failure discourses A Public Failure? Museums and Audiences in India

Indian Museum, Kolkata. …because the public failed.
Photo: Goethe-Institut / Leonhard Emmerling

​What is the role of the public in a museum, and how can they “fail” at it? What kinds of “failure” discourses have been attached to the connection between Indian museums and their publics, and what can we learn from them?
 

Throughout their entire career in the subcontinent, museums have been framed within a discourse of failure. At times, it is the authorities that are accused of failing museums by not offering them adequate support; at other times it is the museums that are denounced for functioning poorly. At yet other times, the accusations of failure accumulate around a third party: the visitors to the museum, who constitute the public and whom the museum is supposed to address. In this context, we frequently hear the criticism that museums have failed to serve their public. But can the public too fail the museum? What is the role of the public in a museum, and how can they “fail” at it? What kinds of “failure” discourses have been attached to the connection between Indian museums and their publics, and what can we learn from them?
 
The International Committee on Museums – the United Nations’ nodal organization for museums – defines museums thus:
 
A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.
 
It is worth noting the number of times a viewing public is invoked in this definition of the museum. The museum is in service of society; it is open to the public; it must communicate and exhibit (to viewers), for their education, study and enjoyment.  The artefacts in its collection, the scholarship of its curators, the grandeur of the museum’s edifices, are all only one side of the coin. All of these are meaningless without the public in whose name things are collected, preserved and displayed, for whom the great buildings are built, and for whom its exhibits are laid out. This suggests that…the museum is not as much about its things as the people who come to see the things. …
 
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