In conversation with Rereeti: revitilizing museums

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Rereeti: revitalizing museums on all things museums:)

Read the full conversation below or visit their website here.

  1. When and how did you decide to become part of the museum field? (Briefly describe your childhood aspirations and how it evolved. What did you do once you realized / decided you wanted to work in a museum or within the cultural sector –what sort of advice did you receive? What research did you undertake for colleges?)

Growing up I always enjoyed history over every other subject, an interest which extended to historic collections, art and architecture over time; a desire to work with museums stemmed quite naturally from these early interests. I can recall a childhood visit to the Raja Kelkar Museum in Pune with my brother, when all he wanted was to leave and all I wanted was to stay! These interests informed my decision to do a BA in History followed by an intensive, research focused, MA in History of Art. 

My focus on museum education and interpretation came later. Working as a tour volunteer with the Asiatic Society in Mumbai as an undergraduate student made me aware of a passion for working directly with diverse audiences, sharing historic stories and ideas and encouraging public engagement with the same. During my first museum job as a curatorial associate at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum I became aware of the lacuna in museum education and audience engagement in India and it was then that I decided to train further and specialise in museum education and interpretation. This was not an easy decision because I couln’t find a course in India that suited me and it meant spending another year abroad with all the accompanying costs. In hindsight though it was definitely the right decision as spending that year learning from museum education professionals in the UK  exposed me to ideas and prepared me to work in museums back home in ways that I could not even have imagined one year earlier.

  1. Did the thought of career growth, financial viability and social acceptability influence your decision or give rise to conflicts? (Elaborate on the dilemmas you faced (if any) between your choices and the ones taken up by peers from the same educational background, and if you faced any concern from parents, peers? Highlight how you visualized your future within the museum sector and the possible career growth you would experience. Talk about some of the uncertainties you faced while deciding to study further specifically to enter the museum sector)

I am fortunate to have been able to allow my interests to determine my study and career paths. I come from a supportive family and friends circle, many of whom have built careers in the arts and humanities so in working with museums I never faced any opposition on that end. That said, I definitely was concerned about the financial viability of working with museums, especially given the investment in higher education necessary to prepare for a career in the museum sector. Though the sector is growing, for the most part these financial challenges remain. It remains a fact that very few museums can and will hire young professionals at salaries and/or in positions that are sustainable in the long run.

In visualising my career path over the first ten of fifteen years, my personal goal has always been to work within an institution for a few years and then establish an independent practice working with museums and audiences in a way that would be both financially and practically sustainable.

  1. What are the some of the highlights / positives of working in the museum sector? (What motivates you at work every day? What are some of the memorable experiences that you have had within the museum – with colleagues, visitors, or during collaborations with other institutions)?

For anyone interested in art and history, working with historic museum collections everyday is definitely one of the biggest highlights of working in or with a museum. In addition, my personal highlight is engaging the public and sharing collection stories, ideas and inspiration with diverse audiences. The challenge of developing successful interpretive programmes and media that are age and interest specific, and targeted to particular audience groups, is what motivates me every day.

My most memorable experiences of museum work include moments when a school group has said to me at the end of a tour that they always thought museums were boring but never again, or when a teacher wrote to me post her vist that her class of five year olds went home to tell their parents that the visit was their favourite field trip and they cannot wait to come back again! For museum staff, I think nothing beats seeing the museum space filled with visitors of different ages actively participating in a programme, and I am lucky to have experienced this multiple times with my former colleagues at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum.

  1. How do you interact with peers / museum professionals beyond your workplace? (Do you attend conferences and workshops, or give presentations locally, nationally or internationally? What sort of networking opportunities would enhance your career prospects?)

I definitely try and attend workhops and conferences where possible, and I have given presentations both locally and internationlly, but the honest answer is I should do more to interact with museum professionals outside my circle of colleagues. In fact, I’ve been contemplating creating a forum for young museum professionals in Mumbai to meet up, network, get to know each other’s work better, because I think we don’t have enough opportunities to do so in an informal setting.

  1. How does a museum professional approach continuing professional development? (Once you gain 4-6 years experience, how do you add to your learning? What are the options available for young professionals to study or take up professional development workshops? What would you recommend? Can you give instances from your own career or of your colleagues?)

I find it essential to keep abreast of the latest ideas and practice in museums by using social media tools especially Twitter to follow and engage with leading influencers and organisations around the world. You could also participate in free museum focused MOOCS on platforms such as Coursera and Future Learn. For example, I recently signed up for an online course titled Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum which I found very useful in understanding how museums are re-imagining their roles and futures. The biggest advantage is, of course, that these tools are free, but you can also engage with them on your own time, on a schedule that suits you, which makes this do-able. I believe it is also necessary to invest a certain amount on academic platforms such as Jstor which offer access to the latest published research in the field of museums. Finally, whilst this can be expensive and involve travel, attending conferences and workshops where possible can offer the chance to meet with and learn from colleagues around the world. Subscriptions to specialised online forums, on museum education for instance, can be a great way to receive targetted information.

  1. What are your visions / wish list for the museum sector in India? (What are you doing to actualizing these wishes? How could institutions or the government aid museum sector in accomplishing these visions or goals? What is the future of museums in India according to you)

My personal wish for museums in India is an increase in openness and access. This would include increasing audience access to collections online, on site and in storage for research, inspiration and engagement. It would also include something as simple as allowing or easing access to spaces and programmes that are off-limits, or difficult to access for the public – from lawns and gardens to museum conservation labs, libraries and stores, but also to museum professionals through curator-led public tours and conversations, or friends of the museum programmes; also, welcoming audience groups to use and access the museum for their own purposes. The best part is all of this is relatively easy to achieve. After three years of building and running the education programme at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, where I tried to conceptualise and develop individual programmes guided by these ideas, my aim is now to work independently and encourge public access to different museum collections and heritage sites through interpretive vists, workshops and tours, hopefully in partnership with museums and heritage organisations.

  1. What would you like to tell a fresher to the museum sector? (Talk about it from your personal perspective – what would you have liked to know before you had entered the field?)

As I have said to several young students who have expressed an interest in working in museums, museums need them! But, they need them to come in to the sector prepared, with certain developed skill sets. Ideally they should try and intern or volunteer at a museum long term whilst still in college to begin to understand how museums function and to recognise the skills that are necessary and their own abilities and interests. Practical skills such as research, documentation, public speaking and communication, interpretive planning and understanding, project management, basic design and social media skills are all extremely useful. Knowing more than one local language is also a big advantage. At the moment there aren’t too many museum jobs for young professionals and these skills would allow them to access the jobs there are.

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