How Delhi’s National Museum has helmed initiatives to create perfect blend of culture & history with education & learning today

(Published in The Times of India:

Vasundhra Sangwan started working with The National Museum in Delhi in February 2014. Hailing from India’s most planned city, Chandigarh and having travelled the world from boarding school at Welhams School for girls to London for her higher education and then back to New Delhi, reunited with her family, Sangwan was always of an artistic bent of mind and possessed an inherent passion for interior design, decoration and art. She lent her artistic flair to many an apartment or work space that she decorated for some friends and simultaneously also got a job with Delhi’s National Museum. But just like writers, an artist’s desire for wanting more is insatiable.

Being classmates from Carmel Convent School in Chandigarh, we grew up together and after several years apart owing to study and travel, we reconnected and our friendship rekindled. One day over a cup of coffee in her family apartment in New Delhi’s RK Puram colony, Sangwan poured her heart out.

I need to do more. And I can’t help feeling that in order to truly discover what I really want to do, I need to leave Delhi for a while.”

I knew she was right. Vasundhra’s relationship with London is nothing short of a love affair. I have often told her that I envision her returning there again and again and eventually settling down there. To which she always responds with her usual hearty laugh.

But return to London she did. A tryst with destiny and good luck all rolled into one, she was accepted for a 9-month course at the very prestigious Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, and the prodigal daughter of London returned to her ‘homeland’. After nine months of a rigorous and exhausting but immensely rewarding experience, she returned to Delhi and joined her job as Outreach Officer at the National Museum in Delhi, armed with a newly acquired passion, confidence and skill set for becoming the bright new museum professional that she had finally discovered she wanted to be.

The National Museum is just one of the impressive 1000-plus government and privately owned museums in India. The idea of museums first evolved during the colonial era of the British rule and during those days a museum was just a storehouse that housed newly excavated objects, donated works by royalty or creations of artists. They were run in an encyclopedic manner much like modern day libraries but only for persons interested in research, study, and gaining scholarly interpretations of the objects they housed. Interestingly, museums in India during that time were not yet open to the public. The Indian museum in Kolkatta is the oldest such museum today, having recently celebrated its 150th anniversary.

It was the idea of museums as visual aids for education that opened the doors of museums to the public and helmed the transition from being just storehouses to pertinent centers of learning, education and entertainment. The challenge was that today even though Indian children start learning about history from the ages of 11 or 12 years, they are hardly ever taken to visit museums – possibly just once a year. Even as education is increasingly becoming more balanced with experiential and structured textbook learning being taught in equal parts, these treasure houses of culture and history unfortunately do not feature within syllabuses and curriculum today.

So, the Museum officials decided that something more needed to be done to become conspicuous in the purview of educators and ensure a more vital role and attendance to this end. And thus was born an Outreach program in 2014 to assist the Department of Education in their efforts and many more museum professionals were hired to start new interactive educational programs that were instrumental in turning things around for the museum and securing its role as a powerful source of extended learning not just for children but for all ages.

Says Sangwan of her experience as an Outreach Officer, “Working at the National Museum has been one of the most enriching learning experiences for me. The vast exposure and opportunity this institution has given me over the past two years has made me a confident museum professional. The museum’s footfall has increased immensely over the past two years which encourages us to constantly think of new programs/events, collaborations, services that will interest our audiences in future.”

The role of an Outreach Department is to coordinate new exhibitions, sometimes by collaborating with museums in other countries too, manage and run the social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from the museum, redesigning and identifying new merchandise for the Museum shop and also managing the many other new initiatives launched in an effort to bring the museum and the public closer together.

Google Art Project

One of these noteworthy initiatives is the Museum’s work being featured on Google Art Project which showcases some of the extraordinary pieces the museum has to offer and virtual tours of the museum and exhibitions that visitors can access at any time. (See here )

Metro-Art Gateway Project

In an effort to further connect the public with all that the museum has to offer, the National Museum collaborated with the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) and has inaugurated an Art Gateway at the Udyog Bhavan Metro Station in Delhi in December, enabling metro passengers to get a glimpse of Indian art and notifications and schedules of upcoming exhibitions and programs at the National Museum.

December 18, 2015 was a very busy day for the Museum and its hard working employees. It was a day that marked the inauguration of outstanding new initiatives that promise to set the museum apart as one that has spearheaded first-time programs, breaking new ground in aiding education efforts country-wide.

Anubhav  – A tactile experience (Opened 18 Dec, 2015)

Catering to the less fortunate, visually impaired section of society, the museum has inaugurated a gallery called Anubhav that has on display replicas of 22 objects from the museum. This gallery is first of its kind in the Government sector in India.

National Museum Internship Program (Announced on 18 Dec, 2015)

At the helm of yet another effort at boosting educational and interactive cultural ties between the museum and students, the National Museum also launched this year a comprehensive, research-oriented Internship program for Graduate and Undergraduate students who wish to acquire museum skills and learning. They can choose from various departments at the museum and get a chance to interact with art and culture experts in the respective fields of interest.

“This is one of my personal favorites. Our country is so rich in history and culture that has been available for decades but the kind of interest we have managed to garner only now has shown us what a little bit of a push in the right direction can accomplish,” gushes a visibly excited Sangwan.

She also talks about the Bronze Gallery that had been shut for refurbishments back in 2011 but has now opened again on Dec 18, 2015 and offers some of the most exquisite Bronze displays for public viewing. A whopping 24 galleries are open to the public and a gallery of manuscripts seems to be in the pipeline too.

This year the National Museum successfully coordinated ten temporary exhibitions in collaborations with eminent museums from around the world such as the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore; Rietberg Museum, Switzerland; Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia.

Education and Entertainment for Children

I am also hugely impressed and enamored by the scale and scope of efforts and activities that are underway at the Museum to make learning more interesting and engaging for children.

One of the first initiatives to this end by the Education department was the Young Volunteer Guide Tour – a free service to ensure that a dedicated person is available to show children around the museum – like a tour guide. This guide’s task is to ensure that the children enjoy an enriching and enjoyable experience and take him valuable and educational information about collections and objects at the museum to share with friends and family. The guides are typically trained volunteers and the tours are available in both Hindi and English. Schools are now also able to book these tours beforehand.

In addition to this, the Museum’s Education Department organizes activities and workshops at a month’s notice for groups of students that are related to their school curriculum and enhances their understanding and knowledge of a particular topic, idea or collection offered by the museum. These workshops are free of cost and often they find that children from economically disadvantaged sections of society tend to avail of these free classes also. As an added bonus, the museum has also published many activity books for children to take home after the museum experience. Orientation workshops have also been organized with school teachers to extend to them a better understanding of how the museum can play the role of an extended learning laboratory to supplement their classroom teaching.

Have you seen a significant rise in students visiting the museum after all these initiatives were started?” was my question for Sangwan.

Yes! The figures are very impressive. Today the museum is visited by about 500,000 people each year out of which 100,000 are children! And this includes both school-going and non-school going children. We are realizing every day how much of an important role the museum can play in experiential learning for not just children but even adults.”

In an age where smartphones and Ipads rule our lives, an archaic establishment like the National Museum has successfully grasped and adapted to the technology-driven generation of today and moulded its efforts to offer a futuristic, modern and interactive museum experience blended well with the ancient collections and artefacts that span many centuries and civilizations – from as early as the Harappan and Indus Valley Civilizations.

To this end, the Museum in 2014 also began to digitize all their collections on a database they created which is also linked to their website. At present the database houses about 10,000 objects from their collection and aims to be a useful storehouse of information readily available for researchers, students and even just art and history enthusiasts.

From Calligraphy, Cosmology to even Music, Art, Poetry accompanied with music performances and cultural events, the museum conducted a series of wide-ranging exhibitions and events this year, each of which is complimented with activities and workshops for children too. From kindergarten, middle school and high school to even college level students, the museum is not just a library but a one stop shop for learning, engaging and entertainment, something that no school can offer at this scale.

Impeccably maintained and periodically updated, the museum also houses a varied repertoire of published articles and works written by its curators and external consultants that are accessible to everyone. Fifteen such publications were released this year alone.

Having visited me in Munich recently, Sangwan brought me a most precious gift – a set of four tea cups and a pocket mirror adorned with face sketches from the Japanese art style – Shunga from the British Museum’s shop in London.

Her work and growing interest in the intricacies and cultural and historical knowledge bank that the museum has to offer have made her travel far and wide. She was one of the two museum professionals representing an Indian museum at the International Training Programme at the British Museum in 2015 and got the opportunity to interact, exchange views and work with museum professionals from world over.

Constantly evolving, adapting, modernizing and yet dedicated to maintaining and preserving our country’s archaic cultural, historical and archeological heritage, The National Museum is truly a revered beacon of India’s past and in my opinion it our duty as citizens of India to utilize this treasure house of resources and take the time to acquaint ourselves and our children with all that it has to offer.

We owe it to ourselves and our future generations.


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