When a Museum is a mere Archive

On a recent trip to Odisha, an eastern state in India, that is rich in tribal art and craft, I visited the Tribal Art Museum in Bhubaneshwar, the capital of the state. While the state is full of rich culture and crafts of the ancient adivasis or native tribes with their culture, art and craft still visible, the museum was such a let down.

Museums in India, especially government museums, tend to be free or cheap and are under-funded. As such they don’t invest much money into proper display and archiving of work. Neither do they invest in curators who can transform a museum from a dull archive to a place of learning and exploration.
Again typical of India — the museum collection was inspiring and fairly comprehensive but their presentation was far from that. An employee remarked that some foreign tourists have even offered $50 to 100 to help fund the museum but they could not accept any money due to bureaucratic red tape.
While a museum is supposed to be a place of learning, this was far from that. They forbid photography, sketching and even writing. And they had someone follow me everywhere and even tell me where to go next! When I asked that person about a certain artifact, they had no clue.
Museums in India especially this one makes me sad. Their content is rich, but their rules and lack of curatorial guidance makes it a sad place to be at. I was even told by one of the museum employees that westerners have offered then $50 and more as a donation but they are not allowed by the government to charge a fee. No money of course, means no curator.
I wish we could learn a thing or two from the west in the way they even make the most banal topic interesting, interactive and evocative.
In India, a museum is seen as an archive, but surely it is more than that — it should be the cradle of learning and understanding a topic. It should create a sense of sacredness a place of worship of our ancestors of our collective human experience.
mu·se·um [myoo-zee-uh-m], noun
A building or place where works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed.
Origin: 1605–15;  < Latin mūsēum  place sacred to the Muses, building devoted to learning or the arts.

4 thoughts on “When a Museum is a mere Archive

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  1. Owch. That’s sad !! I had an amazing experience at the same museum though! There was a lady who took me around, and explained in detail, the stories of different tribes – lets have lunch some day and I’ll share the notes with you! 🙂

  2. the only museum in India that had me floored is Calico…though again it’s by the Sarabhai Foundation…and the other one is well in Patan Nepal curated by ALex Davis…Which are the museums in India that are worth visiting according to you?

  3. I totally agree with your point of view. I fail to understand the idea behind not letting photograph/ sketch in museums. What kind of confidentiality allows them to keep things on display, and still be so secretive!

    1. Exactly Garima, a museum should be treated as a place of learning, interaction, discussion and not just an archive. The former makes it a living museum and that’s what is really needed today — is this dialogue, debate and openness to disagree, and museums need to be as active as an educational institution in this regard.

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