‘She is not interested in museums’, a friend said, of his daughter. He left me wondering. The history lover in me was not very happy.
I frequent museums and try to savour those at places I visit. Here I speak not just of large and exquisite collections like the ones at the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay or the National Museum in New Delhi. I have learnt of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland from museums in their capitals. They have taught me about the homes and festivals of people there, the clothes they once wove and wore, their fishing and cultivation practices and more. Today we also have a range of private museums. Some of these like the textile and vessel museums at Ahmedabad boast of very focused and novel collections while those like the Don Bosco museum at Shillong use the latest technology to engage with visitors. Then of course there are those that are owned by the erstwhile royal families. These rich repositories of our shared past can hold our hands as we move towards the future.
During a recent trip to the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, where the audio guide helped me with details of the exhibits, I wondered why museums are not put to use for learning history. They will surely help take history beyond the mugging of dates and names and bring it alive. Museums, however, are more than just history – they can help facilitate discussions on a range of topics. For example, how forests and their resources were put to use during earlier times. The Salar Jung Museum has a gallery dedicated to ivory! The potential is humongous. Trips to the Nicholas Roerich Estate in Naggar (Kullu) or the Raja Ravi Varma collection at the Vadodara museum can be learning spaces for art and painting with few parallels. Vadodara incidentally had the first building in the country designed specifically for a museum; its star attraction, over the years, has been the skeleton of a blue whale! This large mammal had come up the Mahi River sometime during the 1940s.
Schools need to take education out of classrooms and look beyond the allotted 45-minute slot for each period. At the same time, students need to experience a sense of awe and wonder in the course of learning. Museums offer a wonderful opportunity to become partners in education. Some of these museums like the Salar Jung Museum also have auditoriums that are used for events including deliberations on history.
We also need to take a critical look at our own relationship with museums. I have come across parents who have not had the time to visit museums in their own cities with their children. Schools have been visiting museums but on most occasions, primarily on account of group sizes, all they succeed in doing is to move in a proper file. To begin with we need to go beyond being tourists, maintaining discipline and clicking photographs. Few parents, however, take that extra step to visit historical spaces in their cities and draw connections with the textbooks mandated for their children.
Coming back to my friend, after his daughter moved away, I asked him when he last had a chat with her about history, or got a book for her on the topic, or go with her to a structure of historical or cultural significance. Did he expect her to be interested in museums after being taken to Play Zones at malls and subjected to Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma at home?
All said and done, children may or may not be interested in history or museums, we leave it to them. The question is whether we are playing our roles well – that of exploring avenues such as museums and presenting them to our children as options.