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August 30, 2018

Putting the Muse in Museums

Illustration by Dhruv Tyagi

Showcasing exhibits in fresh and interactive ways is bound to awaken the curiosity of a community, and encourage engagement. Alice Agarwal underlines the role of museums in cultivating an interest in, and preserving, our heritage

Windows To New Cultures
A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.
-Maira Kalman

Museums — as a defined concept — originated around the 18th century. Their purpose then was to act as indicators of the glorious past of the European rulers. Soon, with colonisation, museums proliferated around the world and, with time, started shifting from being mere repositories of valuable objects and began practising a more systematic and researched approach to present their preserved collections. They gained popularity as trusted institutions that also provided training, workshops and much more around their focus topics. Today, a museum acts as the face of the community it represents and is a window to new cultures for the tourist. And, with the rapid growth of the tourism industry, there is an increased pressure on both the performance and growth of museums. This is really where the idea of ‘museum culture’ germinates.

Almost every major city possesses one or more museums. And the shift in attitudes of people regarding culture and museums has rendered this era to be known as the second golden age for museums — the first one was in the 19th century.

Local museums worldwide have morphed into community spaces and offer their visitors a window into the culture of the place and the identity of the locals. This creates a sense of respect for diverse viewpoints while sharing information and ideas honestly. The museum — its design and the practices that make it a trusted institution for the public — must hence address the expectations and needs of its people.

The anomalous increase in the number of museums and expansion projects internationally over the last decade is definitely a good sign. Major organisations like the Archaeological Survey of India, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage have been working towards the conservation of India’s heritage. Some of the best museums in India like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, and the City Palace Museum, Udaipur, work hard and successfully at maintaining quality and authenticity, and aim to create captivating experiences in their space. But, the tourism potential of our country has not yet been exploited fully. And this is perhaps the reason why museums — which are treasure troves of information — in many cities still struggle to get their share of visibility.

A conservation process is redundant without the participation and involvement of its community. City museums in India still battle to create a sense of value among the local citizens. While visiting most museums, both as an architect and a heritage manager, it was painful to see the number of visitors. I was the only one in most city museums I went to, even on weekends. Are our attitudes towards our heritage the problem — or is it the lack of awareness or maybe both?

The magnitude of the problem is evident from the number of citizens who are getting into professions geared to protecting our heritage and museums. Improved research and creating a sense of wonder and curiosity through interactive exhibits that are both creative and relevant, are inviting more Indians into museums, and inspiring a sense of responsibility for the maintenance and conservation of cultural resources.

A Case For Dynamic Interactions
Museums should be places where you raise questions, not just show stuff.
-William Thorsell

Indian museums primarily rely on revenue through tickets for funds. Unfortunately, the word ‘museum’ automatically creates a mental barrier for some prospective visitors, who imagine an overwhelming and passive experience — something similar to a school trip they may have undertaken. A 2017 report called Culture Track by the marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen suggested that participants would much rather be entertained than educated, and that they preferred social interactions, as opposed to quiet reflection when attending cultural events like exhibitions. The study also found that 81 per cent of responders wanted digital experiences when visiting museums.

To understand the role of design in any structure is to appreciate that dynamic spaces gain their meaning from the objects they host, the people who visit and the interactions that take place in them. So, even though designing a space of substance is a privilege, it also becomes a big challenge. Museums should be able to clearly address the context they are set in while catering to the intellectual and physical needs of their visitors.

Immersive Engagements
A museum is a place where one should lose one’s head.
– Renzo Piano

With the shift in the way museum professionals now think about visitor experiences, we work towards creating a vital dialogue between the museum and the community itself, to provoke and encourage more visitors in the premises. For a fellowship supported by the India Foundation for the Arts and the Tata Trusts, I am developing an exhibition for the Deccan College, Archaeology Museum. In the process, we are not only considering different ‘learning’ or sharing styles, but also displays that are friendly to the needs of people with disabilities to give them a more immersive experience. It will apply ‘experience design’ — the visitor’s experience will be curated from the moment they enter the venue right up to the moment they leave, allowing them to fully exploit all the features of this exhibition. Dr. Vasant Shinde, vice-chancellor at the Deccan College Deemed University, says, “A museum is not just a space to display objects, but is a place of learning. Visitors learn about their ancient heritage that includes culture, traditions and knowledge systems and their contemporary relevance. People’s participation in the process of conservation is integral, and we expect to encourage that through this exhibition.”

What is important is to realise that a museum, through its design and interpretation, should allow the visitor to think. Visitor footfalls and engagement are directly related. Footfalls talk about the tangible — the number of people coming to the institute and the revenue. Visitor engagement, on the other hand, refers to the intangible — the willingness of an individual to learn something new and the tools one can use to motivate them. In practice, we spend hours studying and understanding our audiences and their needs; we are attempting to create better communication channels with the community for feedback, to apply more immersive and sensorial experiences and reach out to expand the museum-going community through events and workshops. It is also important to mention here that when we speak of communities, all the museums and heritage-related organisations need to collaborate and work together towards achieving the common goal of having aware and involved citizens.

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