When a resurrected museum faces mortality again

When a resurrected museum faces mortality again

Prerna SM Jain

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta is the Honorary Director and Managing Trustee of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. The 1872 founded museum had fallen into a derelict condition by the late 1990s. In 2003, Mrs Mehta joined the museum and revived the dying institution through extensive efforts. Subsequently, the museum was awarded a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award of Excellence and has now become a cultural icon. But today, it again faces an existential crisis due to the Covid- 19 pandemic.
Mrs Mehta was the vice-chairman of INTACH (Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage) for six years. Harvard University included her in a list of 25 women who have made an outstanding public contribution in India. Mrs Mehta is a member of the Museum Expert Committee in the Ministry of Culture, and of the Academic Council of the National Museum Institute of the History of Art, Conservation, and Museology. She is also a trustee of the Kochi Biennale Foundation. She is a member of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York and has been a nominator for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Creative Arts awards.
Mrs Mehta has penned a tremendous amount of literature and books on restoration and artists. She was a member of the first editorial board of ArtIndia. She was named as ‘Mumbai Hero’ by Mumbai Mirror, to which Mrs Mehta says, “It is nice to see the community appreciate the work one has done.” She was directly involved in a PIL which saved four mills in Mumbai from being torn down. Those mills now serve as an entertainment and museum complex.
Mrs Mehta has been progressively transforming the Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Museum’s online presence. BDL was the first museum in Mumbai to collaborate with Google Arts & Culture after the Covid-19 outbreak. It hosts several webinars, ‘Flashback Fridays’ exhibitions, and artist talks. Its Instagram platform always has something interesting to offer, be it stories, quarantine e- cards, participatory activities, or podcast. According to Mrs Mehta, “the internet has zoomed us into the future”. She says that the Covid-19 pandemic has “telescoped the future” and brought it near. If museums are not on the internet now, she says, “people will forget about us”. But there is still a great need for physical presence, she says.
“I think the physical presence of the museum and seeing the object in real life, there is a magic about that, which I don’t think even the internet can replicate. You may be able to zoom in on an object and see details that even the human eye may not be able to see; and I know that technology is becoming so good that you may be able to see the object in the round, you could do all sort of virtual reality stuff. Those are all great experiences in terms of amplifying what the object represents. But the physical object itself, its scale, the way it looks, its texture etc, we haven’t gotten so far yet. But that is also coming, I believe.”
Prerna SM Jain spoke with Tasneem Zakaria Mehta to know more about her journey and her plan for the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Here’s what she said:

Can you tell us more about your journey with The Bhau Daji Lad Museum?
I conceived of, executed, designed and in many ways did all the research and writing to create the museum as it stands today. I was trying to identify a place to do conservation and restoration work of objects and artefacts, because in India at that time, 20-22 years ago, when we started this project, there was no emphasis on the conservation of objects. The emphasis has always been on the conservation of buildings, monuments and sites. Across the country, if you read the CAG report (Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report), you will see how neglected museums have been.
I had just come back from living in America and in England, where there is huge amount of care for cultural properties. My question was why can’t we be as good as them? What is it that is holding us back? We have the most incredible objects, we have the most incredible museums and amazing sites, so why can’t we be not just as good but better? That’s really how I came to the Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

How did you raise funding?
It took a couple of years to find it. I had to go and meet several funders. People had not really understood or gotten involved with conservation at that time, so I must give credit to Rahul Bajaj, Neeraj Bajaj and Minal Bajaj who understood what I was trying to do. I had approached other funders before who did not respond. It is a very difficult job, raising funds, convincing people that cultural heritage is something that they should give to. Most people are interested in giving to schools, hospitals or their own NGOs. All corporates have their own NGOs that they create and that they give to. The project I had conceptualised took 5 years to execute. It was never meant to be about just conservation; it was meant to create a living institution that would respond to the community and be a benchmark of excellence.

That’s quite a journey!
I think have been very blessed that I was able to undertake this journey. There were many obstacles, many mountains one had to climb, but it has been worth it in the end. I think we have really shifted the needle.

Tell us more about your interests and achievements.
I still have fancies of going back and writing a novel, once I am able to stabilise everything at the museum. I think of going back to painting, a bit of sketching, but I love drawing. Drawing is really where my heart is.

In the current Covid crisis, what is your advice to other museums to manage their finances and maintain their audience?
Industry has taken such a knocking, a lot of funding will now go towards setting up hospitals and ensuring that medical care of good quality is available. I think it is going to be very challenging for museums in the near future. The internet is probably the main resource we have. We have to use it in all sorts of ways to ensure that we engage audiences. At some point we may have to do things which would have seemed sacrilegious in the past. Museums are considered to be institutions for research, scholarship and knowledge. Are we dumbing them down by following concepts like Game Theory? I don’t think so. It depends on what the objective is. Our objective has been to widen the horizon and enable people to think creatively. It is to take them out of their silos they are in, but the value systems you communicate while doing so is extremely important.

Which book are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Emperors of the Peacock Throne – The Saga of the Great Mughals by Abraham Eraly. I’m very interested in Mughal history and this is a beautifully written book.

The interview with Mrs Mehta is available as a podcast on ArtTalks with Prerna Jain through Spotify.

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