It’s vacation time for our two children, ages 16 and 11. As summer rolls around each year, my wife and I worry about how they can be meaningfully occupied. We are working parents, with fairly active travel schedules. While we love the idea of lazy summer days—given our own pleasant memories of boisterous sessions with numerous cousins—the nuclear family has eliminated these options. I guess we have also become more concerned parents—too concerned perhaps—worrying about the quality of our children’s leisure time.
When we lived overseas, the museum would always be a time-sucking sponge. Countless weekend and holiday hours were spent in museums of various kinds—natural history, art, science. We also found them to be extraordinary public spaces, filled with people of all colours, classes and ages: grandparents taking their young wards for an afternoon trip; tourists wanting to know more about a country and its culture; schoolteachers waving a group of eight-graders along; a wheelchair occupant oblivious to his disability.
Museums are more than edutainment for casual visitors. A report titled, “Understanding the future—Museums and 21st century life” by the British government says, “Museums are the way we connect our past with our present and our future. Museums are centres of knowledge, with a clear and growing role as educators. They support the creative industries. They act as a powerful engine for regeneration, their impact on the economy, and the tangible effect they have on the imagination and spirit of the people who visit them, is enormous.” Ultimately, museums are “a means of helping citizens understand their place in the world.”
A few weeks ago, running out of holiday options, we took our children along on an overseas working trip, promising them sightseeing and time with friends. Despite the hectic schedule, the tug of the museum couldn’t be resisted, and we squeezed out half a day for the London Science Museum.
At first, the thought of spending a beautiful spring day stuck indoors didn’t appeal to the children. But their eyes widened as they walked into the hallway and saw an escalator riding up through what seemed like the centre of the earth. By the end of the evening, they were filled with the energy of discovery, laughing as they twirled the large disk that demonstrated coriolis force, and awestruck at the raw power of a volcano. Our son, whose only interest in dinosaurs until then had been restricted to filmy blood-and-gore, got an unforgettable lesson on the intricacies of an archaeological dig.
I can’t help feeling distressed as I compare these remarkable centres to our own museums in India. And sorry for the thousands of schoolchildren who are wasting their summer days, when they could be filling their heads with the liberating air of ideas. Approximately 10 million 17-year-olds in the country took their 12th grade examinations this year. Of those from Karnataka, only 50% passed. This means that two-and-a-half lakh teenagers in the state—50 lakh nationwide, if the statistics can be extrapolated—are in an academic dead-end, likely to become part of our collective social problem a decade later. And another 50 lakh next year. And the next.
Our country has many obvious and overwhelming challenges. Set against these, the idea of building vibrant museums sounds trivial and perhaps somewhat indulgent. But it’s strange how even the smallest of interventions can have an unexpected multiplier effect. While the education problem is vast and complex, and many remarkable minds are hard at the task, I can’t help feeling that museums could help. By providing that one inspiring moment, one glimpse of a world of different possibilities to motivate a child to dream beyond their immediate surroundings.
I have spoken to a few museum directors in our country, hoping to find sparks of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, most of them have either flamed out like fireflies or are isolated and too deeply buried beneath our ossified attitudes towards museums. Transforming our museums will first require a transformation in our mindset towards museums. We need to go beyond treating museums as mausoleums of mothballed memories, and bring them alive with creative and innovative programming, connected to our cities’ economies and supported at least partially by private funding.
The amazing thing about a country with a billion people is that there are always champions of change, passionately pursuing their cause. Hope is a tantalizing emotion. I can’t wait for the day when I can spend an enthralling Sunday afternoon with my children, lost in the corridors of a delightful Indian museum.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org