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Interview with Venu Vasudevan

Interview with Dr. Venu Vasudevan is the Director General of the National Museum, Delhi

Sahapedia: What made the National Museum take the decision to host an exhibition on the excavation findings in Pattanam?

Venu Vasudevan: There are a variety of reasons for me trying to provoke the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) into looking at an exhibition. First and foremost, I have an association with Pattanam, with KCHR and with Pattanam in my capacity as Secretary, Culture of the Government of Kerala. During that time what impressed me about the Pattanam project was this very systematic nature in which the whole project was approached. I think KCHR went about their business professionally. They were academically strong. Their project had looked at all the different aspects of the question and that is very, very important in today’s situation where any project needs to be multi-disciplinary. So I think KCHR were making the right moves in order to examine the project and the findings from all the viewpoints that can be afforded.

As a museum director it fit in very well with a larger project which I was doing. And what was the larger project? That is the reinvention of the National Museum, if you may, because it is about the National Museum trying to reconnect with Delhi, with the community, with the historian, with a history lover, with the art lover. We have totally lost touch with the public, who should have been at the centre of all our operations—but I will come to that aspect later.

In my quest to find new and interesting exhibitions, Pattanam fit the bill perfectly. On the one side you had a very interesting archaeological project and on the other you had a project in a museum that I was sure would be very interesting to a museum visitor. So both from the demand and from the supply side it made sense.

Now in the case of Pattanam I had another reason as well. I believe that museums are spaces which need to actively look for projects and programs that provoke academic enquiry, discussions and discourse. They should not seem to be a one-way kind of thing where we keep/display certain objects, have new objects and new exhibitions coming in, people take a look at those things, and if they are rare and historical, they are impressed. That is not the idea. Museums traditionally are spaces or places which push the boundaries.

The earliest explorations were funded by museums. Great archaeologists were employees of museums and curators of museums. So that is something which is just disappearing. These days—particularly in Indian museums—we find museums are just storehouses and the curators have become gate-keepers.

So, I thought Pattanam was a great example of how if you place a project in a different context, in a different city before a different audience, that project suddenly gets a fresh lease of life in terms of discourse, in terms of discussions. I told Dr. P.J. Cherian, Director, KCHR, that look, your project however good, however well-structured it has been, has never been examined properly in the academic circles of Delhi which has some of the best minds in the business. And perhaps the reason for that is that while you will be reaching out to a few academics in Delhi through your conferences or seminars, you haven’t given an opportunity for the larger audience for such a kind of activity in Delhi to connect with your project. And so I am giving you an opportunity to do so because I believe in the philosophy of exhibitions provoking discourse.

So I said use this as a forum a) to connect to people who are interested in archaeology, interested in Pattanam and b) also use this as a launching pad for more stimulating or in-depth academic exercises like seminars or panel discussions, lectures. That will provide other fora for discussion.

I was also happy to host this for a very, very different reason and that was because I am concerned about the situation in the sector of archaeology in India today. Now the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which is supposed to be leading the whole field is today in the doldrums when it comes to documenting, recording, presenting findings. For the last forty to fifty years the number of reports that have come out of archaeological projects of the ASI can be counted on the fingers of your hands. So what does that show? It shows the total breakdown of this activity and the importance to be given to this activity by the ASI. I fail to understand why. And here is a wonderful and perfect contrast. A very small project, miniscule when compared to the humongous projects ASI carried out. Yet, here is a project that has been meticulously, painfully documented.

So it is a case study for students of archaeology, for students of history. There is at least one site in the country which has gone about their business professionally and that is very important. Today if you do not get enough students to go into history and into archaeology and similar fields, it is because you are not stimulating them at the undergraduate level, at the school level. You are not offering them a vision of what is possible. You are not placing the field in the contemporary arena where a student can say, “Well, this sounds interesting, this looks good”, as compared to other sectors. If you do not give an opportunity for the student to understand this, get interested and intrigued by a sector, how do you expect that person to choose his life, dedicate his or her life to the sector?

So, Pattanam to me is also a provocative exercise. I am provoking the ASI to take a look at their systems and if the Pattanam exercise makes the ASI realise that they need to do much more in terms of documentation and publication, then the exhibition has done another job, another duty. So this is as far as the provocative aspects are concerned, academic enquiry and maybe a challenge before the ASI.

Pattanam even otherwise is a very interesting point for a museum where history, dynamic history is very important to us. New narratives are important to every museum. You have a situation where the postulate that is offered by Pattanam is a game-changer. I know it is some distance for the field itself but for a museum, it is a very interesting narrative, a new narrative that is coming our way and that is something which every museum, every museum director would like to have within his or her museum, something extremely new happening in a field and the museum gets an opportunity to reflect that or present that before the public.

The interest of the museum from the managerial point of view is also noteworthy. One of the things which I have been quite concerned about is the revival of programming in the museum that is fresh, authentic and appealing to the public. So we have embarked on a variety of programs but I think the centre-piece of all this programming and the new approach is the commitment of the museum to provide new exhibitions on a continuous basis like any self-respecting museum.

Across the world museums earn their money through special exhibitions. Many of the public museums are—wherever public funds are available—prohibited by statute from collecting fees. So their main revenue stream comes from special exhibitions. When you organise a special exhibition, you charge a special fee. We haven’t reached that point yet but I see exhibitions as great opportunities to do all the things which we want to do to reconnect with the community, to bring back the crowds, to bring back the people by presenting new narratives, ideas and perspectives. The museum refreshes its brand with people, how people see the museum.

In the last one year, thanks to six or seven exhibitions which we have done, the brand is refreshed. People say I have been to the museum more times in the last one year than in the last twenty years. So it is a matter of great pleasure to hear that. Pattanam gave me an opportunity to present an exhibition of a very, very different kind.

We have had numerous exhibitions here where we get into our reserve collections and present objects that have not been seen. We have managed to present exhibitions where we got wonderful artefacts and objects from other museums. Here is an opportunity where no museum was involved. We were actually presenting objects that had not come from a museum, that were fresh from a site. No other exhibition in recent memory in India has had this opportunity. So it is a landmark event for the museum.

Sahapedia: Congratulations to you on this. What was the general response from scholars and curators?

VV: One of the very heartening things about this exhibition was that it has worked much beyond my expectations. Very early on I had prepared the museum to host this exhibition as an academic exercise, not so much as a popular one, as I mentioned to you. The thing that intrigued me or that prompted me to do it was not because it is going to be a popular exhibition but what is interesting is that it has also become an extremely popular exhibition. It has connected with the lay audience very well. And there I think the credit of the success must go to the designer (Siddhartha Chatterjee) because it is the presentation of an idea that actually makes all the difference.

Credit must also go to the curator because the juxtaposition of different ideas and its interpretations is working. The proof of this is the appreciation expressed by people who have seen many, many exhibitions.

Now, one of the two people who come to mind right away is Amy Poster, who is one of the most senior names in Indian art history in the United States. Amy has been with most major museums which have a good collection of Indian art. Presently she is Curator Emerita of the Minneapolis Museum, sits on many museum boards including the Rubin Museum and is a consultant to the Metropolitan Museum. Amy dropped in and one of the things she said was that despite having spent decades working on major exhibitions at one of the greatest museums of the world like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I have learnt something from this small exhibition about how you can actually juxtapose video installations of an artist’s interpretation of an archaeological site with prosaic objects like sherds or pieces of beads, so it actually speaks a different language.

The other person who dropped in was Patrick Sears, who is the Director of the Rubin Museum in New York that specialises in Himalayan Art. Patrick was all praise for the project because he said that while he had some idea about the connections that ancient India had with many parts of the world at that point of time, he never knew how extensive this was. And the presentation of Muziris as an ancient port by way of presenting maps, he said that gave him— somebody who is actually involved in this kind of work—a different perspective on the situation prevailing at that time.

Several others, senior art historians and historians have congratulated the museum for actually doing its bit to promote archaeology and that again is another aspect. Teachers, student groups have thanked the museum for giving them an opportunity to understand archaeology. So there are different ways in which the museum and the exhibition is connecting with audiences.

Sahapedia: Any possibility of taking this important exhibition to other places. What are the challenges for the museum?

VV: Not from the museum because the museum works under severe staff issues. We do not have a full complement of a team that can take exhibitions out. So I have to be satisfied with having the exhibition here for a couple of months and I think it should live digitally. I think the exhibition should be available digitally before an audience for perpetuity.

Sahapedia: KCHR can think about having a permanent museum….

VV: I have already informed KCHR that they are most welcome to take everything that has been generated for this exhibition to wherever they want to. And if an exhibition is possible sometime later, then the same materials can be used.

Sahapedia: What one notices about this exhibition is that there is something for everyone and different people are attracted to different things, like somebody would be probably more attracted to the installation art, some to the maps, some to the objects. So what was your personal favourite?

VV: My personal favourite is the array of objects, however small they are put together with a simple but evocative interpretation. It really brought the science of archaeology very close to me. Seeing the short video where people are pouring over dust and dirt and sieving the soil to unearth small pieces 5 mm big, I think that is very evocative and it brings a lot of respect in my mind for people who are working in this field. I think that is something which I will carry back with me.