‘Museums reflect who we are as communities and countries’Naman P Ahuja, the chief curator of Lumbini Museum, on what curating means to him, his vision for the museum, and the challenges of curating in a region as diverse as South Asia.
A week ago, Lumbini Museum shared its plan to open its doors to a global audience in 2024. As the name suggests, the museum is located in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha.
Work for the current incarnation of Lumbini Museum began in 2018, and once completed, it aims to become a ‘state-of-the-art museum’. And heading the project is a diverse team of people. Sumnima Udas is the museum’s executive director; Naman P Ahuja, a professor of South Asian Art History and the Dean of the School of Arts & Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, is the chief curator; and Bijoy Jain, the internationally-acclaimed architect, and Norman R Foster, a visiting professor at Yale University, are the chief architects.
Why Lumbini? For years, people have touted Lumbini’s potential to become a major tourist destination in Nepal. And given Lumbini’s cultural significance, it gets an average of 1.5 million visitors annually, but government records have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of these visitors spend only a few hours in the town.
And this fact is intertwined with the idea behind Lumbini Museum, which aims to improve the experience of visiting Lumbini and inspire people to explore the many historically important and lesser-known Buddhist sacred sites in and around Lumbini, including Kapilavastu, and better understand the communities living in the Tarai region.
The Post’s Pinki Sris Rana sat with the museum’s chief curator, Naman P Ahuja, to talk about his curation, the state of museums and art galleries in South Asia, and most importantly, his vision for Lumbini Museum.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How would you define the role of a curator, and what do you think are the qualities a curator must possess?
The word curator comes from the Latin word ‘cūrāre’, which means someone who takes care of. So, a curator is someone who takes care of something, but their job isn’t just limited to that. A curator has to have the capacity to reach out to diverse audiences while crafting a narrative that makes the audiences feel represented. As a curator, one must not only respect the art one is working with but also be respectful in understanding what society needs to see and cater accordingly.
I think a curator must have four qualities: first, crafting a narrative that shapes the opinions of people; second, designing and displaying and doing them as aesthetically as possible; third, taking care of the objects as a keeper and conserving it for years to come; and fourth, predicting the value of artefacts for the future generations.
As someone who has studied art history, you have said that it is important for a curator to focus on history and make it relevant in contemporary times. Why do you think so?
History helps us understand who we are. I believe it’s almost impossible to imagine creating an identity without being aware of our background. As a curator, one’s responsibility is not just to conserve a 200-year-old artefact but also to provide the space so that the contemporary community can interpret the artwork in their own way. When choosing artworks, a curator needs to predict what could be required in the future and curate with a long-term vision. That is why I believe history will always be relevant in contemporary times, perhaps not in the exact same way with the same interpretation, but the relevancy will always be there.
What do you think about the current scenario of museums and exhibitions in South Asia? You also talk about paradigm shifts curators should be aware of. What are the shifts that are taking place globally, and where does South Asia stand?
South Asia’s museum sector had remained stagnant for several decades, and it was only in the last five to 10 years that the region’s museum scene started seeing a shift. I think the popularity of social media played a huge role in that. Social media made us understand the importance of visual communication, and museums are great places to visually communicate to the world who we are as communities and countries.
In the past one decade, we have also became aware that so many of the stolen artefacts from South Asian countries are displayed in many Western museums and how they have taken such good care of our artefacts. When we started asking for our stolen artefacts, we realised that our museums need to level up to be able to take care of the returned artefacts. So, the change is definitely happening.
South Asia has a diverse demographic that is culturally rich. How challenging is it for a curator to work in such a diverse region?
Yes, curating in a region as diverse as South Asia is challenging. We have multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities, and curators must make it their priority to ensure that their works make the diverse communities feel represented. When you talk about Nepal, the country has 123 ethnic languages, right? Suppose a curator is doing a linguistic exhibition in the country. In that case, it becomes the person’s curatorial responsibility to develop a narrative that represents the whole linguistic diaspora in Nepal while making each ethnic community belong to the museum.
What will be your focus as a chief curator of Lumbini Museum?
Since the museum is located at the birthplace of Buddha, it will most definitely exhibit ancient Buddhism and its relevance in contemporary times. But it is our priority to focus equally on the region’s history, the land of Tarai, the fragile and important ecosystem, the cultural geography, and the people. With the help of community-based communication, Lumbini Museum will be a public museum in its truest sense.