Chennai’s Museum of Possibilities hosts art and technology exhibits for people with disabilities

Museum of Possibilites aims to be a haven for the differently abled featuring assistive devices that cater to their specific needs

Updated - July 07, 2022 06:40 pm IST

Published - July 07, 2022 01:47 pm IST

Children, senior citizens and the differently-abled explore Chennai’s new Museum of Possibilities

Children, senior citizens and the differently-abled explore Chennai’s new Museum of Possibilities | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Looking out from the terraced front of the Museum Cafe at the Marina, you can see the statue of Avvaiyar, Tamil Nadu’s famous woman scholar-poet of the Sangam era.

She is leaning on a stick. Her verses resonate through the centuries as rhythmically as the waves crashing against the sands. The stick in her hand could be a symbol of the diverse aids to special visitors, as they are helped into the newly opened Museum of Possibilities by the Commissionerate for the Welfare of the Differently Abled at the Lady Willingdon Institute campus. There are people on crutches, on mechanised wheelchairs, on walkers, or those who have come with families or personal assistants, being led into this newly designated space along a sloping red tiled gradient. 

Inaugurated in early June by Chief Minister MK Stalin, the museum has a cafe on the first floor above the actual museum, which is an integral part of its planning. It has been collaboratively designed by people with disability, or PwDs.

“Good morning!” says Appu, a man with dwarfism standing at the entrance to the cafe. Appu is a familiar face in the city thanks to the many years he spent as a greeter at the city’s first Mexican restaurant. “Appu started with us in 1995, at the Don Pepe restaurant on Cathedral Road and is still with us,” says M Mahadevan, popular city restaurateur best known for launching Hot Breads, after which he opened a number of popular city restaurants including Writers Cafe, Benjarong, Sera, Marina and more. Mahadevan introduced Chennai to tacos and quesadillas with his usual flair for innovation, though he is best known for creating a croissant with a chicken tikka filling.

Just as Mahadevan has mutated from being the one of hottest items on the automated bakery circuit into a compassionate entrepreneur who created the idea of Winners Bakery to empower the underprivileged by teaching them practical skills, Appu has been elevated into a guardian at the cafe. Mahadevan’s The Winners Bakery concept, created in response to the post tsunami-era in 2005 with the participation of Government bodies like the Chennai Corporation and institutions like Rotary, is centred around imparting vocational skills to the deserving, teaching them to bake, customise their products and set up individual bakeries within the community. 

A striking graphic on the wall shows a circular banana leaf in the form of a thali, filled with food items from our amazing culinary heritage, including, let it be said, a portion of fried fishand the message: “Diversity completes Life”, designed by Purshottam. It underlines the vision behind the creation of the Museum. It’s not just for the disabled. Equally there are lessons to be learnt by architectural students, city planners, senior citizens and in public spaces such as toilets and malls.

Chennai’s new Museum of Possibilities

Chennai’s new Museum of Possibilities | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A reliable assistant

“Live.Work.Play.” is one of the many mottoes devised by Poonam Natarajan of Vidya Sagar, the NGO that has been chosen to manage the State Government-funded project. They have been given 2500 sq. feet of space from which they have managed to carve out a visually stunning series of wall spaces and cubicles with assistive devices like disability-friendly toilets, sensory musical instruments adapted for use by PwDs, and chessboards that have perforations on each piece as well as hollowed-out squares, so the visually-impaired can feel their way around the board.

Natarajan has returned to Chennai having spent eight very valuable years at New Delhi as the Chair for the National Trust dealing with four significant areas — autism, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities. She has brought the trained volunteers, as well as those with disabilities from Vidya Sagar to form the core group of persons who take you around the many levels of experience that make up the Museum. 

A view of the museum

A view of the museum | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Walking into this museum is not unlike walking into a supermarket, or commercial play-station, where the items have been designed and chosen for the differently abled. It’s as if Alexa had mutated into Avvaiyar and decided to play Snakes and Ladders on a felted board (where the board is completely tactile and the numbers are in Braille).

Access is key

“We created mock-ups of disability-friendly bathrooms, kitchens, and other spaces” explains Namita Jacob, who runs the Chetana Charitable Trust that works in the areas of the visually and hearing impaired. Each room is designed to display assistive tools for a particular use. “For each assistive device that is displayed, there are placards with QR codes that take you to voice or video directions,” adds Teresa Antony, lead, inclusive design at Chetana Trust.

They soon hope to have an app that will allow PwDs to navigate the area alone. She walks us into the disused backyard that has now become an impromptu ‘sensory garden’ of aromatic plants and flowering shrubs that are being grown in upcycled garbage bins. 

At the Museum of Possibilities, the driving spirit is that of young people waiting to share their special world with images and technology that resounds with hope .

Willingdon wisdom
Located three kilometres away from the iconic Fort St George, this Institute of Teacher Training was named Lady Willingdon Training School in 1922 after Lady Willingdon, wife of Lord Willingdon, then Governor of Madras Presidency. The first principal of the institute, JM Gerrard, envisioned the structure to be shaped as a ‘W’, facing the sea. The college with a 16-acre campus, moved to the present building in 1940.
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