The word museum means different things to different people: for children it may be a place of wonder or ennui, for the culture vultures a place of high art, for history buffs a place to explore our past, for the layman it may be a place disconnected from their daily lives. But for overall, it is considered to be a sombre place where somewhat exotic objects are seen and not touched.
Why should the stories of our lives – essentially what museums attempt to capture – have to sit in glass cases, on shelves, in boxy buildings? While most museums passively display their priceless collections, a small but determined group of new-age curators is changing all that.
They are turning the museum inside out by taking it to the people.
They are also using provocative ideas to transform the humdrum into something extraordinary, urging people to engage with the ideas and objects on display, and encouraging them to sit up and think.
It is also heartening to see Mumbai’s largest and stateliest museum, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (CSMVS), be a part of this museum renewal.
So what’s the idea behind these new-age museums and how do they make sure they connect with their audience – a challenge the greatest museums of the world are currently facing?
The Museum of Ordinary Objects a collaboration between Tram Arts Trust, Harkat Studios and Extension Arts is a space that assigns value to the ordinary. It is a unique concept where the group, which has hosted exhibitions in Mumbai and Delhi so far, collects objects from the community in which the exhibition is mounted, and narrates their stories through the exhibition. The museum works on the idea of barter, where a visitor can exchange any object on display for one that they bring in.
Choiti Ghosh, one of the founders of the initiative, says the idea is to have the exhibition resonate with visitors as they are surrounded by the familiar, while also allowing a peep into personal narratives.
The Design Museum Dharavi evolved from the need to tell the story of the innovative and versatile communities that inhabit this large slum settlement. At the three exhibitions it held during the course of its year-long existence, the museum used design as a tool to showcase what the artisans and other residents in Dharavi are capable of creating, despite their obvious challenges – the vast array of products that they make for a living.
Those lumbering behemoths – the iconic red BEST buses – that still cause quite a rumble on Mumbai’s streets have for long constituted the backbone of public transport. At the BEST Museum, in Wadala, the Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST) explores the evolution of transport in the city and even provides models of buses for children to play with.
Museums based on unorthodox concepts like these invite communities who don’t usually visit traditional museums to interact with concepts, ideas and objects that they would otherwise never have encountered.
Part-exhibitions and part-anthropological studies, these initiatives recognise the value in the lives of common folk and highlight their stories through the exhibits on display. After all, it isn’t always the artistic or historic that needs recognition; much joy and many stories can be found in the ordinary!
At a recent discussion organized by Mumbai-based Avid Learning and the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, as part of their ‘Multipolis Mumbai’ series, a clutch of new-age museum curators – those behind some of these iconoclastic museums – came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities they dealt with.
A key to the success of alternative museums is public support. Dr Tejas Garge (Director, Archaeology and Museums, Government of Maharashtra), said we need to take our museums beyond the art districts of metropolitan cities, to suburban areas, smaller towns and rural areas as well. An important step in this direction is the Museum on Wheels, an initiative of the CSMVS, which has reached more than 40,000 children in smaller cities, towns and villages in Maharashtra.
Technology, especially digitisation, is a major game-changer in present times and has allowed museums to reach audiences that might otherwise have not had access to them. It also helps preserve their work for posterity.
Taking an exhibition to the audience, rather than the other way around, not only widens its scope, it also intimately connects with people and can act as a catalyst for social change. For instance, the Design Museum Dharavi and the Museum of Ordinary Objects were mounted in the midst of the communities they were concerned with, and the curators’ engagement with the people during and after the exhibitions was a key factor in how their work was received.
Let’s look at some other out-of-the-box museums in Mumbai that are changing the way we look at our past, present and future, while also enriching our lives.
Nehru Science Centre is an interactive science museum that invites visitors to explore science in a fun and interesting way. It has more than 500 hands-on and interactive exhibits, on subjects ranging from kinetics, to energy, to transport. The museum also examines scientific phenomena, the development of science in India as well as the work of significant scientists in India.
They say ‘money makes the world go round’, yet we tend to ignore the stories currency can tell across millennia. With the RBI Monetary Museum, the Reserve Bank of India does just that. The museum, located in Mumbai’s Fort precinct, showcases the evolution of money across the ages.
The CSMVS, Mumbai’s largest museum, decided to expand and look beyond the display of historical and artistic artefacts when it opened the Children’s Museum in March 2019. Interestingly, this museum, created especially for children, has been curated by 25 children aged between 8 and 15. The young team selected 22 diverse objects from the main museum, which are displayed with multilingual notes alongside them.
Mumbai is the birthplace of Indian cinema, and when the idea of a place to preserve Indian film heritage was floated, Mumbai was the obvious choice. The National Museum of Indian Cinema, an initiative of the Films Division of India located at Cumballa Hill, tells us about Mahatma Gandhi’s relationship with films, displays vintage movie-making equipment, showcases the process of filmmaking, as well as the stories of prominent individuals and events associated with the industry. It also has an interactive section, which allows one to play around with contemporary moviemaking technology.
The idea of a museum has evolved from that of being custodians of history and art to a space of interaction and participation. The museum is no longer a distant behemoth of art and culture for the elite but has evolved into a space exploring the wonder of our own daily lives and these museums are apt examples of the same.
Cover Image Courtesy: Jorge Manes Rubio