There is a lot happening at the Government Museum complex at Egmore. The Government had announced that the Bronze, Amaravathi and Zoology galleries would be expanded to permanently display the reserve collection of the museum. The modifications, to cost Rs 80 lakhs, will be completed by December this year and the exhibits that are currently locked up will all see the light of day. This it is claimed, should increase the footfalls at the museum, which is currently one of the principal tourist attractions of the city.
While this is no doubt highly commendable, what is of concern is the background to this decision. And that hides a malaise that the Government would do well to address. It is the practice among museums across the world to place on display only a percentage of their collection.
The rest are kept in vaults to be brought out on a rota basis, thereby ensuring that the exhibits keep changing. This obviates monotony and encourages visitors to return to the museums. Of course, such a rotation policy does not apply to star exhibits, which are kept permanently on display.
The Madras Government Museum too follows the same policy, on paper. In reality however, it has not made changes to its display for over decades. As a consequence, the artefacts in public view have remained the same while the rest have remained under lock and key for years, being opened up only to curators and research scholars. In short, the museum, for reasons best known to itself, has chosen not to rotate its displays. It is believed that what is in the showcases amounts to just about ten per cent of what the museum really has. The rest is more or less permanently out of bounds.
Rather than finding out why the museum chose not energise itself by changing displays, the Government has opted to put up everything it has on to the showcases. On the one hand, this means the priceless collection is at least in public view and therefore unlikely to be misplaced, lost, stolen or damaged. On the other hand, it simply means monotony at a very high level. There is only so much of history that the eye and the mind can absorb while on a visit to museums. How then is such a step likely to increase footfalls?
Ask any resident of Chennai, and more so the school-going children as to whether they ever visited the museum and the chances are you will get either a no or always meant to as an answer. That means the Government museum means very little to the locals. As for visitors from overseas, it is always the bronze gallery that is the biggest draw. They come here probably once in a lifetime, unless they are serious researchers. This means the museum authorities and the Government are neglecting the potential that the local population has by way of being attracted to the museum.
World over, museums are faced with the challenge of remaining relevant. They have responded by launching creative programmes for people of all ages. They have transformed their spaces into vibrant and interactive centres. Their web sites are up to date and many have mobile applications to highlight what they have. There are even sleepovers for school children at some museums. When was the last time our museum launched a drive to attract more visitors to its premises? Probably never. It is high time the museum changed its style of working and became more responsive to the requirements of visitors and those wanting to learn.