From conferences to traveling exhibitions to awards, the museum industry’s center of gravity seems firmly established in the U.S., France, the U.K., and other Western countries. Yet we’re missing out on great ideas and compelling stories by not engaging fully with our non-Western colleagues. The map of amazing museums stretches far beyond North America and Europe.
India is home to 35 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and some of the world’s most iconic tourist attractions: the Taj Mahal, the ancient temples at Khajuraho and Hampi, the Red Fort, and many more. India is also home to some of the world’s most precious and unique natural heritage: the Himalayas, the vast Thar Desert, the misty jungles of the Western Ghats, and the beaches of Goa and Kerala just to name a few.
So, it’s no surprise that Western museums can learn a lot from their Indian counterparts. Although still a developing country, India’s vibrant heritage industry shares millennia of cultural and natural treasures with millions of visitors every year. More than 8 million foreign tourists explored India in 2015, and the numbers have grown consistently every year since 2009.
We got the chance to explore museums in the world’s second most populous country: India. Here’s what we learned about how to stand out to visitors in a nation of nearly 1.5 billion people.
Make your museum more affordable for locals
There’s no denying it: Indians LOVE staycations, and domestic tourism has been rising quickly since 1999. In 2015 there were more than 1.4 billion domestic tourist visits (that’s more than 1 visit per every person in India), an 11% increase from 2014.
So what’s the secret to attracting tons of domestic tourists?
Give locals a huge discount! Most museums in India will offer free or heavily-discounted entry for Indian residents and citizens, even at the most famous destinations. For example, a foreign tourist will pay ₹1000 (about $15 USD) to visit the Taj Mahal, but an Indian citizen can enjoy the famous Mughal monument for only ₹40 ($0.60 USD).
We think this system is a big win for Indian museums and their local communities: museums still get those all-important tourist revenues from overseas visitors with more spending power, and also forge stronger links with their community by encouraging locals to visit again and again. India struggles with immense poverty, so by keeping local admission fees low, museums and heritage sites stay more accessible to those with lower incomes.
Although this strategy may not be appropriate for all museums, it’s clearly working for India. Domestic tourism is projected to continue growing by 7-8% every year for the foreseeable future.
Stories come before stuff
There’s no denying it – you’re often more likely to see important Indian artifacts in European and North American museums than in India itself. But this fact hasn’t stopped Indian museums from creating amazing museum experiences through colorful displays, replicas, and downright incredible stories.
The Gandhi Memorial Museum in Madurai, Tamil Nadu tells the compelling story of India’s journey to independence from the 1700s to 1947 with virtually no artifacts from before 1900.
It doesn’t have big budget panels or expensive tech – just simple, hand-painted signs and a few small objects. But it tells a powerful story that makes it one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.
It’s an important reminder that a great museum experience isn’t just about the objects on display, but the stories that are shared.
Put unexpected things in museums and museums in unexpected places
Ever daydreamed about zip lining through a medieval fort? In Jodhpur, Rajasthan you don’t have to dream. The city skyline is dominated by the spectacular fifteenth-century Mehrangarh Fort, with a zip lining course that lets visitors experience the massive site in a unique and thrilling way.
And even if you aren’t at a museum, India’s culture is never far away. At Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, travelers can enjoy amazing displays of traditional Indian architecture, sculpture, and handicrafts while waiting for their flight.
Most Indians are immensely proud of their history, culture, and natural heritage – so it’s no wonder they share amazing art and artifacts in as many unexpected places and ways as possible.
Get everyone involved in protecting heritage
Many Indian heritage sites are vital to local culture and tourism, so it’s important they’re protected for future generations. In Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, cars are forbidden within 500 metres of the site to protect the world-famous white marble from air pollution. India does have air pollution , but we love that protecting a heritage site has influenced local traffic laws!
Although not all museums in India go to such extremes, many ask visitors to remove their shoes to protect historic buildings and show respect. You won’t see a single sandal beyond the gates of the massive Mysore Palace complex in the southern city of Mysuru, and even at the Taj Mahal visitors must go shoe-less or wear special cloth booties. It might seem like a hassle but going barefoot does encourage visitors to connect with their environment and take a slower pace, not to mention helping to protect historic floors!
Celebrate museums every chance you get
Does your city or region have a Heritage Week? If not, you might want to take some inspiration from Indian cities like Madurai, where they hold an annual Heritage Monuments Week to celebrate the city’s museums and galleries. That means free entry for everyone across every museum in the city – even foreign tourists! India is also home to organizations like Rereeti, which runs workshops and events to help local museums become more engaging, interactive, and welcoming to all.
Things aren’t perfect
India’s museum world still faces many challenges, such as poverty, lack of infrastructure, environmental and archaeological degradation, inefficiency, and corruption. Yet the increasing numbers of foreign and local visitors to India’s museums are testament to the country’s passion for heritage and public engagement. The unique combination of ancient culture, new ideas, and enthusiasm for tourism is a recipe for unforgettable experiences.
The museum world is a much bigger place than just North America and Europe. In a globalized 21st century, the best way for Western museums to stay relevant is to collaborate with our colleagues in India and beyond. In doing so, you can learn best practices from across the world that will help make YOUR museum even more f***ing awesome!