Utkal Divas Musing: Time For Odisha To Make Museums Economic Engines

Recently Museums in Odisha have got makeovers and are visitable and welcoming. Before the renovations, the museums were apologies in the name of archives. I hope they continue to shine for more time because without museums, we would portray a grim picture of our culture which is itself bereft of culture sensitivity.

Our social rhetoric on culture is growingly becoming cornball, trite and superficial. Civil society’s contribution to the upkeep of ‘museum sense’ has been zilch. On the contrary, museums often become places for juvenile, unrequited lounging and loafing. If the weather is good, then it is at museums and if the weather is bad then at airconditioned shopping malls. I don’t blame the young ones for not realising the value of museums. We have not recognised that yet.

The governments have been the sole caretakers and patrons of the museums. The corporates have done scant to preserve and refurbish our museums. The mineral and metal industry is living off our soil but we don’t have a single PPP (public Private Partnership) for museum maintenance. Extractions don’t value excavations. Strange. Why?

The creative and cultural industries are key components of state economies, specifically for endowment rich Odisha. The prevalence of cultural sites, services and art forms will boost tourism, sustain livelihoods, and attract investments. The non-economic benefits of culture include preservation of rich history, promotion of knowledge, and nurturing of creativity. Knowledge needs promotion because it is fast disappearing as the core to Odia life.

Museums are a world by themselves – they tell our stories, preserve our heritage, interpret the past, and explore the future. We extract everything possible to live – from roots to bauxite. But why can’t we take care of our historical, architectural excavations. Museums play an essential role in Odisha’s cultural and social life and enrich our lives daily —  feeding the hunger for knowledge and igniting our imaginations.

Beyond this cultural impact, the museum sector is also essential to the state economy— generating GDP in a state with one third tribal districts and 62 indigenous tribes, stimulating small enterprises, and contributing taxes. GDP is not a complete measure but at least has the capacity to allure us to our interest in intangible, creative and social economy. GDP is the bait.

Museums are getting on to the activist mode and rightfully so. It is overdue. Pornhub, a famous porn site was threatened to be sued by the Uffizi gallery in Florence for using its masterpieces in a nude video. Pornhub relented and deleted the unauthorised nude pictures.

Many of our book covers use unauthorised pictures taken from the museums without any approvals. We take museums for granted – the past which is powerless , redundant and yet decorative. The copying of cultural artefacts, for example, should completely rest with the government, even if they are long out of copyright and are in the public domain.

Museums around the globe are increasingly capitalising on the intellectual property of their priceless pieces, in out-of-the-box collaborations with luxury fashion brands, across products. Beijing’s Palace Museum earned about $222m (£162m) in revenue through product sales and royalties in 2018. They might be big museums, but we can learn from their initiatives. We could have discussions on innovative museum promotions, during Sahitya Charcha in the museums.

In 2019,  Uffizi in Florence, made about €1.2m (over £850,000) in revenue from the sale of photos of its collection. In Odisha, the State Museum, Tribal Museum and Maritime Museum have rare possessions and they should take up photo business seriously.

Merchandising museum masterpieces need to be encouraged. There are many souvenir items selling in Bhubaneswar but are of abysmally low quality and price. Our miniatures can also be of high quality. Louvre museum has stepped up its licensing efforts, and its brand partnerships have yielded €4.5m in 2020.

Odisha is the sports capital, the steel capital, the soft culture capital and yet our creative economy is famishing. In 2021, the British Museum launched a cosmetic product (an eye-shadow palette) influenced by ancient Egyptian artefacts, in partnership with Chinese makeup brand Zeesea.

Each precious item in the tribal museum in Bhubaneswar can be replicated to souvenirs. They are so distinctive and rare. They are not merely objects but ‘talking and breathing’ symbols. Some designs can be made images of the artworks, others can be designed to look like official tickets. There is enough scope to make bold and contemporary creations, driving contemporary, Z-culture interest from younger, global audiences.

Regional Museum of Natural History, Kala bhoomi,  state museum, Khiching museum, Sun Temple/Konark museum, Archaeological museum, Netaji Museum should turn to merchandise to tap Gen Z visitors, who are more likely to access museum content online, rather than offline. The aim is to make the rare archives collections more visible.

Odisha collection has an array of objects & history covering anthropology, archaeology, armoury, art and craft, epigraphy, geology, natural history, numismatics/coins, palm leaf manuscripts, and patta painting and many more. The princely family collections can add to the list and weave a captivating and antique story. When antique has a high-end global market, why are we sidelining our own valuables? At least the functional 50 odd palaces can gift artefacts and antiquarian rarities to the museums for better maintenance and publicity. Presently many such items and stories are getting buried without any documentation.

It has been seen worldwide that many designers opt for creative mashups of the old masters like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Each district of Odisha has many motifs/symbols. These patterns or designs need not be copied on to the products, instead the artists can  create original patterns inspired by artworks and share them on TikTok and livestreamed events.

Museum sector has direct (operational) contribution to the economy and can have increased cascading impact across the districts and the state economy. Museums can increase purchases, both in quality and quantity from a wider supply chain. The PVTGs, artisans, historians, academicians can develop regular engagement with museums for supply of materials and provide the fast vanquishing knowledge capital.

Odisha museums can organise marquee history and culture related events, not seen often in India. Each of these economic channels can be quantified in terms of  contributions to the state GDP, social entrepreneurship, and the resulting tax revenue that is generated for all levels of government.

In 2021-22, Odisha’s State GDP grew at 10.1% which is a laudable result due to sustained efforts in prudent fiscal measures, management of COVID and almost parallel growth in the three sectors – agriculture, manufacturing and service. The euphoric growth story of Odisha will have additional support from museums in adding the cultural capital quotient and social inclusion.

Museums open up avenues to supplement to Start up and Make in Odisha. Enterprises based on museum needs can develop last mile entrepreneurship within SHGs, PVTGs and marginalised communities which are skilled but lack market exposure or linkages. They can be trained to produce souvenirs, objects to keep in the museums, replicas, models. The weavers can directly participate in events which I have mentioned earlier.

Museums can emerge as economic engines for their communities, supporting jobs and wages that are vital to the health of the districts and villages. The sector in Odisha can directly support more than  5000 jobs and generate 2X in community livelihoods.

In the midst of Odia social milieu undergoing a major transition, from a self-contained one to a more cosmopolitan one, it is time to enhance our equity in our ‘cultural capital’. Increasing cultural capital will reduce the size of social class inequalities. The handful self-claimed ‘culturati’ will have to give way to the genuine mass ‘waiting’. Every village in Odisha has a story to tell.

Museums are the appropriate podiums to give space to the cultural renaissance. It is renaissance for Odisha now. Because we are in a cusp and are a bit bewildered and at sea.

Picasso said, “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it”. Here we have enough of them, let’s fill them.

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