History & Culture

Heritage, alone no more: India’s museums adapt to the virtual zeitgeist

Imaging of museums shifting to online platforms | Photo Credit: Arivarasu M
Divya Kala Bhavani Gowri S Chennai 30 October 2020 14:18 IST
Updated: 31 October 2020 10:42 IST

As more museums make the choice to make a living online, we take a look at how sustainable this can be

Historical hubs around the country have been quiet through most of 2020. With the lockdown to combat COVID-19 on, no curious visitors or researchers ambled through hallways. Though Unlock 5 saw the opening of tourist sites, including museums, footfall numbers are controlled.

Yet, museums are more on the pulse than ever before; many have shifted their archives online to a multimedia format. One of the proponents for this shift is Google Arts & Culture (GAC), which showcases a few of Salar Jung Museum’s exhibits, such as ‘1601 — 1900: Textile Treasures: Shawls and Sarees’ and ‘501 AD — 2019: A Game of Thrones — How Chess Conquered the World.’

Nagender Reddy, director, Salar Jung Museum , Hyderabad, explains that from June to August, they got an average of 500 online visits per day. Before the lockdowns, each day would observe single-digit views.

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  • That said, websites need to be supported by a vigilant back-end team as more layers of technology are added, says Ankit Vohra, a website developer. “As websites see more traffic, the UX [User Experience] is then compounded by ads so that the museum makes a profit, therefore the marketing of the museum becomes more digital. Museums have to consider the investment into security for these websites, not only to protect the visitor but to also ensure that valuable data is not stolen or downloaded illegally.”

In another exhibit, a crowded canvas shows a bustling Indian marketplace where soldiers gather in front of a hookah stall. Online, the commotion, takes the form of an auditory experience as one sweeps the cursor across the work. Everything from overlapping voices of loud vendors to the ambient hue and cry of the crowd is heard. Elements — like detailing on the face of a woman at the stall — can be magnified on screen and through speakers.

Soldiers in the Hookah Stall and Commotion in the Bazaar, dated between 1775 and 1800 and believed to have been from the school of the famous artist Nainsukh, is one of many from the impressive collection of National Museum, Delhi, that Google Arts and Culture makes easily accessible.

In its recently launched Life in Miniature exhibition, commendable — yet otherwise unnoticeable — detailing in Indian miniature paintings comes alive through Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality.

The National Museum houses one of the largest collections of miniature paintings in India. Says Simon Rein, program manager, Google Arts and Culture, “When we saw the miniature paintings at the National Museum, we were amazed at the level of detail and precision, despite their size. We thought it would be fantastic to use technology, like ultra-high-definition robotic cameras, to help people everywhere appreciate flourishes that you wouldn’t be able to see well with the naked eye.”

Google uses machine learning to detect minute details such as horses, earrings and flowers, from the database of miniature paintings. “With these details, we are able to find connections among artworks that are hundreds of years apart,” says Simon, adding, “You can immerse yourself in Indian Miniatures while hearing classical music or sounds related to the scenes.”

In a COVID-19 world, does Simon think that the interest towards experiencing audio-visual art online has increased? Simon believes that AR and VR are worthwhile, especially in challenging times like these. Since its inception in 2011, Google Arts and Culture has brought in over 2,000 cultural institutions from over 80 countries onboard to digitise and make art accessible, “The collection spans from the National Museum in New Delhi to the Palace of Versailles in France. And with distance learning becoming more common, it’s educational aspects are particularly relevant,” says Simon.

‘A Portrait of a Lady Holding a Sparkler’ | Photo Credit: National Museum- New Delhi

The team has been curious to explore what machine learning can do as a tool in the hands of artists, museums or curators. “We invited creative coders — think of someone between a software engineer and an artist — to experiment together at our lab in Paris,” says Simon.

Google also runs Poly, a 3D object rendering suite, that was used by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai for virtual exhibition Kashti Kinara on India’s coastal communities and boat makers. Cleverly, the museum’s interiors are featured prominently, and the walkthrough is VR-ready.

When museums come together

Some entities have always been online, like the Virtual Museum of Images and Sound (VMIS).

Headed by Pradeep Mehendiratta and Purnima Mehta, the eight-year-old Gurugram-based online museum is supported by the Ministry of Culture, and comprises the diverse resources of two image and sound archives of American Institute of Indian Studies — Center for Art and Archaeology (CAA) and Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology (ARCE). This combined infrastructure enables collaborations with more international historians and audiences.

On VMIS’ website, they state why they are unlike other virtual museums, “The strength of VMIS lies in the fact that it has the flexibility to expand or shrink its boundaries to any extent and create larger historical and cultural contexts, or smaller and detailed contexts, in ways that are not possible for a museum located within a physical boundary. Unlike virtual museums, which are mere online representations of collections, VMIS surpasses the physical boundaries of a traditional museum, allowing visitors to have an all-inclusive experience of virtually exploring the sites and places and studying the museum “objects” in their original context.”

Virtual Museum of Images and Sound’s ‘Parts of a temple’ virtual walkthrough

One of their more striking audiovisual collections is Mapping Music. Essentially a Google Maps of India, it has interactive music notes distinguishing a given area’s signature music — Sufiana Qalam of Kashmir, Mand court music of Rajasthan, Jatra of Odisha, and Chaudike Pada of Karnataka. VMIS continues to gather more sounds. This exhibit is a reminder that — investing power into AI and VR of organisations such as GAC aside — something as simple as a modified map can offer swathes of learning. VMIS also dabbles in 3D rendering technologies. They have a YouTube channel where people can ‘visit’ places.

Another virtual walkthrough is of the 10th-Century Ambika Temple, Rajasthan. The animation was created by the architectural documentation team of the CAA. The design is minimalist, with animated emphasis on North Indian architecture vernacular like antarala (space in front of the sanctum door) and mukhacatuski (entry porch).

Echoing the sentiments of most of India’s museum curators and directors, Nagender points out that Salar Jung’s priority is to keep people informed of what is at the museum, and not forget that museums at these points in time are very relevant, especially during a pandemic — also a historic event.

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