A worker from Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) recently walked into the 91-year-old Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay, or CSMVS, with a small bit of black wood and an unusual request: "Can you check if the paint on this is of any historical value?" The piece belonged to furniture that was to be retouched and while the colour was not found to be ancient, the query indicated a budding awareness about heritage conservation.
The CSMVS feels partly responsible for the consciousness. The erstwhile Prince of Wales museum got its wordy new name in the 1990s but that has not been the only big change. Starting in 2007, a series of efforts towards modernising the establishment has been gaining momentum as well as recognition. One of the moves was to set up a conservation centre (or "hospital" as it is fondly called) to restore artefacts and share expertise with other institutions.
Located in a corner of the second floor, the centre does resemble a medical set-up. Tired paintings with chipped frames or flaking skin arrive for a second opinion. Post scrutiny under UV and infra-red rays by a team of young students and international interns, reports are created and treatments planned. The room is strewn with complicated charts on whiteboards, microscopes and shelves lined with bottles of paints and chemicals. Conservationist Anupam Sah, a genial man and head of the centre, got on board as soon as he got the offer. "It is not often that an institution is willing to give you a 4,000-square-feet space to open such a centre."
The attention to preservation came during the recent turnaround. Started in 1909, the museum's collection including Maratha, Mughal, Japanese, Chinese and European artefacts, grew under the patronage in cash and kind from donors like Karl Khandalavala and Ratan Tata. But earlier, it acted largely as a place for inert display.
Now with a decision to be a 'custodian' of art and culture, the museum has been adding new elements and engaging with people. The Art Conservation Resurgence Project, which is putting together reference material to help nascent museums in towns like Leh, Tawang and Ratnagiri, too works out of the CSMVS. Apart from corporate trusts, the work is being supported by the Ministry of Culture. Even rural museums have resources, says Sah. "The problem is in not knowing how to utilise them to the optimum."
* * *
Sabyasachi Mukherjee, archaeology veteran and director general of the CSMVS, set in motion the revamp efforts after getting into the decision-making post in 2007. He does not approve of terms such as 'international standards.' What the museum needed, in his view, was to be made less dreary so that people had reasons to return.
This was done by bringing in special showcases through associations with global institutions. The most successful of them was "Mummy: The Inside Story", a 3D show and exhibition hosted with the help of the British Museum this year, for which queues stretched from the museum up to Kala Ghoda. Overall, footfall has risen 30 per cent after the revamp and most promisingly, local interest has risen, says the director. "Not everyone can go to London or Paris so the idea is to bring what we can for the people here." An exhibition on Ancient Persia is set to come next.
The entry charge for viewing the collection of 60,000 items is nominal but unlike other old structures in South Mumbai, the Grade I heritage building is in great condition. Paan stains and dust are conspicuously absent. Visitors are let in after many security checks and foreign tourists can avail of the audio guide.
Each new detail was etched by a team of experts and designers. The artefacts sit inside climate-controlled cases with cold light. Some objects like old-fashioned turbans and ornaments can be tried on. There are brief explanations against every object for hurried visitors; others can refer to comprehensive notes displayed above. The staff, dressed in identical maroon t-shirts, helps with additional queries. There is a section designed to interest children.
The paintings are displayed in rotating batches because "no one wants to see a static exhibition twice," says Mukherjee. Small benches with a clipboard and pencils are laid out for visitors to try some sketching. Soon to go on display is the Anwar-i-Suhayli, a Persian version of the Panchatantra ordered by Akbar for his son, which was refurbished with a grant from Bank of America Art Conservation Project. There are dedicated donors but others are yet to recognise heritage conservation as an area for philanthropy, notes Sah.
At his table packed with books and files, Mukherjee acknowledges e-mails in the museum's single inbox and not in perfunctory fashion because "it does not seem nice." Meetings are being set up and funds sought for further plans. Within its grand old edifice that was mainly a landmark, the CSMVS is steadily becoming a full-fledged centre for cultural learning and preservation.