Museum ethics and collection management

Sunny Dua
May 18 every year is celebrated as International Museum Day (IMD) aimed at creating awareness about cultural exchange and development of mutual understanding amongst people coming from different countries and civilisations. The practice started since 1977 is continuing to inspire museums around the globe to bring in professionalism in their upkeep and make them more interactive so that people and especially children could feel the liveliness of the place that educates them about history of the artefacts, paintings, articles or documentation of historical facts.

International Museums Day

“The Power of Museums” is the theme of International Museum Day 2022. Last year about 37,000 museums spread across 158 countries and territories around the globe had participated in this annual event and the number this year is likely to swell with Jammu as usual being an important ally in the celebrations in its own way. Dogra art museum, located inside historic Mubarak Mandi complex also keeps a pace with such events of international repute and tries to involve school children and commoners but certain shortcomings limit its scope of celebrations.
Dogra art museum houses artefacts, manuscripts and paintings related to history and art alone. Otherwise, countries around the globe have museums solely dedicated to aircrafts, science, general artefacts, natural history, science and even war that keep educating people about civilisations, nations, products and science which enables future generations to learn from past and evolve in their own fields accordingly. Very recently India has added film museum to its treasure which depicts fruition of cinema world of Mumbai as well as South India.
With the passage of time and pandemics that had hit the world, virtual museums too have surfaced but physical presence of objects can never replace electronic forms. A visit to the public structure to experience and learn about the local history matches no virtual details and this is the reason museums around the globe continue to be on the itinerary of all visitors. However, several ill designed museums never attract visitors. Dogra art museum too falls in such a category which had always faced neglect and its objects had seen a new home every few years without following any museum ethics.
Dogra Art Museum, being looked after by Directorate of Archives, Archaeology and Museums possesses treasure in the form of rare Basholi paintings, artefacts, terracotta heads and very old and rare manuscripts besides scores of important documents and armoury but their frequent shifting goes against the ethics of museums. Every museum follows certain ethics and collection management but here in Jammu a casual approach not only makes these precious collections vulnerable to damages but also doesn’t let the museum establish itself as a place of importance.
These precious collections were first housed in a small hall within the complex of civil secretariat. There after they were shifted to another hall in Gandhi Bhawan located adjacent to new secretariat building and named Dogra Art Gallery. There after it was again dislocated and moved to a yet bigger two storied hall in Mubarak Mandi Heritage complex along with a public library. Erected to commemorate arrival of British Monarch Edward VII to Jammu as the Prince of Wales in 1875, this building too gave up and the artefacts were again dislocated. Going against the ethics of museums, artefacts were this time moved to its present-day location in a complex called old army headquarters.
This perhaps is the only museum till date that had not been able to find a suitable place for displaying its artefacts. Today also it’s housed in an old but renovated structure where museum related changes can never be executed even if it comes to making a simple ramp for aged or wheelchair bound people what to talk of fixing air conditioners or other fixtures to hang paintings or fix display lights. Though the Museum authorities to a larger extent follow all ethics related to collection management but when it comes to following other guidelines, they miserably fail because of restricted working areas.
The complex in which this museum is housed is in most dilapidated condition with heaps of garbage and building material scattered around it from where dust keeps flowing in the museum. A run-down park in front of the complex, poorly maintained roads, restricted entries, mountains of trash, unending restoration work, poor skyline, no public as well as potable water facilities, only a chosen few artefact displayed, poor housekeeping, intense heat without any air conditions and no proper signage welcomes visitors to our only museum. Despite such a mess, the authorities still try to keep a face to welcome visitors, the number of which is negligible.
In fact, this museum requires a professionally designed building were aged artefacts that highlight the grandeur of preserved memorabilia from various stages of human evolution or Jammu’s history can be displayed. This Dogra Art Museum not only requires a well-planned structure that could become heart and soul of artefacts but also needs a place where curatorial needs, display, preparation and education could all go hand in hand to enable visitors enjoy essential facilities and spaces.
Our museum, housed in an erstwhile army headquarter where old construction material has been used to sync it with the heritage of Mubarak Mandi complex, is absolutely not suitable for displaying artefacts because of the simple reason that artefacts gather dust on them in no time and housekeeping becomes absolutely impossible. The museum needs separate rooms for curatorial procedures as well. Thus, the building is absolutely not a place to house precious artefacts or display rare and expensive paintings.
Whether those at the helm of affairs intend to keep this building as final site of museum for historic or architectural significance or plan to move to a new location, the museum must match the quality and distinction that the exhibits bring to it. In fact, the museum must be multifunctional in character. While the building should have enough open spaces, it must also have high security controls to protect the collections besides possessingm public facilities including souvenir shops, restaurants, audio-video display, laboratory, workshop spaces, offices and halls for holding interactive sessions.
Museums being reflections of cultural heritage, sources for natural history and also facilities for leisure and recreation need to be interactive. The government of Union Territory must also encourage private museums so that those into it can collect artefacts or documents pertaining to different subjects and enable generations know about historical importance of their past. For example, air force in Jammu can establish an air museum, printing industry can have their museum depicting how they evolved, Jammu Municipal Corporation (JMC) can develop museum depicting how Jammu was established and is growing thereby enabling future architects to learn about this art of architecture.
Department of education, tourism, defense, environment, culture and many more can have their museums established to make people know how they evolved over a period of time. Some security agencies like Border Security Forces (BSF) has at Suchetgarh kept some mortar shells fired by Pakistan and if they expand their horizon a full-fledged war museum can be established depicting border management, conflict management, religious places on borders and how BSF had been manning borders since partition.
This is perhaps for the first time that Dogra Art Museum, after a long time, got a professional curator. Museum collections, their documentation, scientific information and treatment of collections to prevent deterioration might become professional now. Despite that the museum lacks professional security, designers, public relations officer, specialists in education and interpretation and allied specialized staff.
Lack of adequate funding to any museum like Dogra Art Museum restricts its activities to a select few occasions and confined to a select few visitors. The government should either involve private partners or fund the museum adequately or create an atmosphere wherein museum becomes self-reliant. Charging a handsome entrance fee, holding commercial activities, creating groups like ‘Friends of Museum’ or involving business houses can generate enough resources for the Museum to carry out its major activities and also become self-reliant.
Encouraging heterogeneous collections from across the length and breadth of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir can add more to the collections. Smuggling of artefacts acquired from far off places in the UT and from those who don’t know the value of these products must also be checked. Other than collecting material through archaeological excavation, ethnological expeditions or natural science fieldwork thrust should be laid to collect items from commoners or collectors as well.
We hope that future museums of Jammu including the existing one will keep people’s perspective in mind, display artefacts in chronological order, fix signs, put up video screens, arrange for proper lighting including sunlight or artificial lighting as and when required, make navigation in the museum easy for visitors and most importantly set up the museums in well-designed buildings within the city limits that becomes accessible to visitors. This all is needed because the museums can transform the world around us and also teach us about our past while opening up our minds to new ideas so that we can lead a better life.
(The writer is senior journalist and views are reflective of his visit to British Museum, London and Lone Star Flight Museum, Texas)