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The retailer of culture

The retailer of culture
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First Published: Sun, Oct 17 2010. 09 21 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Oct 17 2010. 09 21 PM IST
The most defining feature of Tasneem Zakaria Mehta’s office at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai is unusual. It’s not the antique furniture or the view of the sixth century elephant statue, or even the double-height ceilings. It’s “celadon green”, the subtle colour of the room’s paint finish—the same colour which wraps the museum. The choice of shade tells a story of legacy and transformation, of past lives being made relevant to present circumstances.
Mehta is the managing trustee and honorary director of the city’s oldest museum, established in 1855 and known as Mumbai’s Victoria and Albert Museum until 1975. Unlike the other spaces and people featured in Head Office, the Bhau Daji Lad Museum is not a corporate entity, and Mehta is not a company chief executive. It is far more intriguing: a public institution funded by the municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai, actively supported by a leading private sector business clan, the Bajaj family, and restored by a non-profit, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). In Mehta’s world, the public, private and non-profit appear to merge seamlessly.
Mehta is also Intach's vice-chairman, a member of the governing council of Hyderabad’s Salar Jung Museum, the chair of the Confederation of Indian Industries’ task force on museums and heritage, and a regular contributor to newspapers. It’s a packed “portfolio life”.
Shades of green
Mehta’s museum office was designed to echo its era. “It is such a profound historical space, has such a strong visual character to it, to put any contemporary interjection would be just too disruptive,” she reasons. The cupboards and writing desk have been preserved; the new sofas, tables and pendant lights are aesthetically congruent. Modern technology (surveillance TV and computer equipment) do not detract from the scholarly air; I felt like I was walking into the office of a colonial school’s headmistress.
Mehta says celadon green was considered “the most appropriate colour for the contemplation of the arts” by Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A Museum in London and the architect of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first international exhibition of culture and industry, which inspired the creation of the Mumbai museum. This 150-year-old fact was revealed during extensive research on the Victorian colour palette, an example of Mehta’s aesthetic due diligence.
Yet the colour green has another interpretation: as a metaphor for the museum’s new, customer–oriented, revenue– maximizing strategy, led by Mehta. Since the museum reopened in January 2008, it has strengthened its dialogue with Mumbaikars—from primary school students to contemporary art collectors. Its current show is an example: an exhibition of life-size installations by artist Sudarshan Shetty—theatrical, ambitious and a crowd-puller.
Dual identity: (clockwise from above) Mehta’s offices have curated artefacts, such as the telephone and the Ganesha statue (top, right); the walls of the museum are in celadon green, considered most appropriate for the contemplation of the arts by Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A Museum in London; Mehta’s museum office, painted the same colour, has a scholarly air; and her home office is a collector’s haven, with an eclectic selection of books, artworks, contemporary and antique furniture. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Mehta says her curatorial instincts were honed during four formative years as a buyer with Bloomingdale’s, New York City’s famous department store. Retail is an unlikely path to museum management, even for someone with degrees in the fine arts, art history, liberal arts and English literature, but Mehta points out unexpected similarities between the two domains. “You are engaged with the customer, you have to make that point of contact in both places. Here we’re selling a ticket, we also have a shop, we have a café, exactly like Bloomingdale’s,” she explains.
She agrees with me that museums today must entertain, as much as educate, in order to attract audiences, emphasizing that “in the beginning that was what museums were about”.
Personal wares
Mehta’s dual lives—as former retailer and current curator—are captured in her sea-facing home office in her 11th-floor flat in a landmark Nariman Point residential building. The room is a collector’s haven, bulging with racks of books, a disparate collection of paintings and photographs, and an eclectic selection of decorative objects and furniture of varying provenance. Antique chairs from London are juxtaposed with an experimental art furniture chair from Mumbai. A black and white portrait of her daughter by famed photographer Dayanita Singh hangs alongside works from lesser-known artists. Books on history, fiction, art and design jostle for space.
Yet every object has been carefully assigned its place, preserved with a curator’s devotion, and monitored with a retailer’s eagle eye (“Maintenance and management of objects is a huge issue, whether at home or in the museum,” she sighs).
The two offices demarcate Mehta’s multiple roles. She spends mornings and late nights at home, responding to emails and phone calls, and writing. After a mandatory break for exercise late morning, she is at the museum until early evening.
When I wonder how she weaves together the different strands, her answer is deceptively straightforward. “I don’t think you ever get to head an institution without understanding that you have different stakeholders, they have different concerns, which must be addressed,” she states, explaining her ability to weld public, private and non-profit interests. Adding, “When you are CEO in two or three capacities, then everything you do is directed towards work. There are no boundaries, one flows into the other.” Just like the design of the museum, with its harmonious blend of materials, objects, structure, space, and time.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Oct 17 2010. 09 21 PM IST