How going digital and increased community engagement helped Indian museums adapt to the new normal

A few museums in India are vying to be something new upon their post-pandemic resumption rather than a diminished version of what they used to be

Open since May 2021, the Kerala Museum, one of the oldest in Kochi, located amid greenery in the heart of Edappally, has become increasingly busy during weekends. “With almost two years of being cooped up indoors, glued to their screens, visitors seem to like the idea of being back in a green, open space, where they can take in the quietude and bring children too,” says Aditi Nayar, the museum’s director.

Things, however, seem how they used to be. COVID had devastating consequences for museums. Footfalls vanished, revenues plunged, and even the well-funded ones had to slash their payroll. But it also has forced museums to rethink their fundamental purpose and identity. ‘What should a museum be in the post-pandemic world?’ is a question that museum directors across the world ponder on.

It has been a few months since museums have reopened in India. Two key things that have helped them adapt to the post-pandemic world are having a strong digital presence and increased community engagement.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum in Mumbai

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya museum in Mumbai
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Digitally stronger

Spread over three buildings with 39 galleries, an in-person tour of the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad takes about half a day. But now, you need not even be in Hyderabad to view its vast collection. As of July this year, the museum has digitised more than 47,000 of its artefacts.

On October 18, it launched an audio-guide app that invites a plug-and-play approach to a more physically-distanced tour. It partnered with Google Arts and Culture to showcase its prominent setup such as the interactive dissection of Raja Ravi Varma’s ‘Disappointed’ and a comprehensive breakdown of ‘Indian Epics in Art’, comprising folk images from the Chitrakathi tradition of Paithan, Maharashtra.

Salar Jung was not the only museum to collaborate with Google Arts and Culture. The Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, for instance, has 12 exhibits. Though MAP’s launch was deferred to 2022, it has been hosting a slew of online events over the last two years.

Indian Music Experience (IME), another museum in Bengaluru, meanwhile, has three online exhibitions on Google Arts and Culture, including one dedicated to the late sitar legend Ravi Shankar on his 100th birth anniversary last year.

Starting from ‘Birdsong’, which will be IME’s first physical exhibition in 2022, every exhibition the museum organises will also be available online, promises its director Manasi Prasad. Exhibitions apart, IME also had classes, concerts, workshops and talks online. Though their online programming started well, the audience for concerts and workshops declined this year, probably due to screen fatigue. Despite this, IME plans to continue its online offerings. “People don’t log into an event while it’s happening. But they watch it later. [These videos] are resources they can refer to whenever they want,” says Manasi.

The following for IME’s social media pages grew by over 50% during the pandemic. Since the pandemic, Manasi says, IME has been increasingly observing and engaging with its online audience. “Whatever exhibits we did were confined to people who visited IME. But the idea of using online platforms to take the content to audiences everywhere is something that we learned during the pandemic.“

The Kerala Museum in Kochi is currently digitising its art collection. The exhibits will go online by the end of January 2022. Descriptions of the original works of art will be available for public viewing, along with curated stories of each of the 200 artworks on display. “As of now, we are exploring a hybrid space, where the physical and the digital meet,” she adds. This is the route all the museums we spoke to seem to be taking.

“All the well-funded museums are strengthening their digital presence. They are shifting most of their exhibitions online. This would not have happened or would have happened very slowly without the pandemic,” says Reena Dewan, the former president of the International Council for Museums (ICOM) India and the director of Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC).

Community and collaboration

Museums are starting to realise the significance of community engagement upon resumption after lockdowns. From being exclusionary spaces involving people from the art community and academia, they are opening up for participation from the public.

IME, for instance, hosted a free open-mic during this year’s Navaratri wherein anyone from the public could perform. This is just a small example of their long-term community engagement plan.

IME has partnered with the British Council to create a series of youth engagement initiatives. The museum has a Youth Advisory Board, wherein teenagers participate in the decision-making. This board advises the museum on how to improve its programming. One of its suggestions, for instance, is to do something on K-Pop.

Adopting art

  • The pandemic was not merely a healthcare crisis. It created a ripple of crises that affected almost everything, including institutions of culture. Due to the financial upheaval it caused, many museums across the world had to sell some of their artworks to take care of the rest of their collections. This list included some of the world’s most renowned museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City (known as ‘the Met’).
  • But the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai came up with an idea to preserve their collection during a precarious time. The museum, which turns 100 next year, announced the ‘Adopt a Museum Artefact’ initiative, wherein people could adopt its centuries-old artefacts. The adopters’ names were displayed near their respective artefacts and at the museum’s entrance.
  • “Hundreds of Mumbaikars and some from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and Delhi came forward to support this initiative. They helped us raise Rs 5 crore,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the director general of CSMVS, who headed this initiative. “When I shared this story with my foreign colleagues, they were pleasantly surprised to know that this was successful.”

As a part of its Project Svaritha, IME introduces its vast music resources to children with neurodiverse needs and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Its Future Museum Professionals Internship program trains six interns in curation, design, and development of an online platform. “The idea is just to make the space more inclusive,” says Manasi.

The Kerala government is promoting a movement to make museums function as interactive spaces for the youth. Keralam Museum, an organisation formed to build and modernise museums, has realised 11 of the 31 projects it initiated. “While well-funded museums, state- and private-owned, are burgeoning their digital presence and implementing community outreach plans, many small museums struggle for survival, says Reena.

This is where collaborations helped. During the World Heritage Week between November 19 to 25, for instance, KCC in collaboration with Paschimbanga Sangrahalaya Samiti organised the Cluster of Museums Exhibitions. The programme aimed to reimagine the future of museums through discussions, exhibitions, performances, workshops and film screenings over the week. “We invited 16 museums from Bengal, including the small ones. Usually, these small autonomous museums are reluctant to be a part of such events. But thanks to COVID, they were more open to collaboration and networking,” adds Reena, “And it created a ripple effect. Now, people in Gujarat and Jammu University also want to host these kinds of events involving the smaller museums.”

Museums are no more mere spaces for exhibition and performance. As they adapt to the new normal, they find it necessary to talk to the community and talk to each other. The pandemic has also nudged people to look at these cultural spaces with renewed appreciation. Despite the slow recovery in revenue, the museum directors we spoke to said people’s need to experience art and culture in a physical space has only increased.

Culture is as important as health,” says Sabyasachi. “If you ignore culture, you are ignoring a significant part of being human. Because culture is what injects sense and sensibilities within a person.”

(With inputs from Divya Kala Bhavani and Anasuya Menon)

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