A few museums in India vie to be something new in their post-pandemic recovery rather than a diminished version of what they were
Open since May 2021, the Kerala Museum, one of the oldest in Kochi, located in lush greenery in the heart of Edappally, is increasingly crowded on weekends. “With nearly two years spent locked inside, glued to their screens, visitors seem to like the idea of ââbeing in a green and open space, where they can enjoy the tranquility and also bring children”, explains Aditi Nayar, the director of the museum.
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Things, however, appear to be what they used to be. COVID has had devastating consequences for museums. Dating has disappeared, incomes have plummeted and even the best funded have had to reduce their payroll. But it has also forced museums to rethink their fundamental purpose and identity. âWhat should a museum be in the post-pandemic world? Is a question that museum directors around the world are pondering.
It has been a few months since museums reopened in India. Two key elements that have helped them adapt to the post-pandemic world are a strong digital presence and increased community engagement.
Spread over three buildings with 39 galleries, an in-person visit to the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad takes around half a day. But now you don’t even have to be in Hyderabad to see its vast collection. By July of this year, the museum had digitized more than 47,000 of its objects.
On October 18, it launched an audio guide app that invites a plug-and-play approach to a more physically distant visit. It teamed up with Google Arts and Culture to showcase its premier setup, such as the interactive dissection of âDisappointedâ by Raja Ravi Varma and a full breakdown of âIndian Epics of Art,â including folk imagery from the Chitrakathi tradition of Paithan, Maharashtra.
Salar Jung was not the only museum to collaborate with Google Arts and Culture. The Bangalore Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), for example, has 12 exhibits. Although the launch of MAP has been postponed until 2022, it has hosted numerous online events over the past two years.
Indian Music Experience (IME), another Bangalore museum, meanwhile has three online exhibits on Google Arts and Culture, including one dedicated to sitar legend Ravi Shankar on his 100th birthday last year.
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Starting with “Birdsong”, which will be the first physical exhibition of the IME in 2022, each exhibition organized by the museum will also be available online, promises its director Manasi Prasad. Apart from exhibitions, IME has also organized online courses, concerts, workshops and conferences. Although their online programming got off to a good start, audiences for concerts and workshops have declined this year, possibly due to screen fatigue. Despite this, IME plans to continue its online offerings. âPeople don’t log into an event while it’s happening. But they watch it later. [These videos] are resources they can refer to whenever they want, âManasi explains.
Following pages for IME’s social media pages grew by more than 50% during the pandemic. Since the pandemic, says Manasi, the IME has been observing and engaging more and more with its online audience. âWhatever exhibits we did, they were only for people who visited the IME. But the idea of ââusing online platforms to deliver content to the public everywhere is something we learned during the pandemic. “
The Kerala Museum in Kochi is currently digitizing its art collection. Exhibits will go live by the end of January 2022. Descriptions of the original works of art will be available to the public, along with curated stories for each of the 200 works of art on display. âWe are now exploring a hybrid space, where the physical and the digital meet,â she adds. This is the path that all of the museums we have spoken with seem to be taking.
âAll well-funded museums are strengthening their digital presence. They move most of their exhibitions online. This would not have happened or would have happened very slowly without the pandemic, âsaid Reena Dewan, former president of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) India and director of the Kolkata Center for Creativity (KCC).
Community and collaboration
Museums are beginning to realize the importance of community involvement when recovering from closures. From spaces of exclusion involving people from the artistic community and academia, they are open to public participation.
IME, for example, hosted a free open mic during this year’s Navaratri, where anyone in the audience could perform. This is just a small example of their long-term community engagement plan.
The IME has partnered with the British Council to create a series of youth engagement initiatives. The museum has a Youth Advisory Board, where adolescents participate in decision-making. This advice advises the museum on how to improve its programming. One of his suggestions, for example, is to do something on K-Pop.
- The pandemic was not just a health crisis. This created a wave of crises that affected almost everything, including cultural institutions. Due to the financial upheavals this caused, many museums around the world had to sell some of their works to take care of the rest of their collections. This list included some of the most renowned museums in the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (known as “the Met”).
- But the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai had the idea of ââpreserving their collection during a precarious period. The museum, which will turn 100 next year, announced the âAdopt a Museum Artifactâ initiative, in which people could adopt its century-old artifacts. The names of the adopters were displayed near their respective artifacts and at the entrance to the museum.
- âHundreds of Mumbaikars and some from Ahmedabad, Gujarat and Delhi have come forward to support this initiative. They helped us raise 5 crores, âsays Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the CEO of CSMVS, who spearheaded this initiative. âWhen I shared this story with my foreign colleagues, they were pleasantly surprised to know that it was successful. “
As part of its Svaritha project, IME presents its vast musical resources to children with neurodiverse needs and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Its Internship Program for Future Museum Professionals trains six interns in curation, design and development of an online platform. âThe idea is simply to make the space more inclusive,â Manasi explains.
The government of Kerala is promoting a movement for museums to function as interactive spaces for young people. Keralam Museum, an organization formed to build and modernize museums, has completed 11 of the 31 projects it initiated. âAs well-funded museums, public and private, expand their digital presence and implement community outreach plans, many small museums struggle for survival,â explains Reena.
This is where the collaborations have helped. During World Heritage Week November 19-25, for example, KCC in collaboration with Paschimbanga Sangrahalaya Samiti organized the group of museum exhibits. The program aimed to reimagine the future of museums through discussions, exhibitions, performances, workshops and film screenings during the week.
âWe invited 16 Bengal museums, including the smaller ones. Usually, these small, stand-alone museums are reluctant to participate in such events. But thanks to COVID, they were more open to collaboration and networking, âadds Reena,â And that created a ripple effect. Now the people of Gujarat and Jammu University also want to organize these kinds of events involving smaller museums. “
Museums are no longer mere exhibition and performance spaces. As they adjust to the new normal, they find it necessary to talk to the community and talk to each other. The pandemic has also caused people to view these cultural spaces with a renewed appreciation. Despite the slow recovery in income, museum directors we spoke to said that people’s need to experience art and culture in a physical space has only increased.
Culture is as important as health, âsays Sabyasachi. âIf you ignore culture, you are ignoring an important part of the human being. Because culture is what injects meaning and sensibilities into a person.
(With contributions from Divya Kala Bhavani and Anasuya Menon)