Life & Style

Two veteran curators discuss how museums might adapt to a post-COVID-19 scenario and be relevant to Generation Alpha

A view of the Louvre museum in Paris

A view of the Louvre museum in Paris   | Photo Credit: AP

Unmasking how museums of tomorrow should ideally be are renowned museumologists Deepthi Sasidharan in India and George Jacobin in the U.S. May 18 is International Museum Day

As COVID-19 loosens its grip over nations, museums and art galleries are gradually and cautiously awakening to a new reality. To understand how these places, which are custodians of relics of our past, present and, perhaps, future, need to adapt to the new scenario and still be relevant, MetroPlus speaks to two eminent museumologists, Deepthi Sasidharan and George Jacob. Both are curators and at the forefront of establishing and revitalising museums to give them pride of place in a post-pandemic world.

Deepthi is one of the two founder-directors of Delhi-based Eka Archiving Services, which has set up themed museums all over India, while India-born George is president and CEO, Bay Ecotarium in San Francisco, and serves on the Board of Directors of the International Council of Museums in the U.S.

Deepthi Sasidharan, co-founder and director of Eka Archiving Services

Deepthi Sasidharan, co-founder and director of Eka Archiving Services   | Photo Credit: G Ramakrishna

Even while Eka is observing Museum Week with a series of online activities, Deepthi points out that we are far from being at the stage of the “aftermath of the pandemic.” “Museums, much like people, will need time to understand and absorb this cataclysmic year and we are only at the beginning. Museums must look ahead at how they can continue to share the wealth of artefacts and knowledge they house with the world outside. There is already a virtual museum called the Museum of Covid, and archives around the world are already collecting physical objects that represent the pandemic! So yes, museums must continue to carry on the important work they do much like all other institutions of learning and enjoyment,” she says.

George points out that museums, aquariums, science centres and other destinations of augmented learning are unmasking new means, methods and metrics to adapt to the new scenario. In the case of museums in India, George adds that one must realise that we have a heritage and a sophisticated civilisation unlike any other.

George is president and CEO, Bay Ecotarium in San Francisco and serves on the Board of Directors of the International Council of Museums in the US

George is president and CEO, Bay Ecotarium in San Francisco and serves on the Board of Directors of the International Council of Museums in the US   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

“It is imperative that the young generation takes pride in our heritage and is invested in our future by nurturing the past. Active engagement and collaboration between schools and museum outreach programmes can pivot fundamental shifts in the perception that museums are actually non-formal learning institutions and compliment the classroom-based education.”

The way forward

Deepthi feels that changing to what the audiences expect and new ways and methods of learning are the way forward for the museums. “Children and younger adults today learn differently — it’s a digital, sporty, interactive world that they inhabit in their schools and homes and definitely one with a heavy leaning towards digital screens and technology. The museums must change instead to become more sensitive and inclusive. Toilets that cater to children, feeding rooms, facilities to charge phones and so on have become necessary. Look at all the other community places they inhabit — malls, cinemas, gaming zones and airports and compare how these places attempt to make youngsters comfortable and we can begin to understand what needs to be done,” she explains.

A new chapter
  • George has written a book Museum Futures: The Corona Conundrum on the challenges museums will have to tackle once the lockdown eases. George’s take on the book:
  • “This is the ninth book in a series focused on the future of museums titled ‘Museum Futures: The Corona Conundrum’. As we ushered in the New Year in 2020, no one could imagine how dramatically the world would come to a grinding halt within a matter of weeks. Sweeping changes of interaction, community engagement and conversations migrated rapidly to the Internet and the ecosystem of Internet of Things (IoT) at an unprecedented pace. As the kinks in efficiency models, heuristics and haptics get more sophisticated, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Emotional AI driven-world of Alexa and Siri surrogates becomes exponentially omniscient and omnipotent. The book takes a sweeping overview of remotely accessing experiential human interaction and builds a scenario of alt-options and adaptive innovation stemming from societal quarantine. It argues that the time for reactive measures must be replaced with pro-active methods of progressive change, even as it re-defines museums as evolving dynamic souls of civil societies.

In the age of social distancing and hand-washing, will virtual tours become the norm? “For now, as the pandemic rages, the virtual mediums will have to suffice. But given a choice, nothing can take away the gasp of wonder that escapes when you come face to face with a masterpiece. So, objects must be seen and virtual mediums must do all they can to build bridges and deepen understanding,” asserts Deepthi.

Accredited museums world-wide adhere to basic standards of conservation, preservation, display and relative humidity, both in galleries and storage archives, observes George. At the core of what a museum offers is a physical interaction with its collections. While there is no substitute for the material and the real, experiential thresholds are shifting to the virtual realm, especially in the more tech-savvy West, he explains.

“With social distancing, museums will experience thinning of visitors. While some are shifting the focus to online learning modules, virtual classrooms, gallery visits and live cams, others are exploring touch-points of monetisation, cyber-curation and artificial intelligence-induced experiences, transcending the conventional boundaries in sync with ‘Generation Alpha — the “screenagers” who have not experienced a world without mobile screens,” says George.

Staying relevant

Moving on to the question of accessibility of museums, he agrees that there was a time of elitism in museums — both with their imposing architecture and accommodation of high-art and culture. However, George elaborates that at present, the success of museums is attributed directly to its relevance to the stakeholders and communities it seeks to serve.

“From traditional museums that focused on art, history, culture, natural science and anthropology, new museums are addressing topics of popular culture ranging from fashion, culinary arts, wine-making, insects, philately, astronomy and design. Idea-based museums are embracing powerful subjects like human rights, philosophy, poetry and slavery, to cite a few. Popular themes combined with outreach and workshops are opening the doors to a wider demographic even as they invite volunteers and docents to be part of a sustained effort to engage,” he says.

Deepthi too echoes George’s sentiments on how museums have become accessible to all. “If you go to any of the memorials like Gandhi smaraks or the Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum, it is the humblest of travellers who find their way there,” she emphasises.

Regarding outreach programmes, Deepthi believes it will depend on the type of museum and the collection but she asserts that collaboration is very much the way forward. Both the curators agree that paucity of sustained funding is a major stumbling block for museums. “With dwindling resources in the post-pandemic months and jobs being slashed, cultural institutions must pool resources, ideas and platforms to take their cause further,” she says.

Cultural ambassadors

Moreover, George says that since museums serve as cultural ambassadors for political, strategic and a range of community benefits, governments must offer tax incentives to donors who support the museums. “Such an investment in the non-profit sector of contemporary museums has the potential for strengthening our social fabric and triggering the need for infrastructural development, offering new destinations for domestic and foreign tourists. Once the existential crises are averted, there are many ways museums can engage diverse audiences. Depending on the content and curatorial emphasis of museums, they could pursue programmes, publications and mission-aligned projects to remain relevant. Side-walk art, graffiti contests, films, lectures, events, competitions, sponsored raffles, art and science fairs, auctions, field trips, gift-shops, and working with companies that uphold sustainable development goals as part of their corporate social responsibility, all lead to higher visibility and public engagement,” explains George.

THe book written by museumologist George Jacob

THe book written by museumologist George Jacob   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Accessibility standards

Reacting to a point raised by visually challenged activist Tiffany Brar, who spoke about how most museums in India are not disabled-friendly, both George and Deepthi say India needs a comprehensive museum policy that addresses accessibility standards. George believes that making it a mandatory requirement will guide the construction of new museums, while the older institutions should begin with a minimum of four measures — disabled-compliant rest-rooms, access ramps for wheel chairs, audio guide and Braille-guided material. “This would be a good starting point, though there is much more that needs to be done,” he adds.

“I think we have to work towards sensitisation of people towards being aware of differently-abled people, their rights and expectations. If museums are inclusive, and provide access to the differently-abled, we open up the space for their enjoyment as well. Workshops that cater to school children can easily be tweaked to accommodate differently-abled audiences. Also involve representatives like Tiffany Brar in planning forums,” says Deepthi.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 3:04:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/renowned-museumologists-deepthi-sasidharan-and-george-jacob-discuss-how-museums-might-adapt-to-a-post-covid-19-scenario/article31600384.ece

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