Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Museums on my mind

The entrance to La Rochelle's Natural History Museum
I’ve had museums on my mind these past few days.
What got me thinking, again, about museums is the number there are in La Rochelle, France. Now La Rochelle is not a very large city. It has about 80,000 residents, whose numbers are buoyed by the several million tourists who visit every year.
Yet for a city of its size, La Rochelle has about 10 museums. There could be more, but I’ve been able to count 10 so far. Some are public museums and others are private ones; a couple are large and others are tiny. The museums are on all domains under the sun – natural history, modern art, the ‘new’ world, maritime history, World War II, scale models. And all of them seem to draw in a good number of visitors – at least in spring and summer. And all of them add a zing to the city.
All of which had me thinking about Trivandrum, the city I consider my home town. It is larger than La Rochelle both in area and population. And yet, it has only four museums that I can think of. One privately-run and three run by the government. And yes, it may soon have a fifth one.
For a city with a million or so residents, and one that draws several million tourists every year four, and indeed five, museums is just not enough. We need simply need more of them for the many worlds they open up.
The most obvious candidate for a new museum is the treasure that has been unearthedfrom the city’s Padmanabhaswamy temple. There simply must be a museum that showcases some, if not all, that has been discovered from the temple’s vaults. Such a museum is needed to tell the story of Trivandrum and southern Kerala.
Equally possible are several other smaller museums underpinned by private collections. There are people in Trivandrum with interesting collections of objects ranging from antiques and art to coins and LP records. Why can’t these collections be turned into museums? For nowhere is it said that a museum has to be a huge building with a vast collection. These private collections could even be temporary exhibitions in an existing museum.
The possibilities are many and should be explored. Of course, even as we open new museums we need to ensure that they are interesting, accessible and well maintained – all crucial challenges in India as I wrote a few months ago. 
What we need, perhaps, in Trivandrum – and elsewhere in India – is some sort of a partnership between the public and private spheres to ensure that museums of all sorts are part of our vision of development, part of the social infrastructure we are building.
I know that for India museums may not be a priority. But they are an investment in our past and our future. For in various ways they tell our story, just as the many museums of La Rochelle tell the story of this beautiful city and of France.
And when all else is gone, it’s the stories that remain.