House of trea­sures

Harper's Bazaar (India) - - BAZAAR HOTLIST - By So­hini Dey

IN A COUN­TRY where mu­se­ums are seen as ar­chaic tourist spots, Venu Va­sude­van is set to change things. The di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Na­tional Mu­seum is re­viv­ing the 65-year-old in­sti­tu­tion, which he took over in De­cem­ber 2013, filling its cal­en­dar with exhibitions and lec­tures, and bring­ing back vis­i­tors to the mu­seum with out­reach pro­grammes that ac­tively in­volve peo­ple.

Among the mu­seum’s ma­jor events last year were A Pas­sion­ate Eye, the first ex­hi­bi­tion by a pri­vate donor (the Bha­rany fam­ily); The Body in In­dian Art, a dis­play of art and arte­facts deal­ing with cor­po­real dis­courses; and most re­cently a showcase of Ker­ala’s Pat­tanam arte­facts. “We wanted to host events that would bring back art and his­tory en­thu­si­asts to the mu­seum,” says Va­sude­van. “Th­ese cre­ate an at­mos­phere for schol­arly de­bate.” Such events also give the mu­seum team an op­por­tu­nity to ex­hibit the mas­sive col­lec­tion in their re­serves.

The num­ber of exhibitions held in 2014 was more than what the mu­seum has hosted in 12 years, and, not supris­ingly, the num­ber of vis­i­tors have in­creased by 30 per­cent. “We want to give back the mu­seum to the peo­ple,” says the 50-year-old Ker­ala na­tive, who used his ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing on the gov­ern­ment’s In­cred­i­ble In­dia and Ker­ala Tourism cam­paigns to re­store the space. “When I started, the mu­seum had closed down a third of its gal­leries. Ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties, from the café to the wash­rooms, weren’t in shape, and we had no books or pub­li­ca­tions.” De­spite bu­reau­cratic de­lays, his ef­forts have turned things around, and even re­stored the closed s ec­tions— Alamkara, t he jew­ellery gallery opened last year after a decade.

Hav­ing also set up a mu­seum in Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram— Ker­alam, which dis­plays the state’s his­tor­i­cal arte­facts— Va­sude­van aims to make the ex­pe­ri­ence of mu­seum vis­its a plea­sure. “It sounds crazy when we say our big tri­umph was not hav­ing power out­ages all sum­mer,” he says. “But if you’d seen the mu­seum be­fore, you know what a big deal it is. It is now turn­ing into a place peo­ple like vis­it­ing.” To get peo­ple in­volved, Va­sude­van also de­vised the vol­un­teer guide pro­gramme—city res­i­dents trained to of­fer mu­seum tours free of cost. “When I came up with the plan, I was told it’d never work. I placed a news­pa­per ad any­way—500 peo­ple turned up at the first go.”

Va­sude­van is now pre­par­ing to re­open the bronze, manuscripts, and Cen­tral Asian an­tiq­ui­ties gal­leries. Also on the cards is an ex­hi­bi­tion on Dec­can arts that will open this month, fol­lowed by plans for shows on saris and yoga. Va­sude­van con­sid­ers him­self only a tem­po­rary man­ager of the in­sti­tu­tion but en­vi­sions to el­e­vate it to the ech­e­lons of the iconic mu­se­ums of the west. “We have to over­come a lot of chal­lenges, but I hope to see the Na­tional Mu­seum reach the po­si­tion en­vi­sioned by its founders, of be­ing among the great­est mu­se­ums in the world.”

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