By Cho Rao, Class of 2015
On March 1st, 2016, an unusually balmy spring day in San Francisco, Dr. Suresh Sethuraman from Chennai, India, visited USF to talk to us about Museums and Contemporary Museum Culture in India. The lecture was well attended by current Museum Studies students, professors, and alumna, as well as esteemed guests such as Dr. Jay Xu, the director of the Asian Art Museum and friend of our speaker. Dr. Sethuraman is a Fulbright Academic and Professional Excellence Lecturing Fellow currently in residence at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A highly accomplished scholar, he holds a Master’s Degree in Archaeology and two PhD’s, in Classical Archaeology and Medieval Indian Art.
Dr. Sethuraman’s impassioned presentation was both lively and informative, illuminating both the rich cultural heritage of India and the many challenges inherent in its preservation and management. Tracing the development of museums in India to colonial times when the British founded large encyclopedic museums such as, The Indian Museum in Kolkata, in 1814, the first museum in India. Dr. Sethuraman also revealed to us that during this same period, numerous smaller museums were built by independent Princely States around their royal collections. Independence in 1947 brought a new wave of museum expansion and The National Museum was inaugurated in 1949 in India’s capital city, New Delhi.
Dr. Sethuraman went on to describe that the administration of many museums in India is undertaken by two main government organizations, the Ministry of Culture and the Archeological Survey of India. However, there are also several smaller government agencies such as the Indian Railways, the Postal Authority, and the Indian Army that run smaller local and specialized museums. He added that the total number of museums in India has not yet been fully studied or surveyed, but could be conservatively estimated to be at around one thousand.
Further elucidating that the public impression of museums in India is very different from how museums are viewed in many Western countries, Dr. Sethuraman explained that in India, museums are generally perceived as esteemed repositories of heritage objects and sites, and not, as active vibrant research centers or public spaces. Modern museum practices in the West such conservation, research facilities, educational programs, object rotation, contextual display, guided tours, published materials, security, and gift shops are all relatively new concepts and are still in its infancy in Indian museums, but he reassured us that they are slowly but surely trying to change and adapt with the times.
Dr. Sethuraman outlined two successful cases studies of museums that exemplify this progress and in which he himself was involved. They are the DakshinaChitra Museum located on the outskirts of Chennai city and the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDLM) located in the city of Mumbai. DakshinaChitra, which translates to “a picture of the south”, is a museum devoted to South Indian heritage and culture, highlighted by the contextual display of original period homes.
The museum, which opened to the public in 1996, is the brainchild of Dr. Deborah Thiagarajan, an art historian from Philadelphia, and offers its diverse audiences a wide range of programs and activities including an extremely popular gift shop selling traditional handcrafted objets d’art. Besides his respected academic role, Dr. Sethuraman also serves as the Convener for the state of Tamilnadu for INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. A voluntary non-governmental organization whose award winning work has achieved tremendous success in conserving and protecting India’s rich cultural heritage. One such project was the restoration and revitalization of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDLM).
Established in 1872 and known as the Victoria and Albert Museum till 1975, it is the oldest museum in Mumbai showcasing its history, lifestyle and culture. The restoration was so successful that the BDLM received a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Award of Excellence in 2005. Besides its permanent collection, exhibitions at the refurbished BDLM now include both national and international shows ranging from photography, poster design, special traveling shows and contemporary art. Its impressive and comprehensive education program for both children and adults alike, attract many local visitors, tourists and school groups. Its dramatic transformation into a burgeoning and vibrant public space as well as its ambitious plans for further expansion, serves as an inspiring role model for other Indian museums.
At the end of the lecture, during the energetic Q&A session, Dr. Sethuraman also mentioned that amongst other public institutions that offer a variety of museum studies courses and internships, the National Museum Institute founded in 1989, a center for training and research in art history, conservation and museology in The National Museum in New Delhi, is actively building professionalism and scholarship in the museum field in India and opening the doors to a new and bright future.
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