Needless to say I am terribly interested in understanding museums, museums as both tangible and conceptual space. Museums the display, museums the experience, museums where history comes alive, museums where stories are reborn and recreated; Museums as centre of education, museums as spaces of collaboration, museums where art lives (1), museums where audience need not just receive, but also gives;
Ah, well, yes I also dream a bit, dream of the space many of our rich museums are yet to attain, but are on their way.
This interest is definitely not recent, however, the restlessness sure is, I want to know everything about museums, their origin, their purpose, their scope today and possibilities tomorrow.
Do I sound a bit dramatic, well, what is passion sans drama!
I shall however not follow a chronological order in sharing my learning, my attempts, rather I would share whatever sticks to me and leaves a strong impression, definitely this is not a blog post without biases.
I would begin with a conversation with a gentleman I met yesterday. He was driving the auto-rickshaw and I was carrying my portfolio, so he asked whether I was an architect. I said I am not, but I am very well interested in spaces. What kind of spaces, he asked. I obviously replied, Museums.
He was shocked, and he did not attempt at hiding it. In fact, I think he was disappointed. He expected a young woman with a portfolio to be talking about new “modern” buildings, about urbanism, about malls and offices, glass and shine, and here she is, talking about , museums? He ridiculed my naive attempts at explaining to him why museums matter, why they are not supposed to be a passive storehouse as most of us imagine, rather they are places that we can co-create. He asked me, in a museum if there is a stone statue of Buddha lying somewhere, well that is that, what more can you do about it?
I tried to explain storytelling, experience blah, borrowed theories from internet and journals, but he simply asked me to think about it, the day I do have a concrete answer, come to Hailey Road, where he stands, and share it with him, he would wait.
Where on one end I could have treated this with exasperation and said, look how we treat our museums, look how we perceive these institutions, I wouldn’t. I take it as a very positive challenge, I take it as a sign to go ahead in the stream I have chosen and to work hard, to ensure that I don’t just find answers but implement the necessary steps.
Does this sound like a plot stolen from Bollywood? Well Bollywood and life, that is interchangeable, you didn’t know?
And as if it were planned, as if it were meant to be so, I have begun to get my answer.I would share something beautiful that occurred today. I was introduced to the Indus Valley Civilization like never before and was for once genuinely enthralled by the mystique of the great civilization, the thoughts, the words, the language of which is yet to be deciphered.
We were introduced to this collection at the National Museum by esteemed art historian Dr. Shobita Punja, CEO of the National Culture Fund , author and also educator at various institutions.
Her session was an absolute delight and very inspiring indeed. The joy and passion with which she narrated the story of the Civilization, when she spoke of the glory of discovering it to be comparable to other ancient civilizations i.e. Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Chinese, that pride my friend was infectious. I was dumbstruck throughout her session where time flew by, I couldn’t believe it had to end so soon.
That is the power of brilliant heartfelt narration, your audience gets immersed in an experience so deep that they are surprised when it ends, it actually does not end, it leaves you thinking and curious.
When she made us notice details on pots, when she discussed why she liked a particular object so much, you shared her curiosity, her queries, her imagination. Imagination! that is what she brought alive for me today, when she reminded us of a beautiful space within history, that of “historical imagination”, something that lies between material proof and intangible assumption, something that allows one to respect the “maybe”.
The “maybe” in history, is what she asked us to never forget, and to always use when we share stories with those whom we guide around the museum. I was mesmerised, wow! that is the passion of a historian, of a researcher, a storyteller, she made us live a certain time, she made us think about a certain time, she made us imagine the possibilities, without anything other than the display and her narrative.
I was overwhelmed when she spoke of a toy cart and explained its relevance as a signifier, how it would matter so much to a historian. Cart signifying travel, signifying trade, signifying carrying of produce from villages to cities, signifying therefore the presence of cities surrounded by villages, villages that perhaps produced in abundance, such that it could be sold outside as well. It is not just a cart, not just an object, it has many stories embedded within it. It speaks of people and society, the system, the economy, and to think that it is a toy cart alone is sheer sacrilege.
The most delightful bit was when she spoke about the Mother Goddess statue. If you have studied history in ICSE board, you would remember that black and white photograph of Mother Goddess, guess what, there is no concrete proof to say that it is a Mother Goddess, it could be anyone, it could even be a lady dressed in a certain fashion on a particular occasion, these are all but “assumptions”, assumptions that delight or help make sense of a certain civilization, but are assumptions nonetheless. I suddenly felt this surge of gratitude, if only we were taught history like this in school. If only we knew that there is no one single way to look at our past, that the rigidity, the certainty with which mainstream education claims certain facts, might be much more flexible and inclusive in the real world outside. That History is not past, history is in the present, history in the mind, in the thoughts, in the interpretation, in the imagination, it is alive, it is breathing, it flows, it is a bit organic.
I wish I were agile enough to thank her, to share this with her, but i was awestruck, I was so pleasantly surprised by her very presence that I just kept beaming like a child who has chanced upon her favorite sweets at a place most unexpected, or maybe balloons gifted for free, or maybe cotton candy, or maybe just the realization that this learning has begun, that I would find answers, Oh the joy of it all!
There is so much more to share, in further posts 🙂
1: Tagline from Milwaukee Art Museum