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A museum 'for children, by children'

  • Mumbai’s first children’s museum opens at the CSMVS on March 30
  • The inaugural exhibition has been conceptualised and curated by 25 children. The Children’s Museum is designed by architect Rahul Mehrotra and his firm, RMA Architects

 The new wing for the Children’s Museum on the premises of the CSMVS in Mumbai.
 The new wing for the Children’s Museum on the premises of the CSMVS in Mumbai.

It’s good to see the old and the new in conversation with each other," says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director of the Mumbai-based Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). We are seated in an elegant boardroom within the 97-year-old institution, but Mukherjee’s remark is directed at the youngest addition to the museum premises.

The CSMVS Children’s Museum will open on 30 March, with an inaugural exhibition entirely conceptualized and curated by 25 children. The CSMVS has been preparing for this moment from 2014, probably even earlier, says Mukherjee.

Watching his daughter grow, he felt there was an urgent need to dedicate more spaces to a child’s intellect and creativity. “Children don’t have enough informal cultural spaces where they can be engaged in a creative process. They have swimming pools, playgrounds and schools , but these don’t count as informal spaces. Adults, on the other hand, have everything, there is so much available for them—art galleries, museums, libraries, lectures, theatres and restaurants," he says. Mukherjee approached his friends with the idea of a space “for children, by children", and in 2014, Kaku Nakhate, president and country head at Bank of America Merrill Lynch India, offered to sponsor the Children’s Museum with a funding of 5 crore.

The CSMVS already has a prominent presence in India’s cultural infrastructure and has brought landmark exhibitions to Mumbai, some of which travelled across India and internationally. Most recently, from November 2017 to February 2018, it hosted India And The World: A History In Nine Stories in collaboration with the National Museum in New Delhi and the British Museum in London.

Feeling at home

The pebbled path leading up to the Children’s Museum winds around a grove, and is strewn with fallen mangoes and amla (Indian gooseberry). Mukherjee says this plot used to be a neglected corner of the museum grounds.

The museum has been designed by architect Rahul Mehrotra and his firm RMA Architects, consultants to the CSMVS since the 1990s. RMA Architects designed the museum’s Annex Block and Visitor Centre, envisaging these as contemporary interventions in the heritage, conservation-oriented precinct of the Kala Ghoda and Fort areas.

Mehrotra, who teaches urban planning and design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, says, “The contemporary expression of the Children’s Museum is a reminder of the dynamic nature of the museum as an institution that straddles both its role as a depository of the past and also one that engages with speculating about the future." (see box).

For Mukherjee, who was raised in Santiniketan in West Bengal, the Children’s Museum is a piece of his home-town transported to Mumbai. Two mango trees rise up through the museum’s roof and a young palm tree graces a corner, much like a column. Mehrotra has designed the museum around these permanent residents and created a gallery which will allow for fluid exhibition layouts. Furthermore,Mehrotra’s design uses glass extensively, allowing for an unobstructed view of the world outside. Mukherjee says: “The transparent structure makes you feel you are an integral part of nature. And that’s where the concept of Santiniketan comes about."

Young curators at a mentoring workshop in September.  
Young curators at a mentoring workshop in September.  

Making history fun

This conversation between the old and the new is also between century-old artefacts and a young child. India already has a couple of children’s museums—the Dolls Museum in Delhi and the Nehru Children’s Museum in Kolkata—but these, Mukherjee says, are “static", and need more curation. He points to the CSMVS’ education programme, launched in 2011. It is possibly one of the largest education programmes by a museum in India, catering to 200,000 children annually while emphasizing activity-based learning. The Children’s Museum will be separate from this education programme.

At the museum, child curators are given a free hand with artefacts, reinterpreting them thematically. It is the difference between an “exhibition" and a “curated show", explains Mukherjee. The museum offers an opportunity to truly engage with history beyond textbooks. “This is a playground for children. Here, they can do whatever they want. We take care to not impose on the children. How else will they grow into people with independent thought?" says Mukherjee.

In 2018, the CSMVS conducted a series of workshops for the 25 children (of ages 8-14) who are behind the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Footsteps—Framing The Future. The curatorial team was chosen through an essay and art competition with the theme “My Little Museum: The Museum Of My Dreams", held across 37 schools in Mumbai in 2018. The original art and essays by the curatorial team are currently displayed at the CSMVS’ Premchand Roychand Gallery.

Lounge had reported in September 2018 how the finalists were trained to look at various aspects of curating exhibitions, including writing curatorial notes. In time, the children settled upon 22 objects out of a roster of 300 from the museum’s collection. These objects sit in glass cases in the new museum, with multilingual object notes placed at a child’s eye-level for easier browsing. The objects are sorted by themes chosen by the curators, such as “Friendship" and “Teamwork".

For the “Courage" section, for instance, curators Harsh (class VIII) and Anurag (class III) write about personal experiences that involved acts of courage, like admitting to a teacher that their homework wasn’t finished. In this section, an early 20th century print depicting a fierce Rani of Jhansi, from Pune’s Chitrashala Press, is accompanied by a damascened steel scimitar from the 18th-19th centuries—both obviously indicative of the theme. A charkha (spinning wheel), connoting ahimsa (non-violence) and the swadeshi movement, is also placed here, adding an additional layer to the meaning of courage.

The Children’s Museum also has an amphitheatre and a gardening area, but what really draws attention are the stone benches that circle a veteran fixture—the baobab tree. This is the outdoor storytelling section, which will hopefully follow the larger theme—where the children will speak, and the adults will listen.


Rahul Mehrotra.
Rahul Mehrotra.

‘A light pavilion in a setting of trees’

Rahul Mehrotra, the architect behind Mumbai’s first Children’s Museum, speaks to Lounge about its design. Edited excerpts:

What are the key features of the museum?

The centre is conceived as a light pavilion in a verdant setting of large trees. An outdoor amphitheatre is built into the sectional profile of the structure. Accessed via the amphitheatre staircase, a large terrace deck functions like a tree house, welcoming children and adults alike.

How does the Children’s Museum respond to the architecture of the CSMVS?

This low-key, glass and steel structure is imagined as a gentle introduction for young visitors. The Children’s Museum is a foil and contrast to the large-scale stone Grade 1 Heritage main museum block.

What were the challenges of this project?

An asymmetrical footprint was established by existing setbacks from the street and the adjacent Natural History Society building, resulting in an oddly-shaped site. The other challenge was to integrate the trees on site with a low-key intervention that does not challenge the Grade 1 heritage structure of the CSMVS.

The Children’s Museum opens on 30 March. 

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