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Museum Dialogue in India

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Item Code: NAP986
Publisher: Aryan Books International
Author: Rama Lakshmi
Language: English
Edition: 2017
ISBN: 9788173055843
Pages: 218 (10 Color & throughout B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 11.00 X 8.50 inch
Weight 1 kg
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Book Description
About the Book

This book is the first-ever compilation of essays by cultural practitioners about the changing and unchanging dynamics of India's museum landscape. The essays highlight Indian cultural institutions? ambitious beginnings, missed opportunities along the way, and the canvas for future imaginings.

At a time when museums in India are undergoing a sea change, this publication provides an invaluable insight into museum design, curatorial narratives, documentation and cataloguing and visitors? experience that will soon redefine museum perspectives in India. The book is a welcome resource for all museum planners, curators, conservators and researchers in the field.

About the Author

Rama Lakshmi is the curator of Remember Bhopal Museum, and has been a correspondent with The Washington Post for 27 years. She lives in New Delhi, India. A museum studies graduate, she has worked with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Missouri History Museum.

Shikha Jain is the Chief Editor of Context, an annual journal of DRONAH. She is also Director, DRONAH, an interdisciplinary organisation working on several museum planning projects across India.


There is a palpable sense around us these days that our museums in India are going to change, that there is an impending Renaissance. This volume attempts to capture the important moment as we prepare ourselves to make the transition to a different kind of a museum dialogue; one that goes beyond just grand buildings housing precious objects. This collection of essays represents the museum in India in all its exhaustive and expansive potential including tangible objects, intangible cultural heritage, urban spaces, communities, performances, collections, archives and life narratives.

The first section on communities brings the focus of the museum back to people's memories, lived experiences and articulation of identities. Troubling events in contemporary India, like the India-Pakistan partition and the Bhopal gas tragedy, raise questions about the promise and perils of museumising contentious events, as written by Urvashi Butalia, Moulshri Joshi, Amritha Ballal and by me. But this conversation also offers us, in India, an opportunity to dismantle the high-culture-Iow-culture divide prevalent in our museums and forces the museums to engage with difficult narratives.

The traditional notion of a museum has expanded over the decades to include intangible cultural heritage found in oral histories, ethnic identities and urban habitats grappling with change. The demolition and translocation of flower markets of New Delhi marks a loss of cultures built around certain livelihoods, faith and urban lifestyles. This is a culture that is invisibilised by the Indian capital's frenetic march toward becoming a 21 st century super-city. The Dastangoi tradition, the Mughal art of storytelling, which has now found an exciting revival is not only an intangible cultural artefact but can also easily tie into the performative teaching techniques in a museum. As Elizabeth Pickard writes, gallery theatre can also be a rich way of facilitating visitors' meaning-making processes.

Indian museums have paid scant attention to visitors' comfort and experience. Visitor studies are only now taking off in India, but Andrew Pekarik warns us that visitors cannot be viewed as passive receptacles. Deepti Mulgund writes about how a new contemporary art museum in a mall frames the visitor in the context of conspicuous consumption. Batul Raj Mehta outlines the continuation of the colonial curatorial template in state museums of the past few decades, and offers us a glimpse into how they can be imagined differently - by connecting audiences to their own local histories. Kishwar Desai's important contribution to developing a Partition museum that seeks to fill the deafening silence about the foundational trauma of India and Pakistan. Amareswar Galla writes about the promise of locating culture as the fourth pillar of social, economic and environmental sustainability campaign. Abha Negi presents the glaring and acute apathy toward visitors in denial of universal access to people with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities, at historic monuments and museums, and highlights initiatives undertaken to close the gap.

In the past five years, new kinds of exhibition themes such as archival photographs, corporate memory, urban transport infrastructure, manuscripts and newer audiences have presented unique curatorial challenges. Diverse museum audiences visiting Indian exhibitions in the United States present their own set of questions about curator Vidya Dehejia's hybrid ethnic identity and perspective.

Finally, the planning and maintenance of museums, and turning them into efficient and profitable entities requires a wide range of professional expertise. How we train and produce these skilled professionals needs to be constantly reviewed by scholars to bridge the gap between the academia and the industry.


This volume has been put together at a time of tremendous churning in the museum world. There is a severe crisis in museums in the Western nations; an immediate economic blow that requires urgent attention, and a long-term one that threatens to re-order the fundamentals of the institution itself.

Hit by a massive economic slowdown, museums are facing debilitating cutbacks in state funding like in the United States. Others like Rotterdam's Wereldmuseum, have even been forced to sell their African and American collections to stay afloat.

But beyond the economic woes, the museum institutions are grappling with a more fundamental challenge to their identity and relevance. Through the 1990s, museums have tried to find their niche in an environment where visitors were drawn to other sources of entertainment and amusement parks. Now, in recent years, museums are also struggling to find relevance in a society that has been transformed by the use and access to content and knowledge on the internet, social networking sites and smart phones. The autonomy and the opportunity for articulation that You Tube, Twitter, Facebook, podcasts and other micro-blogging sites offer are unmatched.

There is a general suspicion of mediated platforms that offer authoritative, carved-in-stone, meta-narratives. The reigning mantra these days is 'user-generated- content' that is made possible by these sites. A new book asks if the museum will let go of its historical authority over content in a user-generated world. This question can change the museum in unrecognizable ways in the future. Will these two challenges, economic and social, mean that museums will cede more and more control to private sponsors, visitors and the community? But closer home in India, we are facing a very different kind of a problem.

It is not from the wired world or a shortage of funds. We are confronted here with an immobilising crisis of imagination. Most of our museums are trapped in an uninspiring sameness; beautiful objects displayed indifferently, stiffly-written labels and ponderous book- on-the wall text panels, lack of storytelling, social context or powerful experiences. There is a complete and unforgivable apathy toward visitor comfort, learning or entertainment. In this uncaring universe, some of the most important narratives about who we are, where we have been, are lost. The unspoken rhetorical code of our museum landscape is: 'Collect it. Display it. Forget it.' Somehow, having 4000 years of material culture has created in us a sort of a civilisational arrogance and ennui. We have the objects, so we do not need to do anything else. Artefacts are labelled, but rarely explained. Stories and experiences are not created around these objects. Coupled with this is the cult of expertise, a sort of Brahminical monopoly over knowledge, a mistaken belief that sharing it or breaking it down for the commoner would diminish its significance and perhaps, even its purity.

To unpack the visual vocabulary of our museums, we must look into its earliest impulses. During the colonial period, our first museum was born from the British excavators' and scholars' decision to store some of the archaeological artefacts in India, instead of shipping them all back to England. After Independence, the Indian government made the museum a handmaiden of its nation-building goal. The museums answered the needs of a newly independent nation's prideful patriotism. Between these storing and patriotic missions, our museums froze. We had wonderful artworks and artefacts but the museums did not communicate powerful and deep human stories.

There is an acute realisation now among almost everybody in India that we have failed to create museums that offer transformative experiences. But, there is also a universal acknowledgement that Indian museums are on the cusp of change and poised for an important leap. As India goes through a second wave of nation-building by means of industrial expansion, high economic growth, urbanisation, farm-to-factory migration, accompanied by disruptive changes in communities, ecology and livelihoods, our museums must prepare to address the difficult social, environmental and cultural anxieties that inevitably follow such deep transition. We must change our existing museums and create new kinds of museums that will reflect not only the transition, but also what we lose and what gets shaped in the process.

In a democracy, it is not always the argument that is important. What is often as important, if not more, is how the argument is conducted. What are the avenues for these troubling social discourses? In contemporary India, the arguments are conducted either in the political arena or in the media. Both platforms tend to be visceral and rhetorical. As museum professionals, we can work toward gently nudging the Indian museum into the argument by radically re-imagining it as a more constructive, contemplative platform for contested issues.

Our history museums must not freeze our past, they must weave it with our current turmoil, growth and aspirations. Art museums must step away from the obsessive discourse about how much each artwork is auctioned for. Instead, they must unearth stories about artists, where they come from, their caste, their homes, the prevailing power dynamics that their artworks battle and reflect, and what the art tells us about contemporary India's most important arguments. Our science museums must integrate stories about Information Technology growth and how it has shaped cities, communities and the aspirations of the youth. Our tribal museums must go beyond showcasing their craft and culture and celebrating them as singing- and-dancing calendar communities. They must help portray some of the most searing debates that tribal people encounter in India today, around issues of identity, land, resources, development and displacement. While telling these stories, we will be forced to reconfigure the prevalent codes in the elitist, celebratory Indian museums about what stories and objects are museum-worthy. Museums must portray intangible cultural heritage that lie embedded in our people, landscapes, urban settlements, faith and folklore.

For over 200 years, museums have been enduring repositories of the memory of human civilisations and construction of knowledge. The museum's core function of collecting, preserving and displaying have remained constant over the years, but its perceived role has changed over time.

We in India appear to have missed many of the stages of the journey that museums around the world have gone through in the past 60 years: from temples of knowledge, museums slowly moved to becoming informal learning sites that plugged the failures of the school system; then became metaphoric town squares for dissenting dialogues to play out; a safe place for community renewal, where group ideologies are explored and interrogated, to carry out the government's social inclusion missions and to emulating the spectacular set designs of amusement parks. The museum's goal kept shifting from education to social change to tourism to amusement park, to a stage now where visitors may become co-curators. Indeed, museums in the United States invite visitors to upload their own podcast tour of an exhibit. Some websites even run podcasts of alternative curatorial tour of art exhibitions. Some in the museum world talk about the Wiki-model of co-constructing the narrative in a museum.

We have missed many of the stages in the steady evolution of museums witnessed around the world. That is both a crisis and an opportunity. The crisis is that an entire generation of Indians has grown up without experiencing the magic of what our museums could have been. The opportunity is, as is true with all things in India now, we can skip a few generations and leapfrog into the endless possibilities of the future. We do not need to reinvent the wheel in a catch-up game and make the disappointing discovery that by the time we got there, 'the cupboard was bare' 1. Let us accumulate the combined global learning of the last 60 years in the museum universe and create a new kind of museum that reflects and suits our unique needs today. A museum that is born in and addresses a moment in transition will remain prepared and open for more changes in the future as well. Because even when the artefacts are fixed, the stories around them remain fluid, expanding and ever-changing.

In this age of hyper-communication, how knowledge is generated and shaped is as important as what is said. Museums that offer definitive, last-word narratives may no longer work to capture this moment of transition in India. The user-generated-content mantra, which is being posed as a challenge, actually provides us with the solution to the future of the museum in India. This technology mantra, in the context of the robust, argumentative democracy of ours, suits us perfectly because it allows us to tweak the story constantly.

As a civilisation and a nation-state that is both changing and unchanging, we do not move along a linear trajectory. Notable poet and cultural activist, Ashok Vajpeyi said, we live very comfortably with 'a simultaneity of cultures and eras around us'. So we can use technology effectively to create the kind of museums-fixed, physical, ephemeral, intangible, virtual, oral, moving, performative-that will leave plenty of open spaces for us to re-invent ourselves in the future through our million mutinous arguments.

**Book's Contents and Sample Pages**

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