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How To Spoil a Great Museum

On arriving in Mumbai’s arts quarter, one of the most powerful prods to the imagination of the Visitor is the sight of a beautiful domed building hidden away in its grounds, behind high railings and a veil of trees. In its reserved position and with its strange, evocative mix of architectural styles, ‘Saracenic’ and British-Gothic, it is suggestive of a concealed palace of secret treasures.
And in fact the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (aka the Prince of Wales Museum), for that is what it is, is just that. But, oh, how one wishes it were more than… just that!

Let me, first of all, explain that the CS Museum is a marvel.
Whatever one’s reservations, to approach up the drive to that lovely dome in the sunlight is a joy.
To enter the marbled lobby and look upwards one hundred feet through another two floors and into the bowl of the dome is to savour a fine architect’s vision.
The study of the exquisite miniature-paintings exhibited here would make a very long journey totally worthwhile for any art-lover.
To wander at liberty and be so close to centuries-old statues of serene stone gods and bodhisattvas (found the length of the sub-continent from Tamil Nadu to the Himalayas) turns dull history into an hypnotic experience.
To be so close to the incredibly intricate jewellery pieces and ornate weaponry is to make one wonder deeply at the care in workmanship.
So, yes, I would advise that you go.

Most of the time, you’ll have the place much to yourself too. Dirt-cheap prices for Indians mean that (whenever I go anyway) there will be always some local teenagers or bored tourists from Delhi hanging about, but the 300 rupees ($6) price for non-Indians seems to put off quite a few foreigners, which is a shame.
The audio guide too is rather well-scripted and voiced, with just enough background facts to keep the informed expert listening, but enough colourful description to keep the casual visitor interested too.

But the fact is that a lot of people I’ve spoken to simply don’t rate the museum’s collection.
Certainly it’s undervalued, I think, by the leading guidebooks, which damn it with faint praise. Fodor’s India virtually dismisses it, with just two lines on the collection, while even ‘Time Out Mumbai’ can only squeeze out two sentences (in fact, it has more to say about the displays at the tiny Money Museum in Fort…!)

If the museum’s collection is so good, why is it so, well, unappreciated? Why such disaffection? Well, there’s a can of worms… I think I can point up some problems.

Let me give you an example of why visitors are turned off. As I said, the delicate miniature paintings of India are to die for. Some of these pictures (many of which are here) easily stand comparison, in my humble opinion, with the output of the pre-Raphael Italian schools. You could easily spend a couple of hours at CS enjoying these depictions of life, so delicately and so finely and so gorgeously observed they are.
Well, you could. But you won’t.
Sadly, in the miniatures gallery the lighting (which amounts to a few yellowing fluorescent tubes) is so understated, i.e. dim!, that one’s eyes are tired after just thirty minutes with all one’s peering and squinting. What’s more, thick yellow drapes on the windows prevent any natural light entering.
Now of course, even I realise that harsh direct lighting would damage these fragile things (though, annoyingly, there is no apologetic sign to explain that); but modern techniques of lighting do also mean that, with a little will, it is possible to help the art-lover actually see the details of what s/he is looking at - without damaging the works.
So - the CS Museum is either incredibly poorly funded, or there is a lack of modern thinking among the trustees.

The maddening thing is that, in an extension to this very same building, the Khandalavala Wing (endowed by a former chairman of the museum) shows just how modern approaches to museums can make the difficult look easy. Intelligent settings and appropriate lighting there make that section, small as it is, incredibly welcoming.
Even in the marginalised Pre-History gallery the cleverly planned lighting of the Assyrian reliefs shows thoughtfulness.
And the visiting exhibitions in the Premchand Roychand Gallery on the far side of the East Wing are often innovative.
But where is the inspiration for the way in which the bulk of the main collection is presented?

And don’t talk to me about the Ratan Tata European Paintings Gallery. The shabby frames, the peeling paintings, the huge ugly fans and the cracking walls in this gallery – which includes some Constables believe it or not – would disgrace a provincial gallery in Pune, let alone here in the foremost museum one of the greatest cities on earth. Frankly, I think that that gallery should be put out of its misery, like an animal in pain – if no one is prepared to rescue it, its paintings should be donated elsewhere and the room simply closed.

But also what came across to me as a foreigner, and marks the major disparity between how this gallery presented itself and what I am used to back home in Europe, is that the possibilities of attracting, exciting and gripping the visitor seem to be ignored!

For example… The labelling of the works is often not only uninformative, except perhaps to an art-historian, but even missing. Unless you’re an expert, you often have to guess what it is that you are looking at.

For example… The splendid gardens, which contain colourful beds of flowers and a number of (apparently) fine oriental statues, are roped off. No one was able to explain why, or how long this situation would continue.

For example… Certain sections of the gallery seem to be closed for renovation at any one time. But do you think the unsuspecting visitor would be told this before paying over any money? Nope.

For example... The totally out of date website, which seems to have been last refreshed ten years ago, and has virtually NO information on it. Please, folks! This is the twenty-first century - when a child can make a website at virtually no cost. Can't you?

For example… The gift shop. Now, don’t get me wrong. I too despise galleries where there is more attention and space given over to Money than to Art, but there has to be a balance. The visitor seeks, when going to the gift shop, a memory of a wonderful day. In the CS Museum gift shop, which is isn’t large enough to hold a dozen people, there are a few untidily arranged and expensive-looking art-books for sale - and a mere thirty cards! (Incidentally, some of these cards show works from other museums, annoyingly). Is it really so impossible to get in a professional photographer and create a wider selection of cards?
And if you seek refreshment in the midst of your hours here? At many major galleries – even the nearby Jehangir – you might find a small café, or at least a vending machine. Not here. You’d better have brought a bottle of water, cos there’s nothing.

What is one to make of all this? Do the managers of the museum not care to exploit the cash-resource of their visitors, which is at their very fingertips, or do they really not think about visitors’ needs, or, as I suspect, is there so little creative thinking that customer service is seen as an expensive luxury?
I suspect that the reason the place is not teeming with visitors, as it should be given the treasures on show, is because of this attitude toward the visitor.

The museum is a fabulous effort of conservation. But gone are the days when museums could just be the preserve of the curators. Nowadays, they belong to the public too.
And if money is the root of the problem, then a major appeal (of which there was no sign) is in order.

There will be, I hope, many people who wish to tell me how wrong I am in my assessment. And, at the risk of contradicting myself, I hope they do.

The point I am hoping to make is that there are some wonderful pieces here, including the very building itself. A visitor to Mumbai would be foolish not to put aside an afternoon, and even a day, to go around.
But the flaws niggle at the visitor like annoying mosquitoes, in the end making the experience much, much less than it could be.


A final note.
On one of my visits, time passed by almost without me noticing so engrossed I was, and the attendants were turning off the lights and ushering people out before I even realised the bell had gone. As I left the huge white staircase to cross the lobby and leave, the sun was just starting to go down, and, to my left, its last orange rays were entering through the windows of the Statuary Hall, where the lights were already off. In the half-light, the statues had mutated into unfamiliar shapes.
There is something oddly affecting about empty rooms in a museum, and in this instance it was even more so. The statues, some more than a millennium old, standing mute, being forsaken for the night, were twisting and turning (or appearing to) as the dying sunlight moved over or by them, changing.
What a spell was being weaved there!

And it’s epiphanies like that which remind you that… niggling as their flaws may be, the great museums with their great collections do have a power in them – and it’s a crying shame to see such wonders neglected.

Links: Museum Website, and Excellent Intro to the Museum Collection even though it lacks some details (on The Bharat website)

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This post first appeared on An Englishman In Mumbai, please read the originial post: here

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How To Spoil a Great Museum


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