Prerna SM Jain

Museums in India are facing a massive challenge. Most of them are aided by the government in some capacity and have already been operating on minimal funds. Now, with this ongoing disaster, allocation of finances will be diverted towards more pressing needs, further depleting museum funds. Museums will now have to look for unconventional ways to maintain a public presence and optimise their finances.

To understand this, let’s dissect the nation’s museum distribution. As Tejshvi Jain from ReReeti Foundation says, “If you look at the 2013-14 survey for museums across India, at that time there were approximately 900. It would have easily crossed 1,000 by now. Out of that, 36% were state funded, 17% central funded, 13% were managed by universities. Only 10% were privately funded.” This shows how heavily museums depend on government aids and how only a handful run in a private capacity

BhauDaji Lad Museum, Mumbai, is a Public- Private Trust modelled museum, which means that they are relatively cushioned from the impact of this pandemic. Unlike fully public funded museums, as Assistant Curator Ruta Waghmare Baptista says, they don’t rely on their footfalls and ticket sales for running their everyday expenses, and that works well during this time.

The silver lining of this pandemic has been the onset of the online conversion of physical collections and off-location e- activities for museums as most of them have had to reconsider their avenues to assert their identities in the public eye. However, a challenge that most of them have faced in creating content for their online portals is the inaccessibility to their entire collection. Museums usually have a vast collection and not all of it had reached onto their digital archives pre-Covid. This gives them limited resources to generate content with.

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta is the Honorary Director and Managing Trustee of the BhauDaji Lad Museum. She says, “What this disease has done is to telescope the future and brought it forward. It has zoomed us into the future in a sense because this internet revolution was coming but it was taking its time. Now you have no choice, you just have to be online, otherwise people will just forget about you.” BDL was the first museum in Mumbai to collaborate with Google Arts & Culture to showcase its exhibitions. They have a large amount of their collection on their website, and have been actively conducting webinars, online exhibitions, podcast guest talks. They also engage the community through their Treasure hunt, Instagram stories and quarantine e- cards (Quarantine Chai), which can be sent to loved ones. Mrs. Mehta says that a lot of things that they do is interactive and participatory. “We have flashback Fridays where we revisit our exhibitions because there are many people who may not have had the opportunity to see those exhibitions. In some cases the artists speak again and talk about their work as it continues to be relevant today and specially in these times,” she says. Some of the artists that they showed were Atul Dodhiya, Reena Kallat and L.N. Tallur.

The lockdown was announced very abruptly, which left museums in a lurch. They encompass expensive collections and ongoing shows that require maintenance and supervision to ensure conversation of the artwork. One concern, as Mrs. Mehta explains, is fungus. Amongst other measures, a solution to this has been placements of silica gel, which several museums had already implemented in an anticipation of a lockdown. Another challenge is that security procedures must be implemented and a team comprising several members needs to be present to conduct the checks. In the scenario that something would require maintenance through team effort, keeping the 6 feet distance would be difficult. When it comes to the upkeep of BDL’s ongoing show, Ruta says, “Luckily, the exhibition that we have ongoing was mostly video based work by Nalini Malani. So we don’t have to worry that it’s an object on loan, as it’s a video work. So, it’s one less thing that we have to worry about.”

When it comes to private museums, they also face a challenge as donors may want to prioritise their personal interests or staff before considering donations. Museums abroad are already shutting down, discontinuing programmes or having massive layoffs because of this reason. But some museums are receiving support. The Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bangalore is a private museum. Founder and Trustee Abhishek Poddar says, “We are grateful for the support from our patrons and donors to help us tide through this time.” Talking of their digital presence since the lockdown, MAP has taken their exhibitions online in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. In the last two weeks, they launched two new exhibitions on Historical Indian Monuments and one on Raja Ravi Varma. But their big recent project has been the creation of a global digital art collaborative named Bouquet of Hope. It features a website that invites the public to add an artwork or representation of a flower to their collection as a symbolic gesture of hope against this pandemic.

If we are to look at the impact on museums in non- metropolitan cities, we can consider Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum, Ahmedabad, which is a private museum. Its trustee Jayshree Lalbhai says, “We are a very young museum still grappling with establishing ourselves in the museum community. Being a private museum does come with its own challenges and therefore we need to define a specific role we would like to play in this space. At the moment we are attempting to encourage young people to come to museums and for that we have special programmes and internships that encourage them to get involved with museums. How the general condition of the virus progresses will determine how we will conduct our interactions. I don’t see much difference region wise, but yes, we are a smaller city than the main mega cities and therefore our audience differs.”

Considering this, for publicly funded museums, the best way to optimise their finances would probably be by cutting fixed costs in the most basic forms, such as having energy consumption and by reusing resources that are already available. This is considering the fact that the Department of Culture had provided meagre funds pre-Covid to begin with, as the focus has been more on monuments or sites, so they don’t have too many factors to cut down upon.

Going forward, one can expect more collaborations between various sectors, and a different version of each museum of appear in the post Covid era. It will be a conjunction of the physical and virtual world that would probably change our perception of museums forever and involve communities like never before. The need for a physical space will still remain as a reproduction cannot equate to the same feel as being in the presence of an artwork and more importantly, not everyone has access to the internet. As Tejashvi Jain opines, “We will have to do collaborations not just in the industry but outside in other industries also. Tourism sector is something that we have always worked with, it is also a major setback for them, but we have to see what other sectors can create a win- win situation for both.” Also, with museums in Berlin re-opening their doors, others might now be able to predict the public response and strategise. Until then, we can enjoy all the fun and offbeat activities that these museums are generously providing on their sites and immerse ourselves in this new online art culture.

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