Mona Lisa on his mind
From a Renaissance fixation to a 21st century journey through Buddha's life, niche museums are changing the way we look at art and history
Forty-eight-year-old A.P. Shreethar, a self-taught painter from Chennai, wants to build a Mona Lisa museum one day, a space which will house remakes of one of the most exalted Renaissance paintings. His Mona Lisas will be a diverse bunch—from a camera-wielding tourist seated on a hand-pulled rickshaw to a gaggle of Renaissance beauties posing with actor Kamal Haasan at a costume ball. Shreethar is certain he will have his Mona Lisas displayed in a gallery in Singapore or Dubai by 2019. “When you come to this museum, I will take a picture of you and after 3 hours you can leave with your own personalized Mona Lisa portrait hand-painted by me. I can guarantee there is no such museum like this," says Shreethar, over the phone from Chennai. One could perhaps call Shreethar a maverick museum-maker. In order to realize his passion, he’s already managed to reimagine about 700 La Giocondas since 1999.
Shreethar is also credited with launching India’s first trick art museum, which has 24 quirky paintings with 3D perspectives. Five years ago, when he visited popular trick art museums in Malaysia and Phuket, Thailand, he knew he had to bring the concept to India and immediately set about the task of creating 200 new paintings inspired by popular icons from the world of sports, politics, cinema and art. The first Click Art Museum, at Chennai’s VGP Snow Kingdom, has had over 100,000 visitors since its opening in May 2016. The museum, which allows visitors to go on a selfie overdrive, even has designated spots for the camera-toting visitor to get the best shot. The usual hushed silence of a museum is replaced with raucous laughter and camaraderie as visitors caper about Shreethar’s optical illusions, trying to get an apple from Adam in a Garden of Eden-like painting, hose down a fire-breathing dragon, or fight with Jackie Chan. Each painting is etched in lifelike detail. But Shreethar is quick to point out that this is not a highbrow art gallery, but a space for the common man.
Shreethar is now the proud owner of four Click Art museums, including one each in California and Malaysia, and is working speedily to launch the Delhi outpost next week. “My aim is to have 30 such museums by the end of this month and 100 by the end of 2017," he says.
While there is no dearth of niche museums in the country, with subjects as diverse as costume dolls, toilets and even black magic, they are largely confined to exhibiting their prized objects in glass cabinets. A new set of niche museums has begun to overturn the conventional idea of museums as artefact-driven spaces. By allowing cameras, Shreethar has given a generation obsessed with selfies more interactive access to art.
And he is not the only one playing around with the idea of what it takes to make a museum. Avni Sethi’s Conflictorium, an alternative museum and performance venue dedicated to individuals and their personal histories, is housed in Ahmedabad’s Gool Lodge, which was once an old ramshackle building. The Lodge in the city’s Mirzapur area is the erstwhile home of Bachuben Nagarwala, a Parsi woman who was Ahmedabad’s first trained hairstylist. The museum seeks to introspect on many conflicting polarities through the lens of empathy. “When one mentions conflict, and if you are a museum located in Gujarat, the tendency is to immediately think about 2002, but there is much more than that," says 27-year-old Sethi, who conceptualized Conflictorium as a final dissertation project in 2012 at Bengaluru’s Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.
The kernel of the museum’s appeal lies in this one permanent installation, In This House And In That World. Here, visitors are encouraged to sit in front of a brightly lit mirror in an otherwise dark room filled with glass orbs containing scissors, combs and curlers—objects and tools that Sethi found when she first entered Nagarwala’s decrepit house. Her list of clients had included the well-heeled ladies of Ahmedabad from the 1950s -70s, including the governor’s wife. Local legends regard her as a generous woman who distributed iron tablets to anaemic women in the nearby slums. Before her death at the age of 92, she donated her property to a non-profit.
Sethi’s installation recreates the voice of Nagarwala to narrate the history of Gool Lodge and its neighbourhood. “The building is a kind of framing device for the outside world," says Sethi. Located in the old walled city of Ahmedabad peopled by Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Parsis, the house seems just like the mindful eyes of Dr T.J. Eckleburg from The Great Gatsby,watching over the goings-on in the city.
“When I first started work on this museum in 2012, there were at least 63 state-run museums in Ahmedabad with a footfall as low as 200 in the entire year. And these are massive state-run museums with state narratives. I started thinking of other players who could be engaging with history and history-writing and what is this idea of legitimacy of historical facts," says Sethi.
“Engagement with history is going to have to get decentralized and we have to look at the histories of everyday people," she says. Her Memory Lab project collects testimonies of visitors willing to share stories and objects associated with conflict. These could be anything, like broken bangles from an abusive marriage or an old coin that was once someone’s lucky charm. “Conflictorium relies on building experiences around conflict which don’t need glass boxes or yellow lines," says Sethi, who has seen some 25,000-28,000 visitors troop into her museum over the last four years. Conflictorium celebrated its fourth foundation day on B.R. Ambedkar’s birthday earlier this month.
Pramod Kumar K.G., managing director of museum consultancy company Eka Resources, gives prominent examples of experiments which have expanded the meaning of museums. These include the work of photographer Dayanita Singh in her Museum Bhavan series, which creates a new relationship between publishing and museums. The series features an assemblage of mobile museums which hold and exhibit images from Singh’s oeuvre from the time she started taking pictures in 1981. Museums have also been reimagined as the completely object-less and storyboard-driven Virasat-e-Khalsa museum on Sikh history in Punjab. Similarly, an exhibition held at the National Museum in Delhi in 2013, titled Return Of The Yogini, explained the yogini cult through audio-visual projections and a single 1,100-year-old sculpture of a yogini. “Museums are concept-driven. They are a link to the past, and the past need not be linked only by an object, it can be linked by positioning, contextualization, text, images and sound," says Kumar.
While Click Art and Conflictorium negotiate and upend the notion of museums in smaller spaces, the Indian Musical Experience (IME), a first-of-its kind “experiential" museum, traces the journey of Indian music right from the 2,000-year-old classical traditions of the Natyashastra to the present day. Spread across 2 acres in Bengaluru’s Brigade Millennium, the museum has been in the works since 2009. It has been inspired by the likes of the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle and the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
The IME will finally open its doors in September and feature nine thematic galleries beefed up with digital text-based panels, interactive touchscreens, visual kiosks to watch recorded performances, and virtual instruments on which visitors can mix their own tunes. The museum also plans to have regular concerts in a 100-seater theatre and rooftop amphitheatre.
But even a museum of this scale does not boast of many physical artefacts other than a few rare instruments. Their real treasures include some of the oldest field recordings of Indian music, unreleased concert recordings of Hindustani and Carnatic music maestros, and 50 versions of Vande Mataram released between the 1920s and 2000s.
Manasi Prasad, the project manager and a Carnatic musician herself, is emphatic when she says: “This is not an artefact-driven museum. Ours is a living museum...this whole definition of museums as repositories of ancient objects and dead people is something we don’t believe in...we showcase as many contemporary living artists." The IME, thus, has a gallery dedicated entirely to contemporary Indian rock, world music and Indipop musicians. Prasad adds: “We have taken on the role of a springboard. We will provide a wide range of musical genres that people can experience and understand before exploring it further outside on their own."
Architect Batul Raaj Mehta, who set up the Mumbai office of Lord Cultural Resources, an international chain offering planning services for museums, says the museums of the future will be pegged on creating immersive experiences. But she also appends a note of caution. “Often the facts are lost and a lot of myths are created and enforced while focusing only on design. So it is important to stick to the facts vetted by independent experts or researchers while creating good design."
Even big-budget government museums are slowly expanding the experiential ambit by employing the services of trained museum planners. Mehta is the principal consultant for Bihar Museum, a multi-crore project set to open later this year, where she has combined rare artefacts from the old Patna Museum with sound installations, expert lighting and audio-visual aids to narrate the history of the state. However, the wide historical arc constrains experimentation.
It is in the much smaller Buddha Smriti Park Museum, in Patna, built in 2013 on the site of the colonial-era Bakipur Central Jail, that Mehta fully unspooled her exhibition skills. Here, visitors journey from darkness through a calm space of meditation and introspection and finally emerge into the light (outdoors) to understand the life of Gautam Buddha. “We worked very consciously on creating spaces which evoked the journey rather than using only artefacts and text to describe it. So you walk through some focus-lit dim spaces chronicling episodes from Buddha’s life, created with regional crafts; then you pass through a space which has a large prayer wheel and where Buddhist chants recorded by monks in Bodh Gaya are played, till you reach a cave with a massive Buddha statue and projections of inscriptions from different Buddhist sites and mellow chants. You can sit there and meditate if you like because it is a very calming experience. And then you exit towards the stupa through the ‘hall of light’, which is brightly lit with natural light and has terracotta murals from Buddha’s life after the enlightenment."
The Humayun’s Tomb Museum, touted as the largest museum in Delhi after the National Museum, with a built-up area of 9,000 sq. m, is projected to open in 2018. Built within the tomb complex, it will provide visitors the cultural context of the World Heritage Site and the larger Nizamuddin area. Built by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) on behalf of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and supported by grants from the Union ministry of tourism, it will be the country’s first sunken, or fully underground, museum.
While the museum will showcase objects from ASI’s collection and the National Museum, it will also include “architectural elements from Humayun’s Tomb, physical models and significant digital technology to transmit the legends and myths of the place, of Nizamuddin Auliya and the early Mughals. The museum also has dedicated spaces for craft groups to demonstrate their age-old skills," says Ratish Nanda, AKTC’s chief executive officer.
But smaller museums concretize ideas more forcefully. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum Of Innocence in Istanbul was inspired by his experience of small museums. In a recent piece in the The New York Times Style Magazine, he has been quoted as saying, “It was only in the smaller museums that I was able to find the fragile histories of individual human beings, to experience the pleasures of that depth of meaning that results from the connection between objects and personal dramas and to feel that metaphysical sense of time that museums must be able to convey."
Around the world in 7 museums
1. The Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb, Croatia
Here, ordinary people can donate the material objects left over from a failed love affair or express their deepest regrets in an intimate audio interactive called Confessional. This globally crowd-sourced permanent museum opened its second outpost in Los Angeles last year.
2. The Museum of the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent, Geneva, Switzerland
Newly renovated in 2013, this world-class European museum introduced a new museographic paradigm with its permanent exhibition, ‘The Humanitarian Adventure’. Three thematic spaces stimulate reflection and awareness, building on humanitarian action with minimalist information, light, sound, backdrops, and artworks made by prisoners from around the world.
3. The Museum of Bad Art, Boston, US
Infamous for being anti-art, the museum has defiantly celebrated an artist’s right to fail. This oddball art museum, with three branches in Boston, looks out for paintings which do not posses any artistic merit of the kind approved by galleries.
4. Kunsthaus Graz, Graz, Austria
This cutting-edge art museum built in 2003 in the historic city of Graz, famous for its panoply of traditional architecture, emphatically broke out of the conventional museum mould. The solar-powered building is designed to look like the beating heart of a giant alien or a strange futuristic beast embedded with more than 1,000 fluorescent rings. With an exclusive focus on procuring contemporary art, the museum does not have a permanent collection.
5. Museum for Contraception and Abortion, Vienna, Austria
Abortion is a subject of great taboo in Austria and this museum, built from items donated by researchers, doctors and scientists, depicts “the horrific history of abortion through time and
the absurd beliefs that have surrounded it". Expect the most mind-boggling trivia: from the use of fish bladders and sheep appendices as condoms in the early 19th century to the injection of urine into earthworms to check for pregnancies.
6. Žanis Lipke Memorial Museum, Riga, Latvia
This dimly lit museum, made to resemble a secret bunker, documents the work of Žanis Lipke, the Latvian rescuer of Jews during World War II. It vividly recreates the lives of Jewish families in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Latvia.
7. Museu do Amanhã, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
This neo-futuristic science museum, built at a cost of £40 million (around Rs328 crore), seeks to “editorialize about the near-term need for sustainability" with ideas manifested in giant art installations, films which are sensorial extravaganzas on geological change and digital totems on the anthropocene.