This September, the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University partnered with the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum in Mumbai to hold a workshop exploring how museums could potentially create an expanded culture of civic life that represents and nurtures the diverse and plural sensibilities of those with whom they share space.

The 3-day workshop covered a variety of lenses through which we can view the museum: as a forum, a mechanism for cultural partnership, a platform versus a container, a cultural infrastructure, and more. The participants also grappled with issues of museum management, patronage, and conservation, looking to develop strategies for effective curatorial practices moving forward. The workshop resulted in an exchange of knowledge around museum practice and integration, as well as discussion around necessary areas of improvement to fully promote the museum as an agent of change and development.

In delivering his keynote, Jyotindra Jain, former Director of the National Crafts Museum, New Delhi, articulated a need for the development of a cultural infrastructure available to all museums and cultural institutions, as well as academic institutions for the purpose of knowledge transfer and implementation, including an acknowledgement of both tangible and intangible culture. He stressed that museums can and should act as generative forces of revitalization of urban environments if they are conceived as forums for discussion and deeper understanding of collections as opposed to temples. The former encourages active inquiry, such as looking into artifacts instead of passively just looking at them, acknowledging their complex identities and histories. Lastly, he emphasized the need for “provenance research” and “restitution” of objects to their places of origin, encouraging museum leaders to set up or collaborate with ‘Provenance Research Centers’ to look at which objects have been removed, when, and why. These are just a few of the ways to reintroduce museums as facilitators of “civic seeing,” allowing them to engage with rich cultural heritage in their own cities and beyond.  

Following Jain, other participants from museums and cultural institutions in the region and beyond gathered to discuss the ideas put forth in the keynote, bringing in their own perspectives, successes, and difficulties from their own home institutions. Jeff Steward, Director of Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology at the Harvard Art Museums, discussed how museums are truly greater than the objects that they house and that they should be viewed as a collection of ecologies created by the stories that the objects tell.

Professor Tarun Khanna, the Mittal Institute’s Director, spoke about the use of museum technology to bridge the collections with the visitors who want to learn from them, creating dynamic relationships within the museum space. He also stressed the importance of inclusion of marginalized communities, giving the MFA Boston as an exemplary case. 

Ranjit Hoskote, a seminal contributor to Indian art criticism and curatorial practice, echoed these points, asserting that museums should merge desire and social capital, moving away from the fetishization of becoming catalysts, brokers, and mediators between their collections and the world. 

T.R. Doongaji, a veteran affiliate of the Tata Industry, noted how important it is to regularly consider patrons as important contributors to museum’s success and growth — specifically, the fact that patrons are interested in the real value of the objects, and not just their names. This plays into the financial livelihood of the museum, Doongaji added, emphasizing that patrons are interested in the cause, and if the museum’s “cause” is good, the means will follow.

The points shared by these participants and other panelists overall stressed that, while each of their institutions were actively working toward strengthening their programming, the collaborations between them through methods such as this workshop serve as scaffolding for idea exchange that leads to tangible results. 

In the panel “Museums & The City,” Professor Rahul Mehrotra, Founder Principal of RMA Architects, encouraged participants to remember the extensive role of a museum in the surrounding environment. In his words, museums are not static or mono-functional. If they choose to only focus on artifacts, then they become so. This can be prevented if we understand the possibility of museums as frameworks in constant connection with the city within which they live: institutions of cultural infrastructure and active players in the development and rejuvenation of that city. This includes making these museums reflective of cultural history and development and accessible to marginalized populations. If our museums become “commons” through which we can engage with each other and our cultural memories of space, time, and tradition, then they are fulfilling a larger socio-cultural purpose. 

During the panel on the future of conservation, it became clear that one of the major barriers in the conservation movement is the engagement of the government and the misconception that conservation must focus on time and money without much backing in historical and contextual research. The representatives from Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) stressed the danger in this, sharing that they are making continuous attempts to educate government and the Indian Administrative Services on heritage conservation — but their engagement needs to be amplified.

In this regard, the research aspects of conservation (as they currently stand) are nascent, and the equipment for analyzing works of art is very limited and expensive. Another barrier lies in the lack of expertise around the material sciences behind conservation, especially given the range of climate and environmental factors in different parts of the region. This overall lack of manpower and knowledge transfer amongst the different partners (government representatives, scientists, historians, artists, and others) needs to be tackled by both museums and the educational institutions that train conservators in order for conservation, as a practice, to thrive in the future.

Ultimately, educational, practical, and managerial collaboration is essential, and this workshop was just one step in moving toward that goal.