21st century museum: New experimental labs for cultural connections
By Madhusree Chatterjee, New Delhi, March 4 : The museum of the future is one of connections.
The role of the museum and archives - which have been around for nearly 300 years - is expanding in their scope from conventional repositories and display platforms for arts and culture to a more activity-oriented playground for experimentation and viewers' engagement with a pro-people spotlight.
The entry of private players in the art space is contributing to the change in a significant way.
The transformation is difficult. But nations are gradually reconciling to the opening up of archives and making room for new ones to generate greater intellectual debates that are known to propel culture to more advanced levels in evolved societies with a rich historical lineage.
If the challenge for western museums is to remain connected to the people 20 years after opening up with new state-of-the-art technology, museums in China have begun to detach themselves from the centralised Soviet-style control of the 1990s to carry arts and culture to the people, says Liu Yingjiu, deputy director of Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum.
"China may have got its museums long ago, but till 1990s they were institutionalised bodies. The new private museums of the decade of 2000 are exploring the possibility of defining themselves to society and catering to the people's needs... Something new is happening in China. Museums and archives, especially in cities like Shanghai, are reaching out to include new segments like the older community and villagers," Liu told IANS during a visit here to address a seminar, "The Museum of the 21st century: A Working Model?"
"People tend to suspect that the objective of the private museums, several of which have sprung up in Shanghai, one of China's most active art hubs next to Beijing, is to achieve some measure of commercial gain," Liu said.
This makes the task of a private museum in China even more difficult to "establish itself as a socially-relevant cultural centre, producer and facilitator of quality art and as an education centre", he said, referring to his own institution as an example.
Each institution or space is run by a set of beliefs and goals, said Anupam Poddar, one of the country's leading art collectors and arts promoters, who co-owns the Devi Art Foundation, a niche private art foundation-cum-gallery.
The foundation, which doubles up as a site-specific museum, addresses issues like "changing habitats, popular literature, social unrest and cross-cultural influences in art" through interactive projects, curated walks and outreach programmes with university students serving as guides and curators", Poddar told IANS.
"Our hope at the Devi Art Foundation is to encourage artistic pursuits and excellence without having to play by the rules of selling art or commercial limitations. We usually decide on an art project with our curatorial team based on the idea and concept behind each exhibition," he added.
Poddar said the museum of the future should be one of a vibrant cultural space that is open to new projects and ideas taking shape. "We try to provide that open democratic and creative space for art, culture and community to grow... But it is worthless to compare spaces abroad with spaces in India because the contextual realities are different," Poddar said.
Despite this assertion, a growing universalisation and liberalisation in the idiom of cultural discourses has made people and ground-breaking visions more central to culture spaces globally than before, culture analysts observe.
The debate, they say, hinges on whether the mandates of the museum should be revised to accommodate information change like technology and new media. And with a "global decline in levels of public acquisitions and museum crew, how does the old repository reinvent itself?" asked Barbara London, associate curator of the department of performance art and media at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
"We have been constantly upgrading our collection at the department of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York to keep pace with changing mediums in art and yet continue to relate to people," she added.
London said she works closely with museum library, a conservation team and with new media like light and sound to draw young people to her department of performance art - rather unusual at a museum. The museum has also been working with dementia patients in an art therapy project, "Meet me at MoMA", since 2009 that has been described as a success by the New York School of Medicine.
In 2011, the National Museum in the capital inaugurated the first people's museum in a long-term countrywide project to preserve local culture and popular lifestyles at Mannanam village in Kerala aided by the University Grants Commission.
Sandhini Poddar, an independent curator and art historian associated with the Guggenheim Museum in the US, summed it up well: "Museums in India and around the world must attempt to reopen discussions and dialogues on issues like politics, society and justice to integrate themselves to a much larger eco-system of human society."
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at email@example.com)