House of treasures
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.”