few areas where technology has been employed to preserve a work of art. “The goal is to increase the life expectancy of the object. Technology has come to the rescue of fading collections time and again. For example, reproductions have been made of cave paintings and displayed in realistic surroundings so the actual site can be closed to public, for the simple purpose of keeping them safe.”

Thanks to technology, virtual displays and museum tours have given people access to collections around the world and the interactive options with objects, 3D imagery and institutions make for an enriching experience. Does he think virtual tours could reduce footfalls in reality? Vinod is quick to answer: “Most people who have seen a copy of the Mona Lisa will still visit the Louvre to see it if they are in Paris.”

Vinod Daniel with Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan at the inauguration of the new Nayanar Museum in Kannur. Credit: Special Arrangement

However, Vinod warns ‘technology must not be used for its sake but rather to augment the audience experience’. Apart from its value addition to exhibits, technology is pivotal to collections such as Natural Science where it is used in mapping biodiversity, climatic conditions and the like.

“Some museums in Bengaluru which are judicious in their employment of technology are the Indian Music Experience, Science Gallery Bengaluru and MAP, while others in the country include Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Mehrangarh Fort Museum in Jodhpur, Partition Muse in Amritsar,” he says.

Thankfully, the museum movement in India is slowly changing for the better as people are taking up the care, development and upkeep of museums on a private or semi-private basis. Still, Vinod believes India must relook at how its museums are managed and move matters from the scope of bureaucrats to skilled professionals.

“This is a long process — the Chhatrapati Shivaji museum in Mumbai, perhaps the finest example of a modern museum in India, began the process of revamping in the mid 90s, but was completed only in 2015. During this period, the museum only had two successive directors which allowed for implementation of changes without undue delay.”

Vinod believes the best way to improve India’s museum scene, is to consciously employ professionally-skilled personnel in areas of conservation and collection management, and to cater to audience’ expectation of time well spent. “We need to cater to those in the age groups of 15 to 30 years as they are the ones who generate excitement,” he says, adding that this age group piggybacks on popular trends.