Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Reflections on Rereeti as We Turn a Year Old

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On the occasion of Rereeti completing a year, our Founder-Director Tejshvi Jain shares with readers the story of its beginning, the challenges we have overcome and what we have lined up for 2016.

‘Be the change you wish to see’ – Mahatma Gandhi

This December, our blog completes one year and I would like to thank our readers for supporting us through our journey. We have increased our viewership by 31% over the last 5 months. Our readers are not only from India, but USA, UK, Australia, Canada, France, UAE, New Zealand, and other countries. I would also like to thank the museums, schools, partner organizations, children and families who have availed and enjoyed our interactive learning services. As I look back over this year and the challenges we faced (and partly overcame), we have come a long way!

In 2012, when I first visited UK for a training program at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), I got a first hand glimpse of the international museum community. The sector was so dynamic, including the exchange of knowledge and skills between museum professionals to share best practices and overcome common curatorial challenges. I saw this even in Germany, where a group of museums got together to share skills and knowledge, thus using their limited resources effectively. However, in India this kind of collaboration is not that commonplace: Museum professionals often work within their institutions and departments, and do not have many opportunities to interact with peers or learn about museum best practices in other continents. I felt this gap all along my stint as assistant curator at the then newly opened National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore. This bothered me.

From the many visits to museums in India and abroad, my interest and concern, for the kind of audience engagement that museums cultivate, has grown. Most Indian museums have excellent collections but fail to actively engage with their audience. The difference between museums that do not have an active engagement and outreach strategy toward their community versus the ones that do have a policy in place have is that the latter  follows the ‘outward in’ approach. They see museums from an outsider’s point of view, a layman and this approach helps them identify the needs and requirements of their visitors and looks for solutions that will help them address these lacks. The National Council of Science Museum (India) and a handful of other museums have incorporated this approach, recently, however, I yearned for museums across India to follow suit.

Impetus to Set Up Rereeti

In 2013, the ArtThinkSouthAsia fellowship helped facilitate a project that looked at addressing the above mentioned areas. The project aimed at addressing the gap between museum professionals, cultural practitioners, public, and government authorities. It looked at getting everyone on a common platform, to understand different perspectives and requirements, and collectively think of solutions. My secondment at the Museums Galleries Scotland(MGS) confirmed the positive impact an organization solely dedicated to the museum sector can have on the public value of museums.

In due course, this project turned out to be more than a few months worth commitment. Rereeti evolved slowly and organically. It took me two years to figure out what we would do and how we would achieve it. Having a non-business mindset to set up a company was most challenging; I found the financial and marketing skills required for running an organization especially tough learning curve. Like many cultural practitioners-turned-entrepreneurs, the most difficult part is to strike a balance between one’s practice as an artist and honing my managerial skills as an entrepreneur.

While I personally struggled with these challenges, as a manager I struggled with prioritization. In my past roles as a teaching faculty and facilitator in Indian colleges, I would often find myself in situations where interpretation of the same text for different audiences daunting. This need for multiple interpretations was strongly felt at the museum too. I soon realized this area is under-researched and unexplored in India. Hence, besides connecting museum professionals, outreach and audience development was the other area we decided to focus on.

What Does Rereeti Do?

To sum it up, Rereeti is a platform connecting museum professionals to share, learn and network. It is a resource house for the museum sector in India. Rereeti facilitates museums to help develop programs that lead to an increase not just in visitor footfall but deeper audience engagement as well. We see museums as public spaces and our role as facilitators who help create value through our learning and outreach services. However, this is a mammoth task given the policies and funding structure governing Indian museums. Fortunately we have been able to take this forward with your support and encouragement.

Some of the milestones we achieved are include international recognition at the Museums and Web Asia Conference (Melbourne) and partnerships with local and international museums, organizations and schools. I am happy to share with our readers that we (probably) are the only blog dedicated to producing original content for museums, galleries and heritage sites in India across a gamut of functions and knowledge areas, such as curatorial, educational, design and exhibition, signage and lighting, audience engagement, content and marketing for museums, and digital strategy.

Road Map for 2016

We are looking forward to a year where we are able to spread the joy of visiting museums for all visitors to museums in India; spread the joy of understanding and appreciating the world around us through unique learning and engagement activities. We aim to make our engagement with schools deeper and facilitate children to open their minds and challenge them through our modules and museum exhibits. Workshops for museum professionals and teachers on ways of engaging audience/students in museum and heritage spaces are in the pipeline.

We would like to work with government museums on their temporary exhibitions by providing learning aids and relevant programming support. We are in the process of adapting our content to suit the requirements of government aided schools. We plan to hire our first full-time staff and look forward to expanding our team across other cities. Our greatest challenge for the coming year is to raise our seed fund and forge substantial tie-ups with government museums. Any help from our readers to help achieve this is welcomed.

Learning from our mistakes and past experiences we move into the new year with hope and optimism. We would like to hear from you on how we could be useful and relevant to you, your organization, your students, and your children. Please participate in our survey to help us serve you better. The survey will take four minutes and will be confidential.

Wishing you a happy new year in advance. We will be back in the new year!

‘It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.’ – Confucius

About the Author

Tejshvi Jain is Rereeti's Founder-DirectorTejshvi Jain is the founding director of Rereeti and worked at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore prior to setting up this non-profit organization. Get in touch with her info@rereeti.org.

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Pop Goes the Museum: Pop-Up Exhibitions Can Inspire Innovative Curatorial Approaches in India

Pop-up museums act as an alternative space by marrying the museum’s ethnographic approach with the style and content of contemporary art exhibitions, writes Nilofar Shamim Haja. 

WP_20150701_18_00_48_ProImage: Video installation at the ‘Making Music Making Space’ Hindustani Sangeet in Bombay/Mumbai in Mumbai’s Studio X gallery, June 15-July 7. Photo courtesy author.

Museums and cultural institutions in the Global South work with tight budgets, limited resources, under space constraints and unsteady visitor footfalls. In this blog, we have asked ourselves and our expert contributors two questions, over and over again: why don’t people visit museums in India and how do we increase visitor engagement with museums. Perhaps we can take a cue from ‘pop-up museums,’ a concept that was in its nucleus barely five year ago, but has now gained traction across museums in the United States and Europe.

What are Pop-Up Museums?

Much like pop-up shops (temporary exhibitions and stalls that run for a limited time on the high street, fair or festival), pop-up exhibitions are organized by museums in partnership with local organizations, community centers or citizen associations on site or at an external venue, for a finite period. The pop-up concept relies on the public in curating the show and bringing in objects, stories, oral histories, and other narratives to the exhibition.

The whole purpose is to make this a community-centric event that puts the onus on citizens to be active contributors to the museum space. Here, the museum is unpacked and redefined not only as an institutional or historical site, but as spaces where the community can meet, interact and learn. Themes are far ranging and not limited to the museum’s main collections, although that would certainly help in directing attention toward existing collections.

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“Pop Up Museums focus on bringing people together in conversation through stories, art, and objects. They can happen anytime, anywhere, and with any community.” – Pop Up Museum Initiative, kickstarted under the aegis of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

“We were initially attracted to pop-up museums as a way to kick-start conversations about the past in our community. Pop-ups provided a way to bring people, objects, and stories… by creating a museum experience complete with objects, community voices, and visitor engagement” – Katie Spencer, executive director of the Museum of Durham History, who organized a series of pop-up exhibitions prior to the opening of her museum in Durham, North Carolina, United States (Courtesy, the Future of Museums).

“We had a great experience at our PopUp. It was slightly different as we invited a group of students from one of the boy’s schools we have been working with over the years to participate. We visited them at school prior to the session to talk to them about museums, objects and possible themes. They decided on “stories” as a theme, and what I loved was that some of the boys performed a dance/song as their “object”.” – Dr Lynda Kelly, Australian Museum.

Why are Pop-Ups Popular?

Pop-up museum exhibitions generate enthusiasm precisely because the visitors are held responsible for the success of the show. The parameter of success here isn’t about footfalls, but instead focuses on how well the theme is appropriated by the audience. Pop-up museums act as an alternative space to host non-material and difficult to translate concepts and themes (such as the historical notion of violence or ethnic conflicts) by marrying the museum’s ethnographic approach to curation with the style and content of contemporary art exhibitions.

Capturing the features of a long term museum exhibit by allowing the contours of space and time to compress is one of the essential characteristics of ‘pop-up’ exhibitions.

Labels, display and placement are as important in a pop-up show, encouraging visitors to think about how curators devise an exhibition. The point of departure would be in the inclusive nature of a pop-up: In a museum exhibit, curators carry out a selective interpretation of the subject,  colored by their own and the institution’s ethos, selecting objects based on its appeal, recall value, its historical significance from a regional and global standpoint, and other considerations. In a pop-up, the object selection is wide-ranging and as diverse as the community it represents, with each participant eager to convey their own stories associated with the material and eager to learn about the community’s perspective on the history of the subject.

The article cites two exhibitions in Mumbai, “Making Music Making Space” and the “Hermès Horse exhibition” as take-off points for where pop-ups could play an influential role in fostering community-driven cultural initiatives in India.

Making Music Making Space: Mumbai, June-July 2015

Image Gallery: Relying on a multitude of visual cues that included videos, projections, audio bytes, photographs, maps, advertisement brochures, sticky notes, and digital archives, the exhibition provided an immersive experience for anyone who walked in.

Curated by cultural theorist and curator Tejaswini Niranjana, along with filmmaker Surabhi Sharma, architectural theorist Kaiwan Mehta, architect Sonal Sundararajan and designer Farzan Dalal, the month-long exhibition leveraged the quaint, old-world venue of Studio X at Kitab Mahal, Fort to weave an engaging narrative around the history of Hindustani classical music in erstwhile Bombay.

The Making Music Making Space exhibition included video installations; audio kiosks where we could listen to snippets of music and singing; photographs of singers and people associated with the Sangeet; floor-projection of significant photos highlighting the history of Hindustani Sangeet tradition in Bombay / Mumbai; a wall map of the important persons and their connection to the city; Apple computers on which visitors could freely browse through video archives, images and other multimedia related to the exhibition.

Ably complemented by curatorial notes about the subject, the space was transformative in its reach and ethnographic approach, literally making a play on its title, “Making Making Making Space” by stretching the boundaries of what a traditional art exhibition space can encompass.  

While the exhibition was executed on the curator’s vision and had no core elements of a pop-up, it could have very easily transitioned into one if the public was invited to contribute through stories, photographs and non-material instances of how Hindustani Sangeet played a role in their histories. In a way, with the integration of social media into the fabric of exhibition promotions and outreach, one can claim that the public is a contributing actor to the exhibition through their online comments, feedback and conversations, without staking a direct contribution in the curation of the show.  This is certainly a line of thought to mull over: could pop-up museum iterations widen its parameters to include digital curation and contributions?

Hermès Horse Exhibition: October 31 to November 30

Image gallery: I participated in a guided tour of the Hermès Mumbai store’s exhibition space, which showcased five generations of curiosities collected by the Dumas family. Photos courtesy: the author.

What elements of this exhibition are akin to a pop-up museum? The exhibition at the French luxury store’s retail outlet at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai had all the earmarks of a classic, museum-inspired curatorial approach with the innovative flourishes of a cutting-edge contemporary arts exhibition. Replete with a wooden rocking pony gilded with decorative bridle from Rajasthan as the centerpiece, the exhibition had 150 pieces, including paintings, sculptures and art pieces that have been part of the Dumas family for two hundred years. The signage, labeling and juxtaposition of the historical legacy against the contemporary luxury avatar of the brand (scarves, jewelry, boots) allows participants a sense of time passing and chronicled by the family.

The exhibition’s curator, Philippe Dumas, artist and member of the fifth generation of the Hermes family, invigorates the space with the right mix of curio objects and narration conveyed through paintings and prints. Visitors can also watch a film by Philippe’s son Émile that documents a horse ride in Paris, during the day and at night, a deft post-modern touch that marks the saddle-makers’ transition from the Old World into the New. What visitors take away from the exhibition is a sense of family and heritage, meticulously documented and highlighted at the Hermes store and evocatively presented through anecdotes by their in-house brand ambassador. This sense of participation is fostered by the brand ambassador encouraging questions and comments that resulted in a richer understanding of not just the brand, but of history, science and technology, the arts, and documentary films in the last two centuries.

Pop-up museum_Hoskote tweet

The Extraordinary Powers of a Pop-Up 

Exhibitions of this nature, with a classic approach to curation cleverly interspersed with a contemporary ethos that focuses on visitor engagement (and outreach through social media) can act as viable templates for independent curators, arts organizations and citizen associations toward hosting a full-blown, pop-up exhibition. The stories can be wide-ranging and topical, ranging from how we deal with climate change, urban migration and renewable energy, to learning about expats in India, Jazz in Mumbai in the 1950s or changing rituals at a festival. Pop-ups can also be organized on short notice, through multiple iterations in a year, with specific audiences or age-groups, and involving multiple stakeholders based on the theme.

The potential to draw a continuous historical narrative from the community and share these stories with the community is easier to stage at a pop-up hosted by the local community center than a full-blown exhibition at our venerable museums, which move at a different pace and adhere to a cultural and national mandate rather than a local one. Museums also operate on longer timelines, typically ideating and organizing shows that take anywhere from 6 months to three years to put together. A lot of permissions and bureaucratic hurdles have to be surpassed before a new exhibition opens to the public.

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“One of the reasons we started the pop up museum was to challenge the idea that museums have an omnipresent authority over what is and what’s not “valuable.”” – Nora Grant, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, United States.

The kind of “hack” that can be organized through a pop-up exhibition in local spaces makes use of technology interventions, spatial restructuring, operational and monetary flexibility that is simply unthinkable at our local museums. For instance, if one were to organize a “Night at the Museum” for kids to learn about the history of astronomy and the solar system, museums in the West throw open their doors to parents and children post midnight and organize sleep-ins. While it’s still impossible to broach this subject in India, a pop-up astronomy exhibition organized at the local community center or Natural History Society, can still be organized with the support of the museum and its staff, but under the logistical partnership of the community. Handling boxes (miniature, portable, replicas of collections) can be passed around as learning aids.

The two private exhibitions I have chronicled above hold up one end of the bargain that’s mandatory for pop-up museums to be successful: curating stories and themes that add to a community’s sense of belonging, of history and relevance. The other end calls for these organizations to co-opt the community right from the ideation stage so that all of us get the chance to retell and write the stories that we star in.

Get in touch with Rereeti if you would like to stage a pop-up in your city.

About the Author

Nilofar Haja is Rereeti's communications officerNilofar Shamim Haja is Rereeti’s Communications Officer. She consults with the United Nations-Global Alliance for ICT (UN-GAID) initiated non-profit G3ICT – The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, promoting the rights of persons with disabilities in the digital age. Nilofar has a master’s degree in Ancient Indian History, Culture, and Archaeology from the Mumbai University. Her research interests include protest art, digitalia, urban spaces, and folklore. She tweets @culture_curate.

Beyond the Biennale: Imagining a Museum for Contemporary Arts in India

About the Modern is a four-part series by Sumitra Sunder that traces the evolution of contemporary art in India’s metropolitan cities and how the movement has flourished outside the traditional spaces of museums and galleries. This is the concluding part of the series.

You can read part one here, part two here and part three here.

The Many Faces of Islam, 1997-99, First Printed in the New York Times Magazine, Sept 19, 1999Image: Shahzia Sikander, Many Faces or The Resurgence of Islam, 1997-1999. The work is part of the 4th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale 2009, Japan. The theme for this triennale is ‘Live and Let Live: Creators of Tomorrow’. 

Situating Contemporary Arts in the Millennium
In the last few pieces, I have taken readers on a journey that traces the genesis of contemporary arts in India’s metropolises, delving further into the place of art in modern Indian museums and the contours of contemporary arts in South Asia. In doing so, I have highlighted the historical role of museums – or their lack of a role – in being an active participant in the production of contemporary arts movement. I would also like to refine the focus of the time frame I am engaging with: The largest body of work I am commenting on was produced within the last 25 to 30 years.

However, the trend of the annual and biennale festivals and fairs gain popularity between the 90s and the beginning of the new millennium, in Asia. That is not to state that this type of exhibition was not a known means of showcasing art work, but its frequency and the countries/cities where it was organized became exponentially higher in the years under observation. For example, the predecessor of the Fukuoka Triennale, the Asian Art Show had a history of 25 years, showing every five years since 1980, to be more precise.

Perhaps the changing nature of arts practice has taken into account the city as a site for display, on one hand, and built architecture and former institutional structures as backdrops and canvases for the contemporary narrative, on the other. As an overarching framework to situate these four pieces, I hope to frame these questions toward readers, in a bid for critical reflection. I would also go on to say that while some trends have a firmly traceable catalyst, in this context I think that the catalyst is change itself. The arts and arts practice have always been in a state of flux. It is this flux that often distinguished art forms and styles from each other.

Shackled By Notions of the Traditional

Along with the national anthem, the national emblem, the national festival, a nation needs its national library, its national archive, and its national museum. For poor indeed would be the country that could not lay claim to enough history to fill an archive, enough scholarship to fill a library, and enough artifacts to fill a museum! Shortly after Indian Independence, thus, the project of a National Museum for the country was begun. Here, as in most Asian, African and Latin American nations at the moment of decolonization, the erection of a grand national museum became an act of great symbolic importance, for it was a visible assertion of newly-gained sovereignty (Singh, 2002).

National Museum, New DelhiImage: National Museum, New Delhi. The Museum has in its possession over 200,000 works of art, of both Indian and foreign origin, covering more than 5,000 years of the cultural heritage of different parts of the world.

As a final set of comments on the issue of the modern and the museum, I would like to use this piece as a way of reflecting on the meanings associated with the museum as well as the art exhibit. So what is this museum that I am speaking of? I refer to the large, old school spaces that house our heritage. Here, the heritage is both, of the past, as well as the idea of the national or nationhood that manifests in modernist creative practice. While the museum as an institution has been thought about in both academic and critical thought, there has been little direction on why contemporary art almost always looks for different kinds of spaces. Is it trying to escape the colonial stamp that would get imprinted on work if displayed in a traditional museum? Or is it trying to leverage its medium as a way of outfitting or redefining other kinds of spaces?

What is it about contemporary art that it can only locate itself within the alternative spaces of festivals, fairs, biennales and triennales?

The Exhibition as a Meta-Narrative
Let’s take the example of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The festival is imagined as a means of building a new aesthetic that interrogates both the past and the present (Bose Krishnamachari, 2014). The Biennale and its makers see it as an artist-led initiative as opposed to allowing curators to direct the exhibition process. The Biennale forms the grand narrative that encompasses several smaller processes and methods: it explores the operational and intellectual dimensions of the art world and also directly engages people through a wide range of cultural activities (Bose Krishnamachari, 2014).

The wording of this is also significant as it points toward an engagement on three levels, one with the public, then with history, and lastly, with the present space. If one looks at the definitions presented of museums, then these spaces also engage with the same elements, but on a different scale. While the museum is a defined physical space, the exhibition format need not be constrained by spatial boundaries. The Biennale has also been structured such that the entire production and processing is handled by a group of curators executing a number of sub-exhibits/showcases, making the case for a collaborative form of work.

Aspinwall HouseImage: Aspinwall House is a large sea-facing heritage property in Fort Kochi on the way to Mattancherry. It’s now  a primary venue of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. 

This is particularly interesting for me as I am studying these collaborative structures and the art produced therein. The point of similarity here is the structure of the exhibition, which is a meta-narrative of interrogation playing out, with smaller narratives that deal with different forms. For instance, if a series of talks presents the history and perhaps a theoretical framework for the exhibition, a curated film festival presents diversity of vision. Therefore, the meta-narrative is inclusive in its form and this could be a new direction for thinking about a museum for housing contemporary arts. While the ‘stuff’ of contemporary art and the museum are perhaps different in appearance, they are creative outputs and in effect, the material remains of contemporary art form part of our cultural inheritance.

End Note
I am tempted to write a ‘conclusion’ as this seems an appropriate end for a series of deliberations on the museum and contemporary art in India. But this is a work in progress and I have looked at these writings more as conversation starters, then end points. I would like to see discussions among museum professionals and artists that talk about leveraging the museum – that interrogate the history of the museum as well as the spaces they inhabit.

There is a need to shift the ways in which we look at museums and at works of art. If the exhibition is interrogating the past and people’s experiences of the past, then the museum also needs to initiate these interrogations as they are emblems of heritage, carrying the burden of both nationhood and colonialism. These spaces manifest as text and therefore can be read in different lights. The ways in which the museum and contemporary art have been constructed in our minds, if interrogated can allow us to develop these spaces in ways that are perhaps more relevant to the times we live in.

About the Author

Sumitra SunderSumitra Sunder is a PhD scholar, currently working on contemporary urban arts practice at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The main focus of her work is to locate contemporary models of creative process and practice in the larger fabric of the history of art. Before commencing doctoral work reluctantly, she has worked with IGNCA, Khoj International Artists Association and Eka Cultural Resources and Research in Delhi and Apparao Galleries in Chennai. Follow her on Twitter.

 

From Local to Galactic: Tracing the Politics of Contemporary Art in South Asia

About the Modern is a four-part series by Sumitra Sunder that traces the evolution of contemporary art in India’s metropolitan cities and how the movement has flourished outside the traditional spaces of museums and galleries.

In part three of the series, Sumitra Sunder makes a case for an Asian avant-garde movement in art, with artists moving towards social justice issues emerging out of their creative practices. Read part two here and part one here.

Throughout history, one sees that social change and radical politics have always had either a direct or subversive influence on creative practice. In a more global context, there has been a large shift in the balance of power in Asia, which has resulted in a shift in the kinds of creative practice of nations in the continent.

Since the 1990s, the ways in which creative practice manifests itself has seen a shift. Politics and social constructs have always had a significant role in the ways contemporary art manifests. But perhaps, for the lack of a better word, the globalized world has seen a different set of influences on contemporary arts practice.

MadhusudhananImage: Madhusudhanan, Logic of Disappearance, installation view Aspinwall House, Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

What is important to consider in these shifting paradigms is that firstly, there is a contested ground for artistic practice and secondly the challenging of the dominance of the older centers of Western Europe and the United States. This kind of rationale emerges in the 1990s with writings of T K Sabapathy referring to a ‘wariness towards accepting or succumbing to orthodoxies emerging, imposed or acquired, from the West’.

The turn of the century has witnessed the beginnings of an astonishing alteration in the balance of power towards Asia, militarily as well as economically, signifying perhaps, as many experts suggest, the impending close of five centuries of global domination by first Europe, then the United States. This alteration has also influenced international relations and has therefore been mirrored in the creative practice of different Asian regions.

Ernesto-NetoImage: Artwork by Ernesto Neto. Site-specific installation at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2012.

The contested ground in art practice is influenced by issues like multiple and hybrid identities, minorities, multiculturalism within nations, to name a few. Arts practice has therefore entered a time when the primary factors influencing it are no longer located in conventional Western models. Historians and critics are beginning to refer to the Asian context of arts practice as a ‘civil society in huge ferment, a political society whose constituencies are redefining the meaning of democracy and a demographic scale that defies simple theories of hegemony’. Neo-colonialism, environmental degradation, sexual exploitation, social and political injustice, etc., are some of the issues that are being fought through creative practice. Art and creative practice cannot be isolated, locked into a set of traditions or frozen in time.

Apinan Poshyananda writes that cultural syncretism is a key element in arts practice. Western Modernism has made an impact on art practice, however, different cultures and countries have developed their own versions of modernity. Contemporary Euro-American paradigms of looking at art can therefore not really be applied to developments in Asia.

The history of contemporary art locates arts practice in two ways. Art that embraces the idea of looking at indigenous practices and incorporating that aesthetic in works and the other that disengages or rejects the nationalist narrative that asks for a return to traditional forms. There is also the set of artists who rejected the art institution or the institutionalization of arts practice. This is the rhetoric of the avant-garde.

Clifford CharlesImage: Clifford Charles Five rooms of Clouds Room 5, Profound Profanities. Mixed media, site-specific installation at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Geeta Kapur argues that if the avant-garde is a historically conditioned phenomenon and emerges only in a moment of real political disjuncture, it will appear in various forms, in different parts of the world, at different times. She then goes on to make a context for the avant-garde and in one sense this is where creative practice is going today. If the Asian artist is indeed an avant-garde, this form will come to fruition if one of two things takes place: The first, a move that dismantles the hegemonic and conservative features of the national culture itself, and the second, a move that dismantles the burdensome aspect of Western art, treating the avant-garde principle as an institutionalized phenomenon, recognizing the assimilative, therefore, sometimes paralyzing capacity of the (Western) museums, galleries, critical apparatuses, curators, and media.

Can Contemporary and Institutional Co-Exist?

Which brings us back to the idea of the museum. Often, gallery displays within a museum choose to freeze a certain art form in time. With the dynamics of creative practice changing in the past few decades, it is no longer enough to simply place works of art or art objects in a museum. Perhaps the most significant shift for the showcasing of contemporary works of art in Asia has been the emergence of the festival or recurring exhibitions like the biennales and triennales.

Artist Daniel Connell.jpgImage: Artist Daniel Connell from Australia created two huge faces of his friend Justin Alan Magridge from Port Augusta, South Australia. The artist imagines that people from this very place migrated to Australia 60-80,00 years ago to form the aboriginal population there.

For example, three of the earliest of such formats were the Indian Triennale, the Bangladesh Asian Art Biennale and the Fukuoka Asian Art exhibition in Japan. The climate of arts practice itself is seeing a turn towards being more political and socially conscious. There are more works and groups working toward social justice issues that use creative practice. As for work that id produced today, the engagement with the work is more personal, more about immediate issues rather than a detached sense of aesthetics. The museum also becomes a contested ground as it is representative of Western aesthetics and dominant narratives of the same.

Using the example of the recurring exhibition or the biennale / triennale, the 2nd edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is an example of how the art world has responded to the almost laid back attitude of the state towards contemporary arts practice. This is perhaps the first time when the crowdfunding model has backed an international festival, pointing towards a shift in the way funding works in the contemporary art world. While crowd funding is not new for other festivals like Experimenta and the Bangalore Queer Film Festival, a large scale exhibition like the Biennale is imagined as a slightly different medium.

sheela_gowda_kochiImage: Sheela Gowda’s installation of abandoned grinding stones collected from a village in Karnataka at Aspinwall in Fort Kochi.

To describe the curatorial exercise of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in more detail, Jitish Kallat contextualized it as ‘a juxtaposition of sharp turns in history and the shifting geography of the world’. He called for a questioning of the bonds between the local and the galactic, the regional and the intercontinental. It was planned as a response to history. This festival was about spaces and the many pasts that they play host to. It played up the notion of locating the works in the same geographies as previous works of the first edition of the biennale.

This form of curation is a useful tapestry for thinking about the museum. The museum acquires a history with the works it displays. If, in one way, this biennale model of having work interact with history, more from the point of view of the spectator, would not the ways in which the museum is imagined change?

In the final part of this series, the author explores how institutions and the public understand, define and co-label contemporary art. Does the atypical, unconventional and narratively unhinged art not work well within a museum?

About the Author

Sumitra SunderSumitra Sunder is a PhD scholar, currently working on contemporary urban arts practice at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The main focus of her work is to locate contemporary models of creative process and practice in the larger fabric of the history of art. Before commencing doctoral work reluctantly, she has worked with IGNCA, Khoj International Artists Association and Eka Cultural Resources and Research in Delhi and Apparao Galleries in Chennai. Follow her on Twitter.

Contemporary Arts Production in Times of Unrest: Protest Art in Indian Metropolises

About the Modern is a four-part series by Sumitra Sunder that traces the evolution of contemporary art in India’s metropolitan cities and how the movement has flourished outside the traditional spaces of museums and galleries.

In part two of this series, the author highlights opinions of select theoreticians on how contemporary socio-political arts deals with subjects such as environmental degradation, street protests, tectonic urban migrations, and other socially relevant issues in the metropolises. Read part one here.

In engaging with social change, arts practice and those who have written about the same, often dwell on the socio-political climate of creation. Here, I have used the term ‘creation’ to articulate what the creative process produces. Artists can, through their work, reflect the values and aspirations of their immediate milieu, the community at large, or the challenges of the human condition. While some react with cynicism and even despair, others produce an art of resistance (Turner, 2005).

A part of my doctoral work involves reading shifts in the nature of arts practice; more than ever before, artists today are exploring work in the area of social justice. There is also a clearer association with social justice groups as opposed to being political through an ideological model. An example can be made of the Progressive Artists Group active in the then Bombay in the second half of the 20th century. It was also the dawn of a budding theatre movement seen through the works of spaces like SAHMAT and Jan Natya Manch that articulated their work through affiliation with the political Left. Theirs is a work of resistance.

City of Pieces: an urban festival of creative practices as part of the annual October Jam

City of Pieces: Maraa’s urban festival of creative practices as part of their annual October Jam. Picture courtesy Maraa.

And when you get into the nuances, there is resistance to the dominant narrative that often tends to suppress the voices of those who contribute something equally significant to the larger canvas of creative practice.

The term resistance is also interesting when it comes to creative practice. What is being resisted? There are different ways to approach this. A very broad reading is a resistance to older forms and practices. Resistance to continue using ‘designated’ spaces for work that goes beyond the installation and becomes ephemeral and performative.

There is also a move towards involving communities in arts practice. In confronting issues, artists have addressed their art to, and involved, whole communities in order to help them confront poverty and trauma (caused by both natural and human disasters) and preserve traditions and values: in other words, their art contributes to cultural survival (Turner, 2005). There is a resistance to the idea of ‘othering’ a community’s sense of identity.

Chinese artist Wenda Gu's project United Nations seeks to evoke thoughts of human identity and unity.

Image: United Nations – China Monument: Temple of Heaven; Wenda Gu, 1998, China, Medium: installation, mixed media (human hair, wood chairs,…) 13x52x20 feet. Museum/Collection: Permanent Collection of Hong Kong Museum of Art.

To quote some examples of work from Asian countries, there’s the work of Chinese artist Wenda Gu commenting on international communications. The work, United Nations, which has been in display across various venues since 1993, is a site specific installation, with screens made of human hair and pseudo characters in Chinese, Hindi and Arabic. To date, 30 national monuments have been completed and 1.5 million people have donated hair.

The featured image on this post, ‘Pisupo lua afe’ is a work by Michael Tuffery, a New Zealand-based artist of mixed Pacific Island heritage. His work is performance based and uses flattened cans of pisupo (corned beef) as a metaphor. “The work combines the art of recycling with a light-hearted and ironic comment on the value of colonial economics.” Says Tuffery, ‘My corned beef bullock talks about the impact of global trade and colonial economies on Pacific Island cultures.  Specifically it comments on how an imported commodity has become an integral part of the Polynesian customs of feasting and gift giving.’ – Source.

Closer home, the Bangalore-based group Maraa has been working in the city since 2009. Their work began with putting together community radio shows and is now about responding to specific issues that plague urban life. It is a response to public spaces becoming more restrictive. They use the festival model, which curates themes around the struggles of the city. Some of their works, such as City of Pieces and Out of Focus festivals, are examples of the way they structure protest.

City of pieces is a nine day festival that interrogates the violence of the everyday transformation of the city from the perspective of creative practice.

Image: Maraa’s work speaks to the idea of reclaiming public spaces for the arts. Picture courtesy Maraa.

Closer home, the Bangalore-based group Maraa has been working in the city since 2009. Their work began with putting together community radio shows and is now about responding to specific issues that plague urban life. It is a response to public spaces becoming more restrictive. They use the festival model, which curates themes around the struggles of the city. Some of their works, such as City of Pieces and Out of Focus festivals, are examples of the way they structure protest.

What City of Pieces tried to do was use creative practice to question the violent ways in which the city is transforming, in the backdrop of the Bangalore Metro construction. Speakers and practitioners underlined the importance of removing oneself from a privileged perspective to understand how certain transformations can seem violent to others. Out of Focus was dedicated to labor in the film industry and was a shout out to what is not tangible in cinema: the stories of poets, lyricists, composers, and writers. It interrogates the ways in which the shift from analogue to digital has affected the livelihood of these ‘invisible’ workers of the industry. In a way, Maraa attempts to question the idea of violence and also brings to light how shifts in cultural practice and technology can affect different communities. Their work reflects the larger changes in South Asian cities.

"Second Skin: Elastic Dress" Through the dress, the artist, Anoli Perera discusses the ‘being’ of a woman constantly in the state of flux

Image: “Second Skin: Elastic Dress” Through the dress, the artist, Anoli Perera discusses the ‘being’ of a woman constantly in the state of flux

]One specific moment in the history of contemporary art in this region was the artist led initiatives in India (Khoj), Sri Lanka (Teertha), Bangladesh (Britto Arts Trust) and Pakistan (Vasl).

Further south, in Sri Lanka creative practice begins to wriggle out of its modernist folds in the 1990s through work that resonated with the prevailing chaos. Jagath Weerasinghe, in an essay about contemporary art in Sri Lanka, talks about the temporal nature of the artist’s work as located in the here and now: A majority of contemporary artists show a common conviction in their artistic efforts by necessarily placing themselves and their creative energies within the ‘current cultural moment’ and within its immediacy, and less frequently in the distant past.

These practices highlight the range of issues that artists are grappling with and addressing. In a world where there is no lack of access to information, or the consumption of it, creative practice can be read as a process of taking a moment and thinking about this intake. Commentaries on the ways in which colonization has affected communication, and the ways in which the old power structures used language to communicate are all forms of resistance. I bring up the context of information as it is important for us to reflect on this massive amount of information available. At earlier points in history, information was available to the public in fewer modes, in lesser volume. Has this created a climate for a sharper sense of articulation?

Students of Brushman’s School of Arts, Kannur, 2012, Kochi - Muziris BiennaleCanal By the Sea, M.C. Srijith and students of Brushman’s School of Arts, Kannur, 2012, Kochi – Muziris Biennale.

This can bring us back to the nature of arts or creative practice in our cities today. As I have mentioned earlier, my work tries to look at changes in the process and output of creative practice and one noticeable change is the shift towards recurring/annual festivals or the biennale. Since 1990, there is the Indian Triennale, the Bangladesh Asian Art Biennale, Fukuoka Asian Art exhibitions in Japan, and most recently, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. In my first blog post, I made a reference to the arts festival model as an illustration of arts practice in flux in Indian cities. But what does this mean for the museum? Stay tuned for the third part in this series to find out.

Part Three: If the museum is imagined as a space that showcases and preserves ‘art history’ in some sense, then can these recurring exhibitions be grounds for the imagination of a new kind of museum? Can the museum engage with the contemporary in different ways than just a physical space?

About the Author

Sumitra SunderSumitra Sunder is a PhD scholar, currently working on contemporary urban arts practice at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The main focus of her work is to locate contemporary models of creative process and practice in the larger fabric of the history of art. Before commencing doctoral work reluctantly, she has worked with IGNCA, Khoj International Artists Association and Eka Cultural Resources and Research in Delhi and Apparao Galleries in Chennai. Follow her on Twitter.

The Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014 is an international contemporary art exhibition

Locating Contemporary Art in India’s Museums and Art Galleries

About the Modern is a four-part series by Sumitra Sunder that traces the evolution of contemporary art in India’s metropolitan cities and how the movement has flourished outside the traditional spaces of museums and galleries.

In part one of this series, the focus is on marking the genesis of contemporary arts movement in Bangalore and its relationship with state-run museums and galleries.

As an aspiring art historian and researcher based in Bangalore, I began my doctoral work with an idea of looking at the ways in which contemporary art has manifested in the city. A large part of this project has been looking at the gaps in research on contemporary art and its place in the history of art in the city. This series of articles is my way of looking at the ways in which spaces and creative practices interrogate each other.

Amorphous Nature of Art
The narrative of locating contemporary art usually begins by looking for it outside the museum. What is it that inhibits state-run art galleries and museums to engage with the contemporary? Beyond the bureaucratic or structural reasons, could it be that the works being produced are no longer bound by space? My research indicates that the movement doesn’t just preclude medium constraints or restrictions, but also rejects conventional forms and spaces to locate the works. Before I delve into practice, let me take you on a tour of modern art museums in our country.
National Gallery of Modern Art
Image: National Gallery of Modern Art. Photo courtesy Gitika Saksena for Neralu, Bangalore.

The buildings that house large collections of modern art, namely, the national gallery and its branches, are in effect India’s answer to the MoMAs (Museum of Modern Art) of the world. The situation in India can be referred to as a failure of state-run museums and modern art galleries to engage with contemporary art (Murray 2014). In a sense, private collectors and philanthropists have an answer to this. In Mumbai, for instance, older galleries such as Jehangir Art Gallery (founded 1952), Chemould Prescott Road Gallery (founded 1963) or Cymroza Art Gallery (estd. 1971) have engaged with the contemporary. And there are more recent examples, like the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon, of a space not unlike the MoMA in New York that came about at a time when the modern was seeking an identity.

In societies like India, the pre-modern is socially real and continually interrogates the modern – Raghuramaraju, 2009.

What is interesting about work produced in Bangalore is that it is both the site as well as the subject of study for artists. There have been a number of spaces such as Bengaluru Artists Residency 1 (BAR1), One, Shanthi Road, Bangalore City Project[i], Jaaga, and so on that have had artists who come in to work on ideas and issues that are very integral to the city. Srishti School of Art and others of their ilk have staged several urban interventions and mapping projects that span the city’s length and breadth. Often, these projects are a call to make people aware of larger ecological and access issues. There are also projects that try and look at disappearing urban heritage. For example, there are architects and urban planners who have put together forums to discuss and enable communities to work towards preserving the city’s heritage.[ii] But the work done by these spaces and groups are often viewed as belonging outside both the gallery as well as the museum.

Museum of Modern Art, New YorkImage: Art on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo courtesy Nilofar Shamim Haja.

Outpost of Modernity
The history of the modern art museum really sees its genesis with the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), set up in New York in the 1930s. This museum was built as an ‘outpost’ of modernity; as a contrast to the buildings of Victorian aesthetic that was the dominant architecture of New York at that time. This kind of aesthetic is what plays out for almost all museums of modern art or galleries of modern art as they are known in India. The buildings that house these collections are often signifiers of modern architecture as well as a sense of ‘modern’ history. The vision for the MOMA was also tied with the image of glamorous modernity and liberalism contrasting with the older museums that held on to enlightenment ideologies.

What is perhaps significant about MoMA is the ‘curating’ of modern art for the visitor. The galleries lead the visitor along the timeline of a ‘central’ history of modern art. This is not unlike the idea of dominant narratives of history where history is told by the dominant politics or class. So, in one train of thought these modern art museums often curate the history of art. The curatorial impulse for these spaces is the desire to showcase what is great modernity or high modernity, not unlike older museums that showcase pieces from the High Renaissance or the classical period. Therefore, the MoMA defines the history of modern art within three moments – Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. This is also what is often taught as central to modern Western art history in art schools. The ways in which the museums of modern art curate their collections lays the foundations for the ways in which this history is studied.

Reconfiguring Museums for Contemporary Art
Coming back to the imagination of the museum, there’s a growing trend of associating these spaces with showy retrospectives of the great modernists or as relics of nationhood. The museum remains largely in the background or for a lack of better expression, a dead space. It is imagined as a storehouse rather than a dynamic space for the manifestation of works of art.

Specifically for Bangalore, there is no clear state support for the contemporary arts. In a seminal essay on the subject, Shukla Sawant goes on to state that with very little state provided support for contemporary art, there exists a ‘thriving’ culture of artist collectives (Sawant 2012) in the city. This structure of being part of a collective or starting a non-hierarchical space that engages the city as well as art forms has been a long standing tradition since the dawn of the modern expression. Whether it is theater or a group of progressive writers, this model has been both successful and almost become institutional for the history of art.

Chemould Prescott RoadImage: Chemould Art Gallery, Mumbai.

The museum was never seen as a space that could house contemporary artworks. For a more local context, the work that emerges in Bangalore post-1980s also moves towards this space of being ephemeral. The work is often temporal, at times existing only in a dematerialized manner or as a web-based venture, or even as a social project involving interactive events that leave no physical residue (Sawant 2012). The problem lies in the idea of a modern art museum and a contemporary art gallery. These two terms are more often than not looked at as separate identities. The National Gallery of Modern Art in various cities have large, permanent collections of modern art and these pose problems of storage and rotational display. There is also a sense of reluctance from those who run the national galleries to engage with the contemporary due to its ephemeral nature.

The larger point in this argument is the changing nature of contemporary art. The works that are being produced often are for a cause or for a movement, placing them in the rather confining (emphasis mine) museum is often counter-intuitive. What needs to be addressed is the ways in which the museum can adapt to accommodate new works and perhaps break away from the modernist constructs that it was built upon.

The next article in the series will explore further the changing contemporary arts practices of India. 

[i] The Bangalore City Group aims to raise awareness about arts and culture in Bangalore. The group wants to initiate programs for the city, as a meeting point for art and culture and as a neutral platform that would bring about awareness among the people, of the importance of cultural infrastructure of a city, of the histories and importance of various places in the city that have otherwise remained silent and veiled. http://bcp.wikidot.com/

[ii] NAKSHAY ‘where community maps its heritage’ is conservation architect Krupa Rajangam’s passion project. It is the outcome of her ongoing research to involve communities in conservation. The project objective is to get different community groups to identify and map places of significance to them, through a bottom up approach rather than top down. http://www.nakshay.saythu.com/

About the Author

Sumitra SunderSumitra Sunder is a PhD scholar, currently working on contemporary urban arts practice at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The main focus of her work is to locate contemporary models of creative process and practice in the larger fabric of the history of art. Prior to commencing her doctoral studies, she has worked with IGNCA, Khoj International Artists Association and Eka Cultural Resources and Research in Delhi, and Apparao Galleries in Chennai. Follow her on Twitter.

Bibliography

Krauss, Rosalind. 2009. “The Guarantee of the Medium.” Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences: 139–145.

Murray, Grace. 2014. “E-Merge » Global Art and Museums in the New Urban India: Building the Devi Art Foundation and the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art.” http://www.anysquared.com/emergetest/?p=8.

Raghuramaraju, A. 2009. “Pre of Art in Modern India.” Third Text 23 (5) (September 6): 617–623. doi:10.1080/09528820903184872. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09528820903184872?journalCode=ctte20#.Vb5WiK3FpNI.

Sawant, Shukla. 2012. “Instituting Artists’ Collectives: The Bangalore/Bengaluru Experiments with ‘Solidarity Economies.’” Transcultural Studies (1): 122–149.

Veikos, Cathrine. 2005. “The Post-Medium Condition Informational Asset Transfer towards Digital- Material Ingenuity:” 787–794.

Museums and the Web Asia Conference 2015

Content Audit and Digital Strategy for Museums: Insights from the 4th Museums and the Web Asia Conference 2015

Rereeti founder-director Tejshvi Jain was a participant at the recently concluded 4th Museums and the Web Asia Conference 2015, held from October 5 to 8, at Melbourne, Australia. Here, she shares highlights from the pre-conference workshops.

Over the last few weeks we have been looking at barriers to accessibility and the challenge of producing materials, data and content. In some ways, information itself can become a barrier if disseminated at the wrong time, without any context. As Anthony Lincoln rightly points, “The resulting abundance of information has come to be perceived in some circles, paradoxically, as the source of as much productivity loss as gain.”[1] With information being ‘bombarded’ at us every minute, we (the consumers) become selective about the content we want to read. Hence, it is imperative to have a strategy planned for our (museum) content. Is your content fit for the purpose? How is content consumed and prepared? Are we thinking of content or channels of content delivery while we create content? Is our content cycle virtuous or vicious?

Hands-on Content Strategy Workshop’ by Conxa RodàImage: The session on content strategy was facilitated by Conxa Rodà of Museu Nacional d’ Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. Photo courtesy Tejshvi Jain.

As an organization working directly with museums and leveraging their collections as an educational tool, Rereeti has a direct stake in the content generated by museums. The ‘Hands-on Content Strategy Workshop’ by Conxa Rodà, Head of Strategy and Innovation at Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona threw light on the need for online and onsite content audit and the ways to go about it. In the age of information overload, another barrier to accessing relevant content is finding it in the first place. A question applicable to all kinds of content – be it labels, signage, brochures, blog posts, website blogs, updates or social media feeds is whether institutions are merely delivering information to audience, or are we responsible for imparting meaning, analysis and insights as well?

What can be done with content accumulation and content gap analysis are some of the other areas that were discussed. The importance of storytelling in every sector is increasing and this is applicable to museums as well. What’s more, content creation is certainly not the job of one person or even one department: collaboration across different departments, audiences and stakeholders leads to content with many layers and meaning. In museums with a huge staff, this cross-fermenting becomes a challenge, however, small museums, too, fall prey to this. Try asking these questions to yourself and discuss this with your staff:

  • Is your organization effectively communicating, engaging and inspiring visitors through content?
  • Is your organization creating evergreen content that takes into account SEO (search engine optimization), SEM (search engine marketing) and SMM (social media marketing)?

importance of storytellingImage: The importance of storytelling in every sector is increasing and this is applicable to museums as well. Photo courtesy Tejshvi Jain.

Awareness of a museum’s mission and its goals for content development and dissemination across the staff is important. Is there an alignment between the two? Has every department’s opinion been considered? Examples shown, proved that information gathered about audience influences the plans for creation, distribution and promotion of content. Back home, do museums in India have this kind of information? If no, how can we work towards gathering this kind of basic, important data? This kind of data feeds into other areas as well, for instance, the kind of exhibitions the museum should work with, the learning programs to be designed, the public impact, the kind of visitor services required, and interpretation systems best suited for the museum.

The second pre-conference session, ‘Developing a Digital Strategy for Your Organization,’ led by Steven Smith, KPMG Australia kickstarted with an activity that stimulated discussion on what is effective digital strategy? Is it providing a framework for digital services or getting the buy-in of staff on the importance and benefits of digital strategy? Or does it involve identifying and addressing factors critical to the success of digital activities? Key issues that impact digital strategy could depend on anything from the changing ecosystem, customer behavior, to technological advancements, leadership, and all the above.

Think museum shops and the potential to leverage consumer behavior and marry it with those interested in culture, the arts and heritage.

According to a report produced by Sensis in May 2015, India has the highest percentage (40%) of e-commerce sales through mobile. In the next few years this trend is going to increase, with huge VC funding being pumped into startups whose business model is based on e-commerce. How are museums harnessing this mobile-mostly segment and what kind of strategies can it deploy to target (reach out to) users who are quite interested in shopping? How many museums in India engage with their visitors through a smartphone or app? Can museums upgrade themselves with an online and on site shop?

What comprises digital strategy?

Effective digital strategyImage: An effective digital strategy is about transformations and not transition.

Transition is mainly upgrading your technology or staff. However, transformation is about creating something totally new and better from the existing resources. As part of the steps for an effective digital strategy we were made aware of a maturity level worksheet, drafting and action plan worksheets. The maturity level worksheet is further divided into details for governance and leadership, people and culture, capacity and capability, innovation and technology. The one page draft concisely included every relevant detail required for an effective strategy.

Key issues impacting digital strategyImage: Key issues that impact digital strategy could depend on anything from the changing ecosystem, customer behavior, to technological advancements, leadership, and all the above.

The action plan tool helps to identify high-level actions and goals related to developing, implementing and reviewing process on the roll-out of digital strategy for a certain period, say two years. To nail the action plan, a prioritization tool helps in prioritizing potential digital projects on four key criteria: mandatory criteria, benefits, easy to execute and risk. Last not the least, a regular review with feedback incorporated is a step in the right direction.

ReReeti’s blog will shortly complete a year and we will definitely use the content audit tool in our annual review to set the goals for the year ahead. Our digital strategy will be fine-tuned and the learning of the workshop will be incorporated, especially the prioritization action plan. These tools are especially helpful for non-profits that work on limited resources. When we work with museums, we aim to focus on creating evergreen content for our modules and workshops that can will remain relevant in the future as well. We will also align these workshops and modules to the museums larger goals for higher impact as we market them digitally.


About the Author

TJ - profile shotTejshvi Jain is the founding director of Rereeti and worked at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore prior to setting up this non-profit organization. Get in touch with her info@rereeti.org.

Addressing Museum Fatigue: Giving Visitors Breathing Space in the Midst of Exploring

A museum becomes truly accessible not just by addressing physical and social barriers in accessibility, but also by crafting introspective spaces for visitors as they visit galleries, writes Nilofar Shamim Haja.

National Museum of the American IndianImage: National Museum of the American Indian, New York. Photo courtesy Nilofar Haja.

In an earlier post, I spoke about the need for museums in India to transform themselves into inclusive and inviting spaces for visitors who identify themselves across the spectrum of disability. In this post, I would like to address another crucial component of a museum touring experience: museum fatigue. The term is not to be understood literally as “extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion” (although that is something this post will attempt to address) but rather a waning interest or withdrawal from what is on display. In his paper “What is museum fatigue?” researcher Gareth Davey compiles various studies conducted to understand why visitors lose interest as they progress through a museum’s exhibits. He summarizes, “Visitor attributes, the museum setting, and interaction between them, seem to underpin fatigue, and their relative importance differs according to the behavioral changes under investigation.” The term itself was first described by Benjamin Gilman in 1916, credited to have conducted one of the earliest studies on visitor behavior in museums.

“…limited attention capabilities underpin museum fatigue because there is insufficient capacity for attention towards exhibits during later stages of visits (due to the mental effort exerted during initial stages of a visit” – Davey

Museum professionals, including curators, educators and visitor engagement officers, are intuitively aware of this phenomenon. We all know that there’s no stereotypical museum visitor or characteristic museum visiting experience, however, we can ascertain from empirical evidence that depending on whether one is a tourist, a local visitor, traveling singly or in groups, or as part of a guided tour, the experience varies considerably – and so does the degree of enthusiasm, post-visit engagement and repeat visitations. Why is it important for museums and curators to understand this phenomenon? What is at stake here?

National Museum of American History in New YorkImage: Detailed signage provided alongside the jewelry and precious stone artifacts of the Yei people (Native Indian tribe) exhibited at the National Museum of American History in New York, United States. Photo: Nilofar Haja.

Physical Inertia Towards Exploring
Consider two sets of museum visitors: one, a tourist group from outside the city or country and another, a group of children, part of a local school’s annual excursion. If we consider that the tourist group has visited a couple of other monuments, heritage sites and cultural institutions (art galleries, music venues, historical sites) through the day or couple of days, a visit to one or two museums in a matter of hours would induce fatigue in them. They would be mentally and physically drained to be curious beyond the first 20-30 minutes or enjoy the entire building of collections. It would be different for the school children as they are primed to enjoy the outing as a special event that takes place annually and there are no diversions or detours through the day apart from the visit to the museum.

The behavioral changes that categorize fatigued visitors include cruising through galleries, relatively rapid rates of viewing without rest periods, and increased selectivity towards exhibits – Davey.

The above examples focus very specifically on physical exertion and mental fatigue and how that would affect visitor engagement with collections in a museum. Tillie Baker, PA to Director of Learning, V&A Museum, writes a very interesting article highlighting a series of studies conducted by the museum towards understanding museum fatigue and visitor behavior. “Seating and sitting in the V&A: An observational study” (V&A Online Journal Issue No. 3 Spring 2011), Baker highlights extensive research on public spaces, design and people’s behavior to underline the importance of creating spaces that invite engagement (within museums). She writes, “Gehl regards seating as one of the most important provisions in public spaces to encourage lingering, because ‘[o]nly when opportunities for sitting exist can there be stays of any duration. If these opportunities are few or bad, people just walk on by’.”

Art and history of the Native Indian people of America. Featured here, potteryImage: The National Museum of the American Indian collection includes more than 800,000 objects, as well as a photographic archive of 125,000 images. Photo courtesy Nilofar Haja.

My Experience with Fatigue: New York City

As a tourist in New York City this year, I visited several museums and honestly, at the end of each day, I felt exhausted and drained of the desire to reflect on the exhibits and their significance. The experience of a cultural tourist wishing to take in every significant aspect of museums and heritage turned out to be an overwhelming barrage of big exhibitions, colossal collections, vast museum wings with galleries filled with artefacts, inconsistent signage, wayfinding maps, shops, crowded foyers and central halls, and inaccessible navigation. In spite of being armed with a degree in archaeology and art history, and another in museum studies, I found myself ill-equipped to enjoy what the museums had on offer.

“One surprising finding from the V&A study was that very few people appeared to use the seating areas to go online – only one person was observed using a laptop during the course of the study, out of a total of 54 Sitters observed. An area for future consideration in the V&A could be to display the WiFi symbol in seating areas to encourage more visitors to make use of the free internet access provided by the Museum.” – Baker.

What these spaces sorely lacked was an introspective corner, hubs of silence or seating arrangements amidst the various galleries that should have induced me to sit, relax, take in the monumental artworks on display, and perhaps, encourage me to talk, share and discuss my feelings online or with other groups. Somewhere along the line, the visit became more about making it to the museum, rather than about the history of that collection and how that history impacts me, the average, everyday, tourist. Basically, the visit lacked context and perspective for specific groups.

How Can Museums Bypass Fatigue?
Since concerted research hasn’t been carried out around the world’s most visited or popular museums or even among smaller museums that see good footfalls, it’s difficult to ascertain the predominance of the museum fatigue phenomenon. Some museums are champions of visitor engagement (think the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan), with consistently higher rankings in visitor satisfaction and it beats logic to think that these spaces could be considered as fatigue inducers in visitors.

Explanatory signage of the tribes in North, South and Central America at the National Museum of the American IndianImage: Explanatory signage of the tribes in North, South and Central America at the National Museum of the American Indian. Photo Nilofar Haja.  

However, one must concede that visits to the museum are no longer easy-going, leisure affairs, especially for tourists. There’s too much crowd, too many exhibits to check out, shops and merchandise to explore, and interactive apps and guides pinging us to to engage with them. There are bound to overwhelmed visitors who don’t appreciate this excess stimuli.

This is where good design thinking helps. Take for instance the “Highlights Audio Guide” available at almost all major museums today, where visitors are guided through significant collections or artifacts that represent a museum’s overall heritage. This is definitely a step in the right direction towards addressing (not reducing) museum fatigue. Conducting visitor studies for different demography is as important to help museums figure out which groups are  most disengaged and what can be done to specifically get them interested. Budget can also play a vital role in how visitors plan and approach their museum visit. For instance, in my visit to New York, I would have loved to visit the same couple of museums everyday to explore each section at a leisurely pace. But the prohibitive cost of tickets wouldn’t allow me to do so and I had to cram my explorations all within four days. How is the City addressing this roadblock?

Developing appropriate communication objectives is essential for good exhibit designImage: Display of Native American clothes and gear at the National Museum of American History, New York. Photo courtesy Nilofar Haja.

In the case of local residents, they definitely have an advantage in checking out the exhibits at their own pace, through the year, and also by being invited to participate in weekly activities, high-profile exhibition launches and monthly workshops on a range of themes. They have the leeway to tailor or customize their visits as per different criteria. The museum doesn’t have to invest much in engaging with these visitors (although, they too, need engagement through marketing and social media campaigns – never take any of your target audience for granted).

Beverly Serrell believes that developing appropriate communication objectives is essential for good exhibit design and recommends that every exhibit area contains attractive elements and carefully designed labels. Designers should seek ways to capture visitor attention. – Davey, Museum Fatigue.

The Way Ahead

We need to realize that any research into a museum visitor’s psychology is necessarily complex and nuanced, ranging from large-scale (at the global level, taking into consideration visits to all major museums with similar number of footfalls) or area-specific programs (local, regional or estate museums that witness different visitor demography): Observations and inferences cannot be applicable across the spectrum.

What is true for thousands of tourists visiting big museums in New York, London and Paris may not hold weight in the case of locals spending a leisurely evening checking out one wing or section of their local museum and deciding to call it a day after an hour of browsing. The age group, gender, other activities performed in the day, weather, time of the day and season, and so many other factors and variables can lead to differences in experience.

Perhaps the point is not about satisfying every single visitor to the museum. Even if one visitor has ended their visit on a note of wonder and delight, and feels inspired by the museum’s collections and the stories being conveyed, then we would have achieved our mission.

About the Author

Nilofar Haja is Rereeti's communications officerNilofar Shamim Haja is Rereeti’s Communications Officer. She consults with the United Nations-Global Alliance for ICT (UN-GAID) initiated non-profit G3ICT – The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, promoting the rights of persons with disabilities in the digital age. Nilofar has a master’s degree in Ancient Indian History, Culture, and Archaeology from the Mumbai University. She tweets @culture_curate.

Whitney Museum of American Art

Prioritizing Access to Culture on Equal Footing with Education and Employment for Persons with Disabilities

It’s crucial for persons with disabilities to be part of an inclusive society that champions access to culture as equally important as getting a degree, seeking jobs, voting, and traveling writes Nilofar Shamim Haja.

Rereeti’s mission is to provide every museum visitor with a participatory, interactive and delightful experience of engaging with the collections, subject and history of the region. We do this through workshops, training, sensitizing the public by raising awareness, and partnering with cultural and scientific institutions to make their spaces more accessible to all visitors.

By “all” we mean senior citizens, children, people from the rural and small town segments, and most importantly, persons with disabilities. The latter are usually excluded from vast swathes of institutional access across the country, and securing their participation within a cultural setting is often a matter of priority (most times) and lack of awareness. With primary focus normally trained on education and employability (understandable), accessibility to other areas such as culture, arts, sports, and travel is often considered an afterthought.

Access to culture isn’t a zero sum equation where participation in one area of life (education, employment) needs prioritization over another (leisure, arts). There’s no need to choose between art and sustenance, or culture and business: they are all necessary components of making a person whole.

Visitors at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New YorkImage: Visitors at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York. Photo courtesy: Nilofar Shamim Haja.

India’s Responsibility Towards Inclusive Practices
Museums in particular need to transform themselves into inclusive and inviting spaces for visitors who identify themselves across the spectrum of disability. Why? Many of you might be aware that India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), which came into being in 2006 at the United Nations HQ in New York. The Convention follows decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. The Convention is intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension.

In particular, Article 30 of the CRPD mandates “Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport” as a pre-requisite:

States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to take part on an equal basis with others in cultural life, and shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities:

(a) Enjoy access to cultural materials in accessible formats;
(b) Enjoy access to television programmes, films, theatre and other cultural activities, in accessible formats;
(c) Enjoy access to places for cultural performances or services, such as theatres, museums, cinemas, libraries and tourism services, and, as far as possible, enjoy access to monuments and sites of national cultural importance.

What such Conventions and legal mandates do is define the scope and parameter for accessibility that is to be followed by government institutions and services, there by helping set standards for what an inclusive society is expected to function like. For instance, the National Museum in New Delhi “has installed monograms, signs and Braille inscriptions to make objects in the museum blind-friendly. The main passages, ramps, and galleries have also been reworked so that they are barrier-free” (source).

National Museum DelhiImage: In 2011, the National Museum became India’s first to install Braille signage and other accessible cues such as tactile diagrams and replicas for its visually impaired visitors. Photo courtesy Tejshvi Jain.

You may argue about the cost factor and resource intensiveness of implementing a feature for a group that might only comprise a few hundred visitors. But that’s precisely what inclusion underlines: being inclusive as a society necessitates that we take into consideration the needs of the minority, the disenfranchised and those who aren’t privileged in terms of geography (location), access (financial and educational background) and awareness (exposure to institutionalized culture).

In 2014, the Central Public Works Department published a useful reference on increasing access to public spaces and buildings, titled “Handbook on Barrier Free and Accessibility.” While there are no specific mentions of how museums can make their spaces more accessible, design professionals and museum curators can cull out important insights from every chapter. For instance, the chapter on Signage makes a case for the provision of Braille and high-contrast signs (an internationally followed convention). At the same time, readers are also cautioned about normative accessibility features that may need tweaking: Despite the design requirements of tactile guide paths and tactile warning strips to help orient persons with visual impairment, they can sometimes impose hazards to people with limited mobility, children and the elderly.

“A society in which the opportunities are the same for everyone is enriched by the diversity of its active and contributing members. A well-designed environment which is safe, convenient, comfortable, and readily accessible benefits everyone” – Dr Sudhir Krishna, Ministry of Urban Development.

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New YorkImage: Visitors at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York. Photo courtesy Nilofar Shamim Haja.

What Next for Cultural Accessibility?
As a profession, curation and heritage management need to think beyond physical and spatial access and engender debates and discussions on how we could make collections, exhibitions, art works and activities more engaging for visitors of all abilities. The aim is to break down mental barriers among museum staff in what they think they know about visitors with disabilities and their needs. Guided tours, tactile paths, Braille signage, and models of real collections are only the tip of the iceberg in making the collections more accessible.

The real change will begin when we empower persons with disabilities to take the lead and seek their inputs in creating environments that are accessible as per their needs. Visitors of all abilities should be able to access, interact and engage with cultural spaces with the least number of barriers by applying the principles of universal design.

Technology can play a significant role in reducing this gap between ability and accessibility, and we already have hugely successful programs and accommodations in place in the museums across United States, Britain, Europe, and Asia to reach out to for inspiration and collaboration. What stops us is the crippling question of “Do we really need to?” The answer is an unequivocal yes! No physical, emotional or historical barrier should stop you from being inspired by art and history. The same goes for the rest of us.   

About the Author

Nilofar Haja is Rereeti's communications officerNilofar Shamim Haja is Rereeti’s Communications Officer. She consults with the United Nations-Global Alliance for ICT (UN-GAID) initiated non-profit G3ICT – The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs, promoting the rights of persons with disabilities in the digital age. Nilofar has a master’s degree in Ancient Indian History, Culture, and Archaeology from the Mumbai University. She tweets @culture_curate.

Buildings at the waterfront lit up at dusk, Hoai River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Making a Case for House Museums

House museum is the tangible focus for varied meanings and interpretations of historical and contemporary narratives, writes Amareswar Galla.

The concept of a house museum can be contextualised differently depending on the project. There are a diversity of house museums in the world requiring a range of conservation and interpretation strategies. Home and Hearth is an enduring theme for exhibit development in house museums. Often interventions try to locate the microcosm of every day narratives within the broader and mega narratives of museums and heritage places. However, the integration of intangible heritage values in house museum development has rarely been addressed in most parts of the world. Korea and Vietnam provide examples of such holistic safeguarding.

In a recent study of different types of houses and their contents in Hahoe Village, South Korea, I began with several questions.[i] What is the heritage value of house museums in Korean Clan villages? How is the social fabric of the clan village reflected in the architecture, interior design, social coding of both external and internal spaces of different types of houses? How are the spaces between the houses, neighbors and among neighbors delineated? Are the contents adequately researched and addressed in all forms of houses, those that belong to both the Yangban (‘literati’) and so called ‘peasants’? How can we add value to our understanding of clan villages by bringing the fabric of houses and contents, and their associated values together in contemporary Korea?

In assessing heritage values and changing meanings and given the Korean emphasis and movement on complementing the authenticity and integrity of tangible sites with the intangible/living heritage skills, values and traditions, to what extent are Korean heritage houses understood and safeguarded in a holistic manner?

In what ways do domestic and communal rituals, family lineages and kinship relations determine house making and place making, past and present, and illustrate the significance that articulate Korean identity, diversity and community and nation building?

What kind of integrated management and interpretation plans are required to make the house museums economically viable and accessible to multiple publics, especially the younger generations? How are all these questions addressed in the face of rapid industrialization and urbanization in Korea where nearly 90% of the population will soon be living in about 20 cities?

Hahoe Village Heritage HousesImage: At the Hahoe Village, safeguarding historic houses based on integrated management of tangible and intangible heritage elements.

In another study, Hoi An ancient town in Central Vietnam, I found that the very people whose ancestors built the houses in the 18th and 19th Centuries protect them. The district of Hoi An, the ancient Faifo, was also known as Amaravati between the 7th and 12th centuries. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as an ‘outstanding material manifestation of the fusion of cultures over time in an international commercial port’ and as ‘an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Asian trading port’.

In the first decade after the World Heritage inscription, approximately 200 government-owned heritage buildings were restored at a total cost of more than $5 million. The municipal government provided 45% of the total funding, while the national and provincial governments contributing 50%. Donor support accounted for 5%. About 1,125 privately owned heritage buildings were repaired by the owners according to the restoration permits that were issued after the owner submitted the developed a plan and budget. Because the cost of restoration of historic buildings is high relative to the income levels of most of the owners of heritage buildings, the municipal government provided partial subsidy for several private conservation projects. Financial assistance was based on the classification of buildings according to heritage values, its location and the economic situation of its owner.

Buildings at the waterfront lit up at dusk, Hoai River, Hoi An, VietnamImage: Safeguarding and adaptive re-use of historic houses in Bach Dang Street on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An.

Annual investment on the restoration of seriously damaged old houses has helped families with financial hardships to commit themselves to protecting the heritage of the ancient town. The municipal government provided three-year loans without interest. In some cases, the local government purchased privately owned heritage buildings from families who have economic difficulties and want to sell their houses. Following renovation, the previous owners could continue to live in the same place at a reasonable rent. This has prevented outside interests from purchasing the properties and has enabled the residents to remain in their homes. Entrance fees to the Ancient Town contribute to funding these interventions.

Several houses and their contents are conserved in Hoi An. Some of them have been converted into well documented museums. In these places the collections and elements of the houses are interpreted for visitors by the owners or their relatives, thus ensuring a continuity of the family narratives. The Homeowners Association ensures responsible and relevant infrastructure development. Active youth groups enable inter-generational transmission of heritage values. Participation of women at all levels of decision making and in entrepreneurial activities ensures women’s and children’s poverty alleviation. The Hoi An case study is exemplary for bringing together culture, health and well-being where valuing heritage informs all walks of life.

In India protection of house museums is subsumed into the wider conservation efforts. They are rarely given the priority that should be accorded to them and their protection. Threats range from real estate speculation to gentrification from inappropriate interventions. But with the rapid urbanization and loss of significant urban neighborhoods there is an urgent need to focus on house museums as signatures of our localities and lifestyles. One could go on classifying house museums within the incredible diversity in India. But there is in general a poverty of discourse in addressing house museums in India.

ChuttiluImage: Rare example of a dilapidated ‘chuttillu’ used as traditional kitchen at the back of houses in Amaravati.

Having worked in Hoi An and Hahoe, I am advocating for grounded and locally developed pathways for house museums in historic towns such as Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh. The organic historical linkages and relationships between the town and the surrounding stakeholder communities and villages need to be addressed as a priority. It will require quality research on both tangible and intangible heritage.

Investment of resources must assist conservation of monuments and heritage houses and promote heritage-sensitive urban infrastructure development.

Private buildings include houses similar to the ones in Hoi An, such as the ones in the Pujari (temple priest) street next to the medieval temple. It has direct access to both the temple and the River Krishna, a sacred pilgrimage waterfront. Several have been demolished to make way for more recent buildings and those that are still intact are in a state of deterioration. But the latter are rarely occupied as the priests are seeking more comfortable houses elsewhere. There are other buildings that illustrate the special social strata including the Vaishya houses. Then there is the house of the main landlord or Zamindar which is intact with historical photos, furniture and cooking to water utensils. The building of the first ginning mill for cotton in the locality and Victorian style houses of the colonial era are under threat.

Two custodians recollecting 40 years of friendship at the entrance to the main hall in the Zamindar’s house in Amaravati.Image: Two custodians recollecting 40 years of friendship at the entrance to the main hall in the Zamindar’s house in Amaravati.

Amaravati, the ancient Dhanyakataka, once the flourishing capital centre in the formation of Andhradesa in the lower River Krishna Valley has several historic houses on the verge of eradication with the neighboring development of the new capital of AP. Civil society engagement is critical for protecting them.

What is sadly lacking is an understanding of the past drawn from rigorous scholarship, professional engagement and safeguarding intangible heritage elements through the carrier and transmitter communities. This malady is symptomatic of India.

Rabid tourism based on marketing without content development has become the biggest threat to historic houses all over India. We are better off re-reading the wisdom in our own Panchatantra stories. Do people still remember the moral of the story about the goose that laid golden eggs?

Chief priest in front of his dilapidated house in the ancient pujari street dating back to the 18th century.Image: Chief priest in front of his dilapidated house in the ancient pujari street dating back to the 18th century.

[i] Galla, A. (2012) ‘Village on the Winding River: Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong, Republic of Korea,’ and ‘World Heritage in Poverty Alleviation: Hoi An Ancient Town, Vietnam,’ in World Heritage: Benefits Beyond Borders (Ed.) A.Galla, Cambridge University Press and UNESCO Publishing, pp. 230-241; 107-120. (also in French and Korean translations, 2013).

About the Author

Amareswar GallaProfessor Amareswar Galla from India is the founding Executive Director of the International Institute for the Inclusive Museum, Australia and Denmark. Visitwww.inclusivemuseum.org.