Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  A new life for museums

At Anandpur Sahib, located in Punjab’s Rupnagar district, work is on at its newest architectural landmark. Delhi-based design consultant Amardeep Behl is confident that the second phase of the Virasat-e-Khalsa museum—a magnum opus on Sikh history from the days before Guru Nanak and up to Partition—will be completed before Diwali. The “living history" museum, as Behl describes it, has no artefacts. It is a technology-driven, handcrafted museum that will offer an immersive experience, complete with film projections, audio guides, motion-sensor technology and large-scale murals and statues made by contemporary artists.

Welcome to the new age of museums. The world over and in India, there is a growing awareness of the need to rethink the role of museums not just as mere repositories of artefacts or art, but as providers of historical context, as storytellers using technology. Architects are working with museum planners, exhibition experts and art historians to determine the look and function of a museum.

The Virasat-e-Khalsa museum’s outer walls are concave-shaped
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The Virasat-e-Khalsa museum’s outer walls are concave-shaped

Growing up in Ujjain in the 1970s, Vandana Prapanna recalls very few trips to museums. They were “boring affairs" in which she would often be told to “stay quiet and not shout", she says. That explains why the senior curator at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai is keen to change things. Prapanna, 50, is part of a core team of curators—which includes Manisha Nene, the assistant director of galleries at the museum—aiding the 94-year-old museum’s efforts to make itself relevant to the city. Part of that involves designing new galleries for the 50,000-strong collection. Last year, they opened one on Indian textiles and costumes. In May, the Himalayan Art gallery was opened after extensive restoration of the collection. The entrance has been designed as a gung pa or a Buddhist temple, complete with a 6ft-tall seated clay statue of the Maitreya Buddha (who represents the future and hope, the belief goes) made by contemporary Ladakhi sculptor Chimmet Rigzin. The gallery houses musical instruments, metal statues of various deities of Vajrayana Buddhism dating back to the 11th century, thangka paintings from the 15th and 17th centuries, and early 20th century archival photographs. Rare photographs of Tibet from the late 1940s, taken by Lee Gautami, are also part of this gallery. “Now, even Tibet does not exist," says CSMVS director Sabyasachi Mukherjee, attesting to the importance of the collection. There is a games corner, where children can make flags using block print.

Artefacts at the Himalayan Art Gallery at CSMVS.
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Artefacts at the Himalayan Art Gallery at CSMVS.

Batul Raaj Mehta, a principal consultant at Lord Cultural Resources (South Asia), a consultancy firm that helps plan museums around the globe, returned to Mumbai from her firm’s London and Toronto office 10 years ago. In 2011, a multidisciplinary and multinational team, including Mehta, began working with the Bihar government to plan the new Bihar Museum on a 14-acre site that would house artefacts from the Patna Museum established in 1917. The first part of the new museum to open was the children’s section, with recreation and interactive exhibits on history, wildlife and archaeology. That was in August. Next year, the other section of the museum, with seven galleries on history, historical art, regional art, and the Bihari diaspora, among other things, is expected to open.

Visitor experience was key from the time the museum was conceptualized. The team held “visioning sessions" in 2011-12 with a government-run hobby centre called Kilkari for underprivileged children in Patna while drawing up a plan for the children’s section of the 500- crore Bihar Museum. “We did a lot of brainstorming and games with them to understand how they would want to encounter history in a museum. One of the children said they would like to enter a black hole to go back in time, so we created some immersive experiences in the gallery," said Mehta, when we met her at her office in Parel, Mumbai. Motion-sensor technology has been employed to help children learn about the different kinds of Gangetic fish; a glass fibre reinforced concrete cave they must clamber through has an audio-visual display unit in which children can make their own cave paintings. Interactive games (like being a spy in the Mauryan period) on touch screens were tested by the Kilkari children for the museum’s opening, to ensure that even those who may not have used this technology before could easily play them. “Children won’t necessarily remember dates, but they may remember incidents," says Mehta.

The team also advised Tokyo-based architectural firm Maki and Associates and Mumbai-based firm Opolis on how to plan the museum. This included giving inputs on the arrangement and size of the galleries, the location of storage and services, coordinates for climate control to protect artefacts, and visitor circulation.

Such sessions with a potential audience are important for two reasons: One, audiences vary in India. Everything from the language of communication to ease of access needs to be factored into the design. And two, there is very little empirical data available on museum visitors in India, so these sessions offer insights that can be built on.

For Behl, founder of Design Habit, which helps conceptualize and design museums, the most important part of a museum experience is the narration of its story. “There is always a story to be told, a message to be imparted. We build an experience around it for the audience to assimilate this easily," he says. Behl and his team worked with Moshe Safdie, a famed Canadian architect of Israeli descent, on the Virasat-e-Khalsa, built with state and Central funds. The first phase, which commemorates the teachings of Guru Nanak and the nine other gurus of Sikhism, opened in 2011.

The museum has no artefacts, and relies on installations and artisanal work commissioned for the two-storey space, with sloping roofs and larger volumes on the upper floor. Among the host of visual and sonic installations is a 50ft-tall one at the entrance—embroidered textiles, inlaid stonework and other craft techniques have been employed to recreate history through artistic representation. Audio guides in English, Punjabi and Hindi offer a narrative replete with poems, songs, and background tracks of war drums. “We have not used technology for technology’s sake, but to bring out the emotion of the stories of Sikh history," says Behl.

Architecturally, the ground on which the Virasat-e-Khalsa is located forms an integral part of the museum. “Given a unique site with promontories and the valley in between, the design grows out of the topography and urban relationships. The valley becomes a water garden. Two wings of the museum are bridged across the valley by a pedestrian bridge. Programme elements relating to the city are clustered on the city side, including an auditorium, a library and changing exhibitions. The narrative historic museum is across the valley, with its own vehicular and pedestrian entrances. The grounds form an integral part of the museum," says Safdie.

One of the more anticipated museum buildings to come up is the new wing of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. The museum won a Unesco Asia-Pacific heritage award of excellence in 2005 after the existing building, which came up in 1872, was restored. In 2014, the management, a public-private partnership of city officials and industrialists, art historians and experts, invited entries from architectural firms around the globe to build a new wing. The winning, New York-based architect Steven Holl’s design is spread over 120,000 sq. ft and incorporates a modern multi-floor building that will house several new galleries, a resource centre, a digital archive and library, a conservation lab, an auditorium and conference rooms, a museum shop and a café . A separate artist residency and workshop have also been designed, along with a garden courtyard. Holl’s design incorporates the use of photovoltaic cells that could power the entire museum, and a rainwater-collecting basin. It also includes a children’s playground.

“Just as the Bhau Daji Lad is an iconic piece of 19th century architecture, this new building will be an iconic one of the 21st century. It goes beyond the functional imperative and blends sculpture with architecture," says Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee of the City Museum. The project, estimated to cost Rs300 crore, is yet to begin.

Last year, the Haryana government announced plans to construct two museums to display the artefacts of the Rakhigarhi excavations—the village located in Hisar district was once part of the Indus Valley civilization, and recent excavations have revealed a treasure trove. It remains to be seen if the winds of change blowing through museums across the world will find their way into the tenders for government projects.

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