International Museum Day: Enthusiasts discuss the state of museums in the city

On the occasion of International Museum Day, ardent enthusiasts discuss the state of museums in the city and where they would like it to go
Representational picture of a museum
Representational picture of a museum

The call for the revival of our museums has been a constant for a while now. Especially when there is a steady rise of private-run museums with an array of state-of-the-art tech in its presentation. Yet, on a hot Sunday in the holiday month of May, you’ll still find busloads of people walking the halls of the Madras Museum in Egmore. Families with young kids especially are sure to be found at the Rail Museum in Villivakkam. Tourist groups could be making their way to the exhibit at Fort St George in the presence of a very invested heritage preservation organisation. Such is the affinity for what ranks among the city’s most popular places of entertainment. 

“I always take people to government museums and initiatives. The Madras Museum’s campus itself has a very interesting history. It has gone through so many uses; it had a collector’s kacheri, a museum theatre, etc. It has a fruit bat colony still, which is the largest in the city. When we go to these places, it is important to understand the history of the campus, the buildings and then, the exhibits,” emphasises Thirupurasundari Sevvel, architect and heritage conservationist, as she points out the many aspects of our museums that still manage to fascinate visitors. Perhaps, it is for this very reason — that the places do hold endless scope for change and betterment — that we should keep up the call for its revival, keeping with the times and tech in hand. 

The road to change

“Museums are a very important subject but how do you make them active and interactive is important,” she says. As much as our museums have continued to hold our interest, we are still a long way from turning them into cultural hubs of activity. For one, our exhibits have had little change in years. While there is little change that can be done in, say, the Anthropology section, even the Children’s wing of the Madras Museum has had little improvement in terms of presentation. Walk into the section displaying models of the people of European and American nations and you could mistake it for a Child’s Play exhibit. “The museum should become a hub for activity, especially for children.

Photos from Egmore Museum and 

You need to create programmes. You can’t expect the child to walk through the whole thing and find it interesting; you have to make it interesting for them to understand the history and the art that has gone into it,” suggests  Gayathri Nair of Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB).  It was exactly this problem that architect Arivukkarasi Manivannan and her team tried to address through their project on architectural conservation in their undergrad course. “The project was to rethink heritage and focus on living heritage — how to make it more tangible, inclusive and interactive.

After studying the history of the museum and the renovations’ past, we proposed a few interventions that are not just theoretical but can be implemented on the ground. We tried to incorporate facilities from museums we’ve visited elsewhere in the country or outside the country,” she explains. The results of this project were five interventions — a foldable/cloth map that can be collected at the ticket counter to make navigation easier; a ‘you are here’ watch for kids made of paper/cardboard with pictorial representations of different sections of the museums — a memory map that doubles as a souvenir; jigsaw puzzle kiosks of the museum at ‘pause points’, where the reference is the view in front of you; audio trivia/fact files that can be accessed through QR codes at different points; and finally, tickets designed with images of the museum that offer trivia on the back. 

“We did all of these interventions on a small scale and sampled with it visitors at the Madras Museum on a regular day. It automatically invited interaction as people engaged with these materials. Taking note of this, the museum officials invited us to present our proposals. We even offered a quotation for the full-scale implementation of these facilities. But Keezhadi excavation and the pandemic as such got in the way and the process was stalled,” says Arivukkarasi. 

Interventions aplenty
S A Raman, Director of Museums, admits that Covid had stalled many a plan. “Audio guides was something we introduced as a pilot programme. Now, with the Tourism department and CSR funds, we are collaborating with Storytrails to do audio guides again. This will be made available for 60 important objects on display; it is in the final stage of production. A QR code next to the exhibit will allow anyone to access the information about it. For this, WIFI will be made available too,” he says.

Likewise, the museum’s other forays into technological interventions are still in the fledgling stage — be it touch tables, virtual reality rooms or 3D theatre. Visvesvaraya Industrial & Technological Museum, Bengaluru, will be assisting the authorities to implement these tools in a better fashion. Even as they are waiting for approval on proposals to establish a new archaeological wing and revamp the bronze gallery, these facilities will be a staple there, assures Raman. Right now, video walls in different sections of the museum are doing their part to offer something more.

These are ways to make the display not just more interactive but quite inclusive too, points out Thirupurasundari. “Touch and feel display, light-adjusted exhibits for the benefit of neurodivergent people (perhaps on select days), sign language facility, inclusive toilets and so on can make a difference,” she points out.  Beyond this, the idea is to get visitors to return again and again. How we do achieve that? “In some countries, museum tickets have images on the back and 10 of them together will make a bigger picture. When they give the 10 tickets, they get a gift.

Or a museum passport where each visit can have a sticker. Or a museum wordbook that caters to children with a reading habit. All this can pertain to adults too. Interactive display need not just be in the form of exorbitant architectural intervention, it can be done through design too. It is also important to establish museums as a space for art and culture that people visit for more than just the objects on display, suggests Gayathri, who at CPB has done quite a few exhibitions at the Madras Museum’s outdoor plaza. “I wish they would invite more organisations like ours.

They can invite sculpture makers or fine art teachers, and have a little workshop on the grounds. Even when we host exhibitions, there is a need for us to create an event around it, and add some gamification and activity. There is so much potential for them to do more, especially for young children and families. I think that’s what is very exciting for organisations like ours,” she shares. 

Raman is in agreement; the museum is looking to involve artists in the city through the Art and Culture department. “We are planning to engage naatupura kalaignargal on weekends for shows at the amphitheatre. In that way, we can look forward to several activities to engage visitors,” he signs off.  

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