Why the Indian museum makeover is important

As economic progress brings a stronger sense of one’s history, private museums in India are helping people celebrate their heritage and curate new stories for the future

June 09, 2023 02:12 pm | Updated July 04, 2023 12:42 pm IST

The new Museum of Art & Photography in Bengaluru

The new Museum of Art & Photography in Bengaluru | Photo Credit: Orange and Teal/Museum of Art & Photography

Once upon a time, India was a merry museum of multitudinous histories, traditional treasures, collections of cultural and intellectual inheritance. And then, infiltrative deception and depletion fast eroded this eternal sense of pride. Industrial hoarding ripped through the ageless art of guardianship, the nouveau riche times were all about shiny new things, out with the old no matter how invaluable. Stripped of its crown of a venerable and vital institution, the museum turned into a dinosaur, oft amusing the odd academician or a few visitors. A prosaic placeholder even as the country pulsated with a progressive cultural poetry.

Cut to the present — the museum stands as a creature reborn, an agent of commoning and transformation, a harbinger of a much-needed cultural renaissance after the cold, corporate excess. Experts say this was a phenomenon long coming as a sum of many parts of progress. “The process has been unfolding over the last four to five years, with many major government and private commitments being undertaken during this time,” says Vinod Daniel, Chair AusHeritage and former board member of the International Council of Museums. “Economic progress and international recognition builds a stronger sense of one’s history and heritage, and showcasing heritage is an important part of nation building. One has witnessed it in countries such as Singapore and China, too. Our historical wealth has not yet been tapped. Moreover, business travellers need quality leisure. For instance, in a city like Paris, a business traveller typically spends one extra day on cultural tourism, the majority being museums. So, it is about creating the same expectation from major cities in India.”

The stories for the future

As wealth increases, private collections also expand and create an interesting opportunity as museums when aided by CSR funding and global patronage (which has seen a surge on account of growing philanthropic and BIPOC interest). While much of this revival is being led by seasoned players, it is, in fact, the forces at the core of the programming and curation who are bringing a fresh quality and powerful perspectives to this phygital reform.

Roobina Karode

Roobina Karode | Photo Credit: Mohammed Roshan

Take, for instance, the new Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) that will open its doors in the capital in 2026. Designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, the museum model was recently unveiled at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

The KNMA museum model unveiled at the Venice Architecture Biennale

The KNMA museum model unveiled at the Venice Architecture Biennale | Photo Credit: Rakesh Anand/Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

The KNMA museum model

The KNMA museum model | Photo Credit: Rakesh Anand/Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

Taking me behind the curation, Roobina Karode, the poised director and chief curator, says, “The collection and the museum’s exhibition programme has grown in a specific way, and that story is important to us in terms of KNMA’s growth and its impact on understudied/under-represented artists and art histories of the region. So, one of the strands of curatorial direction will narrate that story, research and archives made so far. The second important strand would be what are the stories for the future, the narratives that will propel us and our publics in imagining new futures.”

Exhibits at MAP

Exhibits at MAP | Photo Credit: Iwan Baan/Museum of Art & Photography

MAP

MAP | Photo Credit: Orange and Teal/Museum of Art & Photography

The Museum of Art and Photography, which threw open its 44,000 sq. ft. space earlier this year in Bengaluru with a growing collection of over 60,000 artworks, hopes to make a difference by keeping people at the heart of its story. “Often, the problem with museums is that they forget who their audience is; the language is as if museum professionals are talking to themselves. The important thing for us is to be able to effectively communicate the stories that objects can tell, and why those objects are still relevant to who we are and how we live,” says Kamini Sawhney, the director.

Kamini Sawhney

Kamini Sawhney | Photo Credit: Prarthana Shetty

A former journalist who embodies a sharp cultural ethos well evident in her crisp sari and flaming bindi, she is ready to challenge the popular discourse through MAP’s programming. “Who decides what culture is? We’ve inherited art history canons that were handed over to us by colonisers who foregrounded Hindu and Buddhist art as being classical, and the rest in reductive terms, as folk and tribal art. We are eager to ensure that we collapse these hierarchies between what is perceived as high and low art, and work horizontally to draw connections between various things.”

A photo from the Jyoti Bhatt exhibition at MAP

A photo from the Jyoti Bhatt exhibition at MAP | Photo Credit: Museum of Art & Photography

Private odes to cultural history

Seamlessness of storytelling is another aspect that makes the new-age museum different from its predecessor. At the new Partition Museum in Delhi, which displays the courage and resilience of those who suffered the consequences of the post-Independence division, “all the seven galleries are interconnected like chapters of a book”, says the chair Kishwar Desai, working closely with the institution’s director, Ashwini Pai Bahadur, on behalf of The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust. While the initiative is a tribute to the past, its programming will continue to evolve in progressive formats with a host of interesting collaborators.

Visitors at the newly-inaugurated Partition Museum in New Delhi

Visitors at the newly-inaugurated Partition Museum in New Delhi | Photo Credit: ANI

“Prominent amongst our collaborators for the next phase are the Sindhi Culture Foundation and the Embassy Group as we are creating a gallery devoted to the Lost Homeland of Sindh, another severe disruption of home and identity — this will be the only gallery of its kind in the world,” says Desai, adding that crowd-sourced funds remain one of the major challenges that the team is tasked with.

 Kishwar Desai

 Kishwar Desai | Photo Credit: TAACHT Archives

Mianwali Gazette

Mianwali Gazette | Photo Credit: TAACHT Archives

Though private institutions may seem at an advantage, it takes many factors, both structural and functional, for a private collection to manifest as a successful museum. “One of the main aspects is the vibrancy — how well a museum attracts audience engagement will ultimately define its sustainability, along with a sound long-term business plan. A skilled staff is as important to attract and manage the audience, as is technology. Of course, it’s a mechanism for the story to be told but the story itself needs to be more powerful,” says Daniel. He adds that “while many public institutions lack the motivation to incentivise the audience given a steady flow of funds, private museums, though they must be not-for-profit, have the edge of not being dependent on politicians and bureaucrats as long as they are backed by strong boards and have enough freedom of expression”.

The Partition Museum and Cultural Hub

The Partition Museum and Cultural Hub | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Balancing the big and the small

Another hopeful addition to the movement is the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC). With its programming headed by the widely experienced theatrist and culturalist Tim Brinkman, the space’s vibrant lineups platform senior and emerging artists alike. While the buzz around a collaboration with English artist Damien Hirst is palpable, the overall focus is as inward as outward. “Cultural and social representation is another important pillar — whether it is the Ao Naga Choir from Nagaland giving the audience a new experience and understanding of their art and culture at The Studio Theatre, or the evocative pillar installations of Shanti Bai, an artist from the tribal community of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, persuading visitors to reimagine art, and perhaps even life…,” outlines the team.

A pichwai exhibit at NMACC

A pichwai exhibit at NMACC | Photo Credit: Mohsin Taha

While some of these experiences are larger than life, others are hyper-focused, such as the Dr. Savitadidi N. Mehta Museum in Porbandar. The private museum, built by Sri Lankan architect Channa Daswatte, traces the legacy of India’s first woman credited with popularising the Manipuri dance form around the world. Another such tribute is artist Jamini Roy’s 7,000 sq ft Ballygunge house in Kolkata that is set to metamorphose into the country’s first single-artist museum courtesy the DAG’s massive undertaking.

On the public front, one waits to see if the ambitious and controversial new Central Vista rollouts — the new National Museum spread across the North and South Block, as well as the Parliament Museum, would add to this changing conversation and present a responsible revival of the showcase of the evolving Indian constitution, democratic arts and cultural pluralities. While senior officials confirm that the old Parliament quarters, including Rajya Sabha, Lok Sabha and Central Hall would be converted into a museum experience, they maintain that the curatorial direction is still under development.

“Inclusivity, accessibility and how to stay relevant — to my mind, these aspects require continuous work and rethinking. The museum is a space for challenging ourselves and our received ideas. We want to strengthen our presentation of diverse art forms and ideas, across generations… we want to interpret and play with the collection and allow our visitors to expand these stories and build with us.”Roobina KarodeChief curator, KNMA

An experimental discourse

Meanwhile, at the other end of this revolution are catalysts of trans-disciplinary and alternative sub-cultures who are propagating a new, experimental discourse. Consider the country’s first Technology & Innovation Museum, a public-private partnership underway in Bengaluru. Or the St+Art India Foundation’s Lodhi Art District, regarded as India’s first open-air street art museum. Bengaluru-based QAMRA: Queer Archive for Memory Reflection and Activism, held its first prominent public exhibit recently to bring forth the LGBTQIA+ narrative. Following widespread adoption of popular immersive tech play tools such as AltspaceVR and Horizon Worlds, next up could be full-fledged crypto- or meta museums — where the collections are not physical but present themselves in the form of NFTs. How these would function as sustainable models is a question whose answer will be mapped soon.

Once upon a time in the near future, the country could be a magnificent museum again, and who knows, perhaps wear the Kohinoor (virtually, if not physically) back on that crown!

New museums to note
The virtual facility of ISRO’s SPARK Museum in Bengaluru allows visitors to explore the space agency’s achievements, satellites and launch vehicles.
Sarmaya, in Mumbai, is a virtual ‘museum without boundaries’ for arts, traditions, cartography and oral folklore. Created from the private collections of founders Tina and Paul Abraham.
Co-created by historian Aanchal Malhotra, the Museum of Material Memory, is a crowd-sourced digital repository of material culture from the Indian subcontinent, tracing family history and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles, and objects of antiquity.
The Kolkata Virtual Partition Museum is dedicated to memorialise Bengal’s Partition history and its aftermath; to emphasise the continuities between West Bengal and Bangladesh — in language and literature, food, fabric, and the arts. Created by scholar Rituparna Roy.
Pune’s Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum has also been quick to adopt a virtual first manifesto earlier this year.
The Alipore Central Correctional Home was recently converted into a museum to celebrate imprisoned revolutionaries.
The Nalanda Museum is braced for a bigger and better design to house its countless relics, and dedicate a separate sub-museum to the Chinese philosopher, Hiuen Tsang.
A 34,000-sq ft Textile Museum is being built in Mumbai by the BMC over two phases, the first of which is expected to be completed this September.

The senior writer-editor’s practice straddles convergent cultures, global literature, multidisciplinary arts, and social issues.

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