Making Museums more interactive | Daily News

Making Museums more interactive


Vinod Daniel, Chairman of the Board for AusHeritage (Australia’s international cultural heritage network) and Board Member of the International Council of Museums on a recent visit to Sri Lanka spoke to Daily News on the need to have trained staff at Museums to turn them into peak professional bodies where communities engage with and have a safe place to discuss ‘difficult’ ideas.

Excerpts follow:

Q: Could you elaborate more on your role as an expert in the field of Museums?

A. I have dealt with the museum sector in close to 45 countries. My view often is more global, compare best practices in all parts of the world.

Increasingly governments are seeing museums as important in terms of the role they play in society. In Singapore for example, has in the last 25 years transformed the sector tremendously. Government investment in the sector is key. You can have private support but major investment needs to come from the government. The reason why countries like Singapore pushed it was; one, tourism as museums make a significant part of it and secondly, in terms of people who live there; local and expats- they want to connect with the cultural spectrum of the place. Further, you see countries like Dubai and Qatar are also increasingly pushing for brand name Museums.

When it comes to Sri Lanka, the Museum world is advanced but the more the government starts investing in it, it will be taken to a higher level and they will start to see higher returns. The struggle many developing countries have, compared to developed, is the need for trained human resources. In developing countries, they feel that Museums are a generic field and someone who works in finance or administration can do the job. They can do it, but you can’t make it a shining example. When you look at countries which have good Museums, a significant proportion of staff have a degree, at least in the technical areas. But, not so in developed countries, this needs to be high priority.

Infrastructure funding is essential but parallel to that, capacity building in terms of human resource building is very important.

Q: The universities do not offer degree programmes for Museology?

A. No, there is a certificate for Museology but nothing for conservation. You need to have training programmes as well as start a degree programme going at university.

Even if you get a new degree, it will take time for the people to graduate and in the meantime you have hundreds already in the sector and they need to be trained. This is not a problem particular to Sri Lanka, it is also the same in India, Indonesia and many parts of the world.

Q: You have spoken of the need to have Museums be ‘peak professional bodies’ but that is not something one thinks of when it comes to Museums here. Isn’t it more of a place to store artifacts?

A. The old focus has been that- as a place where old objects are stored. This is in comparison to a museum being a contemporary place where we connect with the living community. A safe place for unsafe ideas. There is still a tendency in some parts of the world where they think this is just a place where objects are displayed and then there is a little bit of interpretation. But, that trend is changing and I can already see that in ways in which exhibitions are designed and how social media is being used.

Q: In the West, Museums are very famous and play a majour role, but do you see that happening in our countries?

A. Part of the drive in many countries is to get as many visitors as possible as the government does not fully fund them. The government might give 30-40 percent of the budget but the rest you have to raise. So there is a business model that is created to do that either through the souvenir shop, visitor centre, food courts, investing in exhibitions or opening the museum late evenings so more young people can come.

Here the museum is fully supported by the government so you have to think of other ways to attract more people. Part of the rethinking is also that many museums operate autonomously. It is a space which accommodates controversial ideas and the people can see both sides and interpret it as they like. To get that freedom, museums often don’t report to the government but to a Board and these are autonomous. This is something which every country needs to grapple with but it has worked well for many countries which have autonomous Boards.

Countries like Sri Lanka would also want to think about how they can get that kind of autonomy and also have incentives for museums to get into fundraising with more flexibility and visitors.

Q: What brings you to Sri Lanka this time around?

A. We are conducting a training programme for the Archaeology and Museum sector. It is supported by the Metropolitan Museum. I am based in Australia as the Chair of AusHeritage, so we are training a group of 15 museum people around Sri Lanka. The prime objective behind this training is how to better look after their artifacts and how they can put to use their limited resources by prioritizing collection care, in terms of what aspects will have the biggest negative impacts on collections.

Q: Given that the Archaeology Department is one of the more poorly funded departments, how do you propose that they manage all their sites and collections with limited funds?

A. End of the day, money is not the problem. The problem is what to do with it and have a strategic plan to implement it. Money is always going to be limited, developed or not. And if you have a clear plan you can find avenues to raise money. Part of what we try to do is, for example, if you have a site museum in Jaffna, someone will come and say you have to put air conditioning or someone will say you have to do something about disaster preparedness, each one pushes in a different direction. We have a template in which we look at all the things that affect your collections including temperature, light, heat, disasters, fire, etc… and we try to analyze how each one has an impact and we see what kind of solutions you can do. Some of the solutions don’t need money, for example if there is excessive light, all you might need is a curtain. You will need big money if you need to do climate controls but we have various solutions in the short, medium and long term. We prepare risk assessment frameworks for museums. To do that, you need to understand what collections are and what affects collections.

One of the fundamentals in collection care is not to say I will make this last forever.

Q: Is not making things last forever the purpose of a museum?

A. No, the objective is to say that I will make it last longer than it would have if I had done nothing to it. Because everything at the end of the day will disappear at some stage. Even a painting, you will need light to see it and this will eventually cause it to fade. So instead of it fading in a 100 years, if we can make it last 400 years, that’s good.

Our focus is to extend the life of a collection.

Q: You have also promoted digitization of collections. Is this something we can get into and afford?

A. There are many dimensions to digitization. Basically it is the documentation of collections. One of the risks for collections is if you don’t know what you have, how do you know what you have lost?

So we need to keep a record of it. You can start it on a piece of paper but everyone now has a laptop and excel package. The positive aspect of this is that if you lend something to another museum, if it is documented, it is much easier in 10 years’ time to track.

You can extend it over time and here again it is a question of what the basic essentials are. You can keep getting better software, based on funding and resources and that helps store better quality images and this may help when it is put online. This will allow the image to get interaction from the community. So it depends on where you want to draw the line, but the way the trend is going, everyone uses mobile phones and they have access.

Q: What makes a museum successful according to you? Is it visitor numbers? And if so is it economically sensible to keep them open if numbers are low?

A. Most museums especially in the developing world have no problem with visitor numbers. They will always have visitors and even tourists will come. What is key is for them to pick a couple of messages that changes their perspective- that is what we don’t do very well.

Say if you are an intellectual and you go there, you would read every bit of text there and you will come back and write reviews. But for someone from a village, how useful is that experience for them? And what will they be taking back? We need to communicate something to them and that’s important. That kind of audience engagement is critical and that is how success should be measured, not in terms of numbers. More than numbers, what impact do you have? How do you change someone’s perspective? Or how do you become a safe place to debate difficult ideas?

Q: You spend half your time in India. Do you see this transformation happening there?

A. There are couple of comparisons that can be made between India and Sri Lanka. There is one museum in Mumbai that has taken the big steps, which will help others follow. It is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), formerly Prince of Wales Museum.

They have implemented a whole range of events. If we can make a similar transformation at the National Museum here, others will follow.

You need three things: funding, trained staff and the right kind of management structure. It is a positive aspect that in Sri Lanka the Museum directors are long term. In many countries you get bureaucrats that come and go and there is no leadership. But here they stay long enough to build things, and this coupled with autonomy of a Board would be great, so policies will be carried forward despite any government in power.

Q: You have mentioned that the key to museums is to keep increasing its collections?

A. Not increase but focus more on its collections. Every museum cannot collect everything. So you have to prioritize what you want. That kind of focus is important because space, storage, staff and other resources are limited.

Q: Museums have also attracted controversy around collecting artifacts which might have cultural and sacred significance. What is your opinion on it?

A. There are many good examples where things have been done well. The whole ‘secret-sacred’ material is always an issue that museums are grappling with. I think Museums are learning and changing. It is well known that many museums have secret and sacred materials in their collections and whether it is the US or Australia, many items belonging to indigenous people have been kept. The thing is for museums to know that and how to deal with it: do they isolate that so not everybody can visit? Just have certain sections of the community see it? Or repatriate it? I know that in Australia, many indigenous objects have been returned and they have been buried. The same happens in the US. When it comes to broader cultural things, there is a big push for repatriation. The Australian museum is a leader in that and any object with cultural or religious significance has been repatriated.

Museums should also look at providing access to the community. Access does not always been physical, you can always find digital means to do that.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for the improvement of the Colombo National Museum ?

A. The feel of the place is amazing in terms of how the building is and the landscape. What would be great is when you enter the museum to have visitor amenities set up: a visitor shop or café where people can hang out. That is an essential part. Many museums in the West capitalize on that.

In terms of the feel within the galleries, it has a good feel and they are doing the right things in terms of conservation but there needs to be more visitor involvement with the objects and you can improve that using technology. 

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