For years, Medhavi Gandhi, founder of The Heritage Lab, had been trying to get museums to engage with audiences in novel ways. Last year, museums and galleries, which had been shut temporarily during the pandemic, felt the need to enhance their digital presence. She quickly rolled out a slew of digital campaigns and initiatives in collaboration with key museums and galleries and turned the spotlight on artwork and monuments that have a wealth of history attached to them.
From crosswords and jigsaw puzzles to quizzes, The Heritage Lab, which was founded in 2015, has come up with many interesting ways in the past few months to engage with the arts. Crosswords are centred around specific themes—such as one that dives into the archives of the Partition Museum, home to one of the largest collections of Partition memories in the country.
Then there is ‘Piece Art Masterpieces Together’, a series of jigsaw puzzles created around paintings such as M.F. Husain’s My Childhood in Indore, shared by Archer Art Gallery, Ahmedabad, and Jamini Roy’s The Last Supper.
Famous monuments and heritage buildings also feature on the Museum Mojo page. Unscrambling the colourful doorways of Pritam Niwas Chowk, part of the City Palace, Jaipur, is the perfect way to fuel one’s wanderlust while staying indoors.
Besides creating engaging content, drawing audiences onto the page has been a challenge for Gandhi. Partnering with DAG art gallery and Europeana, a digital platform that works with European archives, libraries and museums, The Heritage Lab led a GIF IT UP Challenge in July 2020. The campaign, which brought 13 high resolution artworks into the public domain, brought a whole new audience to their website. Anyone could access these artworks and use them to create GIFs without fear of copyright infringement.
The campaign made art fun and lively—a Jamini Roy painting of a cat with arresting eyes lent itself perfectly to creative GIFs.
Sumona Chakravarty, deputy director of the Ghare Baire Museum in Kolkata, feels that just like the Starry Night or Mona Lisa, Indian artwork that is integral to South Asia’s history is as arresting and should be a part of our collective imagination.
People from 34 cities participated in the GIF contest. Gandhi says her favourites were Raja Ravi Varma’s Panchakanya GIF created by Sakshi Patki, and a sleepy cat GIF created by Nahida Parveen.
Perhaps the biggest marker of success of the campaign is that 93% of the 235 people surveyed said that they are now keen to see the paintings turned into GIFs in real life.
Gandhi works with museums across India to bring artists hidden from public memory into mainstream conversations. Damyanti Chowla, one of the earliest painters of Indian modern art, has remained relatively obscure till date.
So, The Heritage Lab partnered with the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh, to create a video introducing the artist and highlighting her work and life. This is also part of a larger initiative, Art and Feminism, which Gandhi leads. The objective is to create awareness about the contribution of women to the arts in India.
A 19th-century painting of three princesses from Mysore by Thomas Hickey, highlighted by THL, went on to garner a lot of attention. The painting is a rare example of art being used to create awareness about health and vaccination, in particular. “The information about the painting existed, as did open source books about smallpox vaccination in colonial India but we were the first to publish this,” says Gandhi.
With more museums opening up their collections, The Heritage Lab now has a growing database of paintings and artefacts to work with. “The challenge now is to streamline museum activities. Everyone wants to see immediate results. With digital you’re investing, not in an immediate audience, but in a community-building effort. You have to show up for your audience every single day. While the pandemic has made my work easy, it has also expanded the scope immensely,” says Gandhi.
Chaitali Patel is a Dubai-based travel and culture writer.