"All human beings are curators, caring for and conserving our culture and our cultural heritage" explained Dr. Sanjay Garg, Deputy Director SAARC Cultural Center, during the SAARC International Conference on Development of Museums in South Asia, with the theme, 'Curating Culture for Present and Future', held from October 23rd to 25th at the National Museum, Colombo. Dr. Garg made this comment when the issue was raised that the curators and museum management should think outside the box and consider that the whole world is a museum of invaluable cultural heritage. He went on further to add that it is the responsibility of all mankind to protect and conserve all objects of cultural and heritage value on earth.
We owe our gratitude to Mr G. L. W. Samarasinghe, Director, SAARC Cultural center, and his team, for giving us this opportunity to listen to and learn from eminent scholars of the region.
The museums are like icebergs. What we can see on display could be only about one tenth of their collections. The rest are in storage, in varying degrees of storage conditions, and sometimes without any regular auditing of the valuable items kept. A solution is the digitization of all objects in the museum collections, and the Colombo National Museum is planning to do just that according to the Director, Ms. Sanuja Kasthuriarachchi. That is indeed good news, as there is an urgency for such a project and if it could commence immediately, not only in Colombo, but in all museums in the SAARC region, it could be of immense benefit for the scholars, and the general public. We are also happy to learn that this process of digitization and sharing all information and images online, has already begun. India has launched the national portal museumsofindia.gov.in.
Samarendra Kumar presented the progress in education and learning through the science museums established in India, taking both science and heritage to the children, all over India. The most interesting aspect he mentioned was of the awareness created in the children about their immediate environment, the threats and dangers to the eco-system and how the children could learn to protect and conserve. Since the national Council of Science Museums in India is willing to assist and support such ventures in the SAARC region, it is an offer which every country should accept at the earliest.
Dr. Bhagyalipi Malla, talked about the Palm Leaf Manuscript Heritage in Odisha (Orissa), a topic so familiar to us as the processing, writing and conserving the manuscripts have been with us for over two millennia. Odisha is far advanced in the conservation, repair and maintaining records of all the ancient manuscripts available in the museums, and they have digitized and placed online over 40,000 palm leaf manuscripts.
Space does not permit me to comment on all the academic presentation, but all the papers presented and the webcasts are available at the site saarcculture.org.
On 9th may, 2012 I wrote in this column about having the 'Museum in My Pocket'. At this conference we heard from Abhishek Gureja, how we could visit a museum and take it home with us, using digital technology to receive all the images and data on our mobile phones. If we could achieve this, then we need not worry about not been allowed to take photographs inside museums, and not having to write down details. This offer is for those who will still want to visit a museum physically, even after we get an opportunity to visit all museums online on our computers or phones.
I also wrote in this column on 13th August, 2014, about reversing Elginism. Elginism is the plundering of objects of heritage value by invaders and thieves. It continues today and will continue tomorrow, till as long as there are collectors and museum managers who are ready to pay any exorbitant price for such items, legally acquired or not. Such items are also purchased by those who want to launder all their black money.
The theme of this conference was the "development of museums...with the aim of discussing some of the challenges that the museums of South Asia are facing." One of the major challenges is getting back what belongs to us. But then, we have to decide about what really belongs to us, and who we mean, when we use the term us. When Dr. Garg said we are all curators, it also means all the heritage treasures on earth belong to all of us, all humanity, and not any state, institution, commercial enterprise or individual. Then we need access to all theses treasures, anytime anywhere, which could only be possible by sharing them online through digital technology. Then the commercial value of the objects too will diminish and plunder and smuggling will diminish as collectors would not want to have items of no monetary value. Another way is to create replicas, and share with everyone. There are no laws, and no conventions which prohibit the possession of replicas. If the replicas could not be distinguished from the original, at first glance, so much the better, for the safety of the original.
The British have realized the importance of their own past, their own heritage and they are trying to prevent their theft. They have formed STOP, "Stop Taking Our Past". They should also now realize that what they plundered and stole from our countries is our past.
The future museum could be totally digital, which we discussed at the conference, with every museum online. This could also solve the problem of all the treasures which are not displayed in the museums, which would never be seen by anyone, except for the curators and storekeepers. Then we may not even need to reverse Elginism, because we could view, observe, study and object in our own space on our own time.
Till then, let's appeal to everyone to STOP, Stop Taking Our Past.