On March 21, among the millions of videos and images posted on Instagram, there was a challenge to mark World Poetry Day. The Heritage Lab uploaded a painting of Zeb-un-Nissa by Abanindranath Tagore and asked its followers to complete a couplet by the Mughal princess-poet in English. The response was heartening.
The challenge was part of The Heritage Lab’s campaign These Mughal Women, in which people are invited through quizzes and contests to share an artwork, an object from a museum or anything they came across related to women in the Mughal court. The idea is to encourage discussion about art found in museums, which ties in with The Heritage Lab’s overarching goal: making museums more accessible and inclusive through social media campaigns, games and activities.
For most Indians, their association with museums ends with that mandatory school trip. But today, there are a handful of organisations – such as The Heritage Lab, ReReeti, Eka, Museums of India, Museums of Ahmedabad – which are trying to ensure that the connect with museums doesn’t peter out after that one trip, but endures long afterwards.
“The Heritage Lab started with the idea that there is not much information about museum objects available even for educators,” said founder Medhavi Gandhi. “I realised that there are people who are interested in understanding art in museums in a simplified manner...but don’t know where they would find [this] information.”
These Mughal Women is one of the many initiatives that The Heritage Lab has undertaken since its inception in 2016. Last year, it hosted the India chapter of the international campaign Ask a Curator, in which curators from Piramal Museum, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya and Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, Partition Museum in Amritsar and the digital museum Sarmaya, among others, responded to queries from the public about art, collections in their museum and their job profile.
On May 18, the International Museum Day, it collaborated with CSMVS in Mumbai and National Museum in Delhi to host photo walks. The participants took pictures inside the two museums and posted it on Instagram, said Gandhi – the prize for the two winners was cameras.
The Heritage Lab is also supporting #ChaloMuseum, a public awareness initiative rolled out by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Later this year, Gandhi will travel to Berlin where, in collaboration with the International Council of Museums, she will develop a digital toolkit for museums in India and Europe to enable better engagement with the public.
Like The Heritage Lab, ReReeti was set up to curate experiences that it hoped would bring families, schools and students to museums. Things did turn out that way. It soon realised that schools are unable to “get students to [do] more than a field-trip kind of a thing,” said Tejshvi Jain, founder of Bengaluru-based ReReeti. So, Jain decided to take museums to students through “travelling exhibitions”.
Its last successful project, called Entrenched, covered aspects of the First World War – including “warfare, weaponry, popular culture” – but in Bengaluru. “We [were] able to reach 15,000 students and adults in different schools,” said Jain, “and change the perception...about not just Bengaluru’s contribution...but also India’s contribution” to the First World War.
A sensorial exhibition, Entrenched involved “two tunnels – there was a play of light and darkness, smoke, sound, which gave a holistic experience to the visitors”. The content, says Jain, was curated with three partner schools. The exhibition won the Best Graduate Project at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and is now being planned for various government schools in Bengaluru.
Though the two-member outfit is yet to break even, it did manage to source “the initial amount” for Entrenched through crowdfunding. “Now we charge schools a small fee to set up the exhibition,” said Jain.
One of ReReeti’s initial projects was at Janapada Loka, a folk museum in Ramanagara, around 50 km from Bengaluru. During the session, it spoke about the traditions of puppetry, focusing on the leather puppets of Karnataka. When the participants were told to work with the puppets and narrate a story, they realised just how tough puppetry is. Though these initial projects weren’t successful, they helped ReReeti identify the direction it needed to take, which would get the common man interested in art.
Understanding the narrative
While The Heritage Lab and ReReeti are working to create a bridge between people and museums, Eka Cultural Resources and Research is trying to ensure that once visitors reach a museum, they feel compelled to stay on and explore its heritage.
Eka operates in the niche field of museum consultancy, and has revamped a few museums and worked on new ones as well. The Delhi-based company offers services such as research, archiving and documentation, programming, outreach, conservation, curation, collections management and publishing. Among the projects it has completed are City Palace Museum, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Amrapali Museum and Anokhi Museum in Jaipur, Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad, and Manjusha Museum in Dharmasthala, Karnataka.
“We started from being a service-based company, where we were helping museums and other organisations in executing services,” said Deepthi Sasidharan, director of Eka. Today, it is “handholding and creating cultural institutions”.
Pramod Kumar KG, who founded Eka in 2009, felt that understanding the narrative of the collection has been the starting point of Eka’s growth. “...some level of our success has been because we are able to interpret the story and present it aesthetically in a more exciting manner for the layperson,” he explained. “If it is a dull dark room, no one wants to be there, but if it is [a] fun room with things well lit up, you get a sense of things, you understand what the larger story is.”
One such successful “story” involves the collection acquired by industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai – who started Arvind Mills in 1931 – which is on display at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad. The 114-year-old mansion that houses the museum was home to the Lalbhai family.
“The client was very clear what they wanted,” said Kumar. “They wanted their private collection to be accessible to people, but also wanted people to see how they saw it and enjoyed it in a home. The second priority was that the members who have lived there in the past, many of them are seniors and are still around, [and] they should still feel a connect...it shouldn’t be a chrome and glass building with no connection [with] where they grew up.” The three buildings in the complex display traditional, modern and contemporary Indian art and the warmth is unmistakable.
One of the underlying objectives of The Heritage Lab, ReReeti and Eka is to get more people to join the museum industry. “People need to know that conservation, curation, restoration and archaeology can be mainstream career choices,” said Gandhi. “We also need to have more scholarship around the collections housed in our museums. A school may not identify with a podcast created by a British Museum, but they will identify with it if it’s created by the National Museum.”