When was the last time you went to a museum?

Ashwin Baindur shared this on the Wikimedia India List yesterday. He requested comments. This let out a chain reaction of thoughts which led to this blog post.

I don’t remember when it was I last went to a museum as a child. It was at a time when it was still called Prince of Wales Museum. Hence, it is certainly before the year 2000 when the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India became the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sangrahalay. The new branding calls them, “The Museum”. I don’t recollect ever having gone to the Bhau Daji Lad Museum before last year.

My only recollection of the Museum is going there as “picnic” from school and walking around in a single file whilst having no one to explain what the thing was other than monotonous boards that said, “Toy from the Indus Valley Civilisation” or some such. There was no context. What is so special about this toy in some time long past? Why is it kept in a museum? Why is this Museum interested in this toy? Our classes were huge. Museum staff was little to invisible. There was simply no one there to satiate our curiosity. This was before the Internet became pervasive or affordable. Even the exhibits were just kept on an old table in the room under tube lights. I am amazed that even this excited our curiosity.

The next time I went to the Museum was when Liam Wyatt came to India for building Wikipedia’s GLAM initiative in 2011. Liam had been working with the British Museum in London to enable content from the Museum to enrich Wikipedia’s articles and photographs while at the same time leading more visitors to both the website of the British Museum as well as to the Museum itself. He was in India to meet Wikipedian community members and cultural institutions in India to see if a similar initiative could be started in India. To Wikipedia, it was clear that this would increase and improve coverage of the Indian sub-continent. To the institutions, this was something new.

I have been part of several conversations that talk about how to improve the Museums in our country. These were private conversations. I have heard Museum professionals speak about their ideas and the changing notions of what the Museum means in the twenty first century.  These were mainly their professional view points. It did not seem to be laced with feedback from the public on what they expected from the Museum.

Above all, the Museum is a public space. It is a public space which aims to remind us of our historical heritage, something most of us lose touch with once we pass out of high school. It is a public space that points to the mechanisms by which our culture evolved over the years. It is a public space our youth can get educated. Informally, so that they know the outline without knowing too much in depth but a starting point from which they can find out more. It is a place to discover that there is such a part in our history. If it arouses his curiosity, he can always go home and look up more information on Wikipedia.

The cultural institutions – galleries, libraries, archives and museums – are today offline spaces where we discover new things. Things we did not know existed. It then intertwines with online spaces, where we share it on social media forums and try to learn more about from Wikipedia. Here, they learn more about books where they can learn more about. These might be found in a local library. Or perhaps in an archive?

I have felt that an important part of the conversation is missing because we speak from our perceived notions of what Museum might look like based on a visit you made quite a few years ago. So, before you read that article above – or if you’ve already read it – do give it some time. Do go and visit the Museum in your city. You never know, it might have changed, like the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India did. Once you go through the Museum, do tweet/blog/google+/facebook  about it but also write your feedback in that neglected guest’s book kept for our suggestions in the Museum. After you do this, might be a good time to speak about how we can improve cultural spaces in our country.

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