Veteran art curator and head of research at the British Museum, J.D. Hill speaks to Bhumika Popli about India and the World, the ongoing exhibition in Delhi which he co-curated, and about why a good curator has to master the skills of business and diplomacy.
“I know each and every object here. They are my friends. It is you who has to come forward and see them closely,” said Jeremy David Hill, the co-curator of India and the World: A History in Nine Stories, an ongoing exhibition at Delhi’s National Museum. He was addressing a curious group of visitors who came to attend the curated walk led by him on 11 May.
He talked with enthusiasm, with insight, through the 90-minute span, introducing his listeners to the historical linkages between India and the rest of the world. Hill led us through the 200 exhibits here, placed in a chronological formation, ranging from ancient axes, magnificent statues, to the first coins and notes. Guardian 20 caught up with Hill prior to the walk.
He calls this exhibition a collaborative effort between Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), and London’s British Museum, where he is the head of research. This exhibition first debuted in India at the CSMVS Mumbai last year in November. Hill says, “It is always been a show led by our Indian colleagues, particularly Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director CSMVS. And it has always been a show where we tried to bring the right combination of ideas, objects and different chapters of history to make it work for a wider audience in India.”
Hill is particular about what museums should offer their visitors. He talks about the role and function of museums in our time. “I think for us, working at the British Museum, the road a museum should follow is very clear. I think museums are one of those places where people go to try and find out about the world, to try and find out about the past and also to try and make sense of the changing world we are living in,” he says.
The job of a museum, according to Hill, is to educate the visitors by introducing them to the changing tide of the times.
He says, “Be it through exhibitions, through radio series, or a television programme, we try to give people a better sense of why the world is the way it is today. It is very much saying that the role of the museum has to be about giving visitors a better sense of culture and religion. That’s what museums are here to do. Five years ago, we did an exhibition about the hajj [seasonal Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca]. It was not because people said they want us to curate that particular show but because we wanted to help people develop an understanding of Islam.”
To plan a thought-provoking exhibition is not an easy task. A curator has to meticulously plan and work on acquiring a certain object. On this, Hill says,
“A museum curator should not just focus on acquiring ancient things, but also pay attention to 21st-century objects, so that people in 100-200 years time can experience them. The role of the curator is to help choose the right objects for a museum to acquire. When the curator is researching an object, they should gain a certain understanding of the object, but also about the object’s history—in terms of whom it belonged to, from how many hands it has passed through, and so on. That’s what acquiring is. It is quite a complicated process.”
Hill has a few suggestions for someone looking to be a curator. He says, “Curators have to be experts, someone like a lecturer or professor in a particular university would be an expert in a particular subject. But curators have to be more than that. Working in a museum, first and foremost, you have to be passionate about objects. If you are not passionate about works of art, then there is no place for you in a museum. Secondly, you have got to be passionate about communicating your subject matter to a wide audience. A big difference between a curator and a professor in a university is that our job is to spread the news as widely as possible and to engage as many different people as possible. And thirdly, they may be experts in one particular area but they have to be able to work across many different areas. It is so because you may be asked to curate an exhibition away from your area of expertise and you need skills to be able to interrogate evidence, put them together in different ways beyond your comfort zone.”
There’s also the business aspect of curating exhibitions to be borne in mind. “Increasingly, curators have got to be entrepreneurs and fantastic managers,” Hill says. “As they have to manage museums, which are very complicated organisations. They have to raise the money from private sponsors or companies.”
Hill brings us to the love-hate relationship between artists and curators. He says, “There is a very complicated relationship between the artist and the curator. It is much easier working with objects from the past than with living artists because living artists have a particular view of their own art. The curator’s job is to ask other questions about the work of art. So you see sometimes that an artist and a curator may not necessarily agree with each other and they may clash and that can be quite difficult. It can be a difficult relationship. And that again comes back to what skills curators need. Curators need to be great diplomats as well as great entrepreneurs because they have to negotiate a world in which they can be very strongly opposed.”
India and the World: A History in Nine Stories, is on view at Delhi’s National Museum till 30 June