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April 21, 2018

Much Ado About Museums

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Harshad Marathe

Centres of culture the world over continue to reinvent themselves with artful whimsy to stay relevant and woo a larger audience. Analysing the seduction game, we spotlight a few Indian institutions that still await the proverbial kiss of life

I didn’t know what to say. My rather bohemian and eccentric Parisian friend had just handed me a strangely shaped gift. The wrapping paper didn’t completely cover what was inside. Something was sticking out, like a sore thumb. The mystery was soon solved. The deep-pink, leather handbag had the contour of a watering can, and the odd protuberance was its spout. Now, how was I supposed to sling this over my shoulder as I went about doing what I did — more often than not, draped in a sari, as I was on that mild spring day in Paris?

No doubt my friend possessed more than her share of whimsy. Was this a French trait I wondered? The elan with which Parisian women quite effortlessly tweaked their appearance: pulling the knot of a scarf all the way to the side of the neck, or placing a beret at an insolent angle on their, perhaps hurriedly-coiffured or unwashed hair that day?

The penny soon dropped: artful whimsy is a way of life with them.

Saucy Structures
Just look at the architecture. The French elite gasped in horror when the Eiffel Tower was built to make a rather insouciant statement for the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. Almost a century later, Parisians looked on in disgust when the Centre Georges Pompidou came up in 1977. The flamboyant, strange-looking building in the heart of the city, was designed by British architect Richard Rogers and two Italian architects Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini.

An aside: I happened to be in Paris during the inauguration of the Pompidou Centre. As I emerged from the metro, I saw a very elegant young couple come out of a highly polished black limousine and walk towards the structure. I soon realised that both had covered their faces with mud and egg shells. Were they protesting against the now-iconic Pompidou building? This had at that time emerged like an ugly duckling next to Les Halles, Paris’ iconic, central, fresh-food market, located in what French novelist Émile Zola referred to as the belly of Paris — a a stone’s throw from the ornate Hôtel de Ville, home of Paris’ City Council.

I was fortunate enough to eat the much-touted French onion soup in Les Halles which, with its 19th-century wrought-iron market pavilions and robust vegetable and meat sellers, was a living landmark. Those were the days when you could smell the coffee — and the soup — before it entered your belly and permeated your soul. I haven’t come across onion soup quite like that since. Les Halles has disappeared into the pages of history, bulldozed out of existence in the early 1970s, having to make room for a shopping complex.

Back To The Future
Perhaps it’s just nostalgia and the remembrance of things past. But refashioning institutions, especially museums, is a necessary evil. Else, they become static anachronisms unable to attract visitors. The Louvre, said to be the most visited museum in the world, didn’t attract the hordes (millions) it does now until architect Ieoh Ming Pei created a magnificent see-through glass-and-metal pyramid (with two smaller ones beside it) as an entrance to the museum in 1989.
During the much-improved India Art Fair this year, there was a major side show with a French accent. Delhi Art Gallery and the Institut Français India organised a series of talks on art and museums. In separate interviews, Catherine Chevillot, director of the Musée Rodin, and Sophie Makariou, president of the Musée Guimet, talked about how they were trying to make their institutions more participatory, exciting and inclusive.

A Case For Reinvention
No longer are artworks on walls or floors enough. A museum has to become a place to rendezvous, with light banishing all the dark corners, and with a buzz about it. Coffee shops, libraries, bookshops, film screenings and interactions with artists and film-makers are increasingly de rigueur.

I shudder to think of our museums, even the National Museum in New Delhi. I took a visiting French couple there recently. Hungry after a few hours of looking at the marvellous exhibits, we went to the basement ‘canteen’, which was an eyesore. The floor was wet with spilt sambar. Food was being ladled out sloppily. We left to eat elsewhere and didn’t return.

Museums elsewhere are always reinventing themselves. Alas, most of ours are sleeping beauties, awaiting the kiss of life from Prince Charming.

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