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Redefining the idea of the museum at the Bihar Museum Biennale

At the second edition of the Bihar Museum Biennale, experts from across the world will reimagine the museum of the future—one which will be a dynamic interactive space

Detail from 'Untitled' by Bairu Raghuram. Photo: Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad
Detail from 'Untitled' by Bairu Raghuram. Photo: Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad

There seems to be a lot happening in the world of museums these days—from rare displays and opening up of new spaces to a showcase of newer narratives, and, of course, political controversies surrounding collections. While the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is going back in history to put together one of the largest displays of ancient Buddhist art, the Design Museum in London has announced a new exhibition tracing the journey of a contemporary iconic object—the skateboard.

There is also a greater focus on accessibility, as closer home, the Akshaya Kumar Maitreya Heritage Museum at the North Bengal University has introduced Braille script for the visually-impaired visitors. Moreover, museums are no longer being looked at as repositories of art and culture; rather they are paving the way for a dialogue on sustainability and energy conservation within the arts space. For instance, the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, was recently awarded the ISO certificate in recognition of its energy saving practices.

The second edition of the Bihar Museum Biennale hopes to look at a myriad of such developments, and more. “Museums are no longer static colonial buildings full of art, or heritage buildings that house antiquities. In recent times, they have emerged as dynamic spaces,” says art historian Alka Pande, who is the chief curator for the upcoming edition. “Take the Bihar Museum, for instance, which harks back to the original definition of a museum as awunderhaus. There are no demarcations within the space, with contemporary, antiquities and children’s gallery coexisting together. It is an extremely interactive space.”

The four-month-long event will open on 7 August at the museum, which is also the foundation day of this institution dedicated to the history of Bihar, featuring vast collections spanning over 10,000 years. “The museum biennale aims to sensitise the public to the importance and significance of museum culture in India and facilitate an understanding of our culture, building a strong sense of identity, nationhood and the self,” states the curatorial note.

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The upcoming edition of the Bihar Museum Biennale—organised by the Department of Arts, Culture and Youth affairs, Government of Bihar—, hopes to carry forward threads of conversations from its first edition, held in a digital format in 2021 at the height of the pandemic. This is being achieved through two sets of symposia, which will be held between 8-9 August and then between 22-23 August. The first two days include a session on curatorial strategies and displays in museums with Yannick Lintz, president, Musee Guimet, a discussion on the changing creative industry between Pheroza Godrej and Rakhi Sarkar, and a conversation between Stephen Inglis and Pandeabout new museum and typologies. There is also a session on indigenous and intangible cultural heritage with Lars-Christian Koch, director, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany.

'Saraswati', painting on paper, 19th century CE. Courtesy: CSMVS
'Saraswati', painting on paper, 19th century CE. Courtesy: CSMVS

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general,Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), will be present during the second set of symposia, which will focus on museum merchandising and technology. “Both the sets of symposia are about interrogating the idea of the museum, curatorial styles, creative businesses, merchandising, museums of the future and the role of technology,” says Pande, who had served as the project lead for the first edition of the Biennale as well.

Several museums from across the country and abroad are bringing their collections to the Bihar Museum Biennale. For instance, the CSMVS, Mumbai, is showcasing its collection of Thanjavur art, titled ‘Three Dimensions of Divinity’. It traces the journey of the art form, from royal and religious commissions to its decline in the mid-19th century, after being edged out by lithographic prints. The showcase at the Biennale focuses on three aspects of this iconic art form: religion, patronage and modern-day connoisseurs.

“The late 20th century saw a revival for the art form. Pieces were commissioned to adorn people’s homes as a focus for religious expression. Private collections of rare works thrived simultaneously,” states the concept note by the CSMVS. It goes on to state that one of the most prolific private collectors, Kuldip Singh, gathered, restored and provided historical context for 350 pieces. He then bequeathed his entire collection to the trustees of CSMVS in 2019.

The Nepal Art Council, Kathmandu, is bringing 76 works by 70 artists as part of the showcase, titled ‘Where the Deities Reside’, to showcase the country’s syncretic spiritual and cultural environment. “The artworks present from the formless to the primary and myriad incarnations and manifestations of the divine, showcased through traditional and contemporary paintings, straw art, wood and metal statues made using lost wax and repousse techniques, filigree with semi-precious stone inlay, and ceramics,” states the curatorial note by Swosti Rajbhandari Kayastha.

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Visitors can also look forward to an extensive display of contemporary art from the Salar Jung Museum’s collection, showcases from Costa Rica, Panama and Israel, and a show by contemporary artist Tarshito. “All of this will go on till December. From discussion of theoretical frameworks to a physical viewing of the objects, the Biennale features all this and more,” explains Pande.

To coincide with the Biennale, the museum will be opening yet another exhibition—again on its foundation day—-titled ‘Together We Art’. The Bihar Museum is the implementing agency for this contemporary visual arts show, themed around ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam—One Earth, One Family, One Future’, and conceptualised by the G20 Culture Working Group and the Ministry of Culture as part of India’s G20 presidency. “The 20 G20 countries and 9 guest nations are sending a work each, based on the theme. So, you have an installation from Italy, a painting from Egypt, a sculpture from China, and more,” says Pande.

The Bihar Museum Biennale will be held in Patna from 7 August to 31 December, 2023

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