Microgrant Recipient Sarah Lamade (ARAD ’20) Shares her Reflections and Lessons from the All-India Museum Summit 2019

Second year MA student Sarah Lamade (ARAD ’20) at the Teachers College (TC), Columbia University received a microgrant this past summer. She attended the All-India Museum Summit in 2019. Sarah shares her experience with us here:

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Above: Sarah Lamade, this past summer in India.

I would first like to thank the ARAD department for granting me my second microgrant for professional development. I am grateful for this experience, and the juxtaposition between this conference and the conference I attended last year. I start with this not only out of gratitude, but also to position the conference I attended with this grant in stark contrast to the conference I attended with the microgrant I received last fall. This July, while I was conducting research in India for my Master’s Capstone Project, I attended the All-India Museums Summit 2019: India’s Museums in the New Millennium, held in New Delhi. Sponsored by the American Institute for Indian Studies and the United States Embassy, in partnership with the Indian Ministry of Culture, the conference was overwhelming guided by the bureaucratic structures of government institutions. On the other hand, CULTURE/SHIFT, the biennial conference of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, a grassroots activist organization, was participative, inclusive, and welcoming. While CULTURE/SHIFT centered around collaborative problem-solving, the Museum Summit centered around top-down sharing of best practices from already well-known success stories.

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Above: The State of Kerala’s approach to community museums, presented by Dr. Venu Vasudevan, Principal Secretary, Kerala Dept. of Archaeology, Museums, and Archives

I was eager to attend the All-India Museum Summit as my Capstone Project discusses how participatory methods can be used in Indian communities to determine new directions for Indian museums. The Summit unfolded with three days of panel presentations, broadly dealing with the issues of community engagement, audience development, and conservation.

From the range of papers presented, these were a few institutional and structural challenges facing the field that stood out to me:

  • There is a challenge of acquiring the materials necessary for building contemporary, interactive exhibition spaces. There is not enough exposure among Indian contractors to what types of materials may be required, so it is difficult to find local expertise in materials. This problem becomes aggregated because any international contracts are required to have local Indian partners.
  • There is not much funding available to finance “activities” and other such intangible plans for programming. There is a need to educate the government on the real needs of the sector.
  • Museums in India often face challenges with internal customs procedures and taxes when it comes to importing foreign art on loan.
  • There are a number of challenges that face potential outgoing loans for international traveling exhibitions from India. First there is a government committee that must process and approve all loan requests, giving the Ministry monopoly power to export exhibitions. Second, it tends to be very difficult to coordinate exhibition planning schedules with international museums and the international loan committee in India, such that international exhibitions are often planned years in advance, while the loan committee may meet to approve the loan a few months before the objects are scheduled to be shipped. Third, there is not a standardized process in India for assessing insurance on diverse genres of art, and the costs tend to quite high for exhibitioners.
  • Ministries and Secretaries of Culture in India change almost every year, so there is a lack of long-term planning in the cultural sector.
  • In conservation, human error and interaction with objects is the number cause of damage to art and artifacts.

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Above: Panel discussion on ‘Installing exhibitions that engage the public,’ chaired by Mr. Naman Ahuja, Professor of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (Left). Presenters Left to Right: Jawhar Sircar, former Minister of Culture, Kolkata. Shobita Punja, independent scholar and curator. Dr. Amareswar Galla, founder-director, International Institute for the Inclusive Museum.

Likewise, several innovations and best practices also stood out throughout the Summit:

  • The new Bihar Museum (Patna) is regularly open until 10pm, positioning itself as a “cultural hub” and catering to non-traditional visitors outside of typical working hours.
  • The Bihar Museum is using the terminology “Historical Art Gallery” to display pieces that might otherwise fall into that ambiguous realm between “art,” “craft,” and “artifact.”
  • The Partition Museum in Amritsar presents oral histories in every gallery and uses them to shape the interpretive narrative.
  • The Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum hosts monthly competitions with the museum guides and awards those who are able to speak the best about the exhibitions.
  • The Mumbai City Museum has also hosted career day presentations to introduce school kids to the opportunities of jobs in the museum sector. They also hold capacity building training for teachers, as well as police officers who manage the new Police Museum and Archives in Mumbai.
  • The Mumbai City Museum charges 500,000 rupees ($7,000) for one-day film shoots on their campus for one day. This money is pooled into an acquisitions fund which supports their growing collection.
  • Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai operates a Museum on Wheels bus which takes exhibitions and educational activities to the more remote regions of the city.
  • CSMVS also recently opened a Children’s Museum, which includes a space for student groups to completely innovate their own exhibitions, including setting a theme, choosing and placing the objects, and developing the interpretive narrative, which are professionally installed and displayed by museum staff.
  • In cases when 24/7 air conditioning and humidity regulation cannot be achieved for art and artifacts that require it, one possible solution is to use geothermal heat exchange, which cycles air underground to cool it and uses that to keep museum storage and exhibition space cool.

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Above: Concluding remarks by Nirupama Kotru, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, with Dr. Vandana Sinha and Dr. Susan Bean, American Institute for Indian Studies Center for Art and Archeology.

The opportunity to participate in this conference expanded my understanding of the work being done across the museum field in India, the challenges faced, and best practices being developed. I intend to be based in India after graduating, and so this served as important professional development for my future knowledge and work opportunities in the field. I was also able to network with a leading organization that is developing community-based partnership models to expand the engagement capacities of museums across India, as well as with an international leader in community-museum practice. I anticipate that the connections I developed in Delhi will continue to inform my work as I progress with my Capstone project throughout the fall and shape my professional goals into the future.

Many thanks once again to the ARAD department for supporting this opportunity!

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