Museum Revolution

Opportunities & Challenges in Exhibiting Indian Art: A workshop at CSMVS

In recent years, museums around the world are assuming more responsibility in their roles as cultural and thought leaders. Museums in India are not far behind and constantly experiment with new activities to engage their audiences in meaningful ways. These are positive developments for the sector, and for society at large. But to make these changes stick, there’s an urgent need to nurture museum professionals who work behind the scenes and make it all happen.

To remain competent in a changing cultural landscape, professional development opportunities are the order of the day.

A look into the Programme-Brochure

A recently concluded workshop at Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) offers just that. As part of their ‘Dr Desai Endowment Art History Lecture series’, the curatorial seminar was aimed at museum professionals and Masters students in relevant fields. It gave them an opportunity to learn new perspectives on exhibiting Indian art. We got in touch with a participant to share her experience of the workshop.


A little while back, I stumbled across an interesting workshop advertised on CSMVS’ Twitter handle. It was a three day intensive on the theme ‘Opportunities and Challenges in Exhibiting Indian Art in the 21st century’. Nachiket Chanchani, Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Department of Asian Languages and Culture, University of Michigan, conceptualized and led the programme. It was a paid workshop, open to only 25 participants and offered a discounted price for students.

A little while back, I stumbled across an interesting workshop advertised on CSMVS’ Twitter handle. It was a three day intensive on the theme ‘Opportunities and Challenges in Exhibiting Indian Art in the 21st century’. Nachiket Chanchani, Associate Professor, Department of History of Art and Department of Asian Languages and Culture, University of Michigan, conceptualized and led the programme. It was a paid workshop, open to only 25 participants and offered a discounted price for students.

I thought it was a great opportunity to learn something new and immediately applied. I had to fill out a short form, with questions ranging from interest in topic to professional experience in the sector. While applying, participants were already informed to expect an intense, packed three days. This was understandable because we were attempting to understand a vast complex, subject like Indian art in a very short span of time.

Organised between 15th to 17th February, 2019, my overall impression of the workshop was that it was well-structured and balanced. We had several lectures and group activities and as our final outcome, even put up a small exhibition.

Day 1

We started the day with a stimulating presentation on the history of Indian Art through 20 objects delivered by Professor Chanchani. Using these key objects, he illustrated how art was a rich resource in understanding the historical, technological and cultural development of the subcontinent.

After this, we were shown images of objects from the collection of CSMVS. No supporting information was provided. Thus, only on the basis of instinctive connection and appeal, we were asked to pick three objects we were drawn to. We spent the afternoon at the CSMVS library and investigating its galleries researching the objects we selected. After this preliminary quest for information, day one ended with us sharing our findings as a group.

A participant looking closely the image of an object before selecting it.
Image Credits: CSMVS Museum Mumbai.

Day 2

Day two challenged us to be more reflective. We started with an exercise to look at our chosen objects beyond their materiality or museum label information. This was followed by another presentation on how Indian art had been display of Indian art in the West. Using examples from the US and the UK, Professor Chanchani demonstrated different kind of exhibition strategies- including whether Indian art was contextualised or not. Then, to compare, we also looked at how Indian art was displayed in South Asian museums.

Following this, we were split into groups. We had to work out how objects chosen by members of the group spoke to each other and if any themes could be drawn out from them. The idea was to map a larger narrative which could encompass all the objects chosen.

We conducted focus group sessions with members of the public who were invited to view our object clusters. This feedback gave us an opportunity to review and rearrange our selection based on what appealed to them.

A group brainstorming and discussing the selection of objects, the theme and placement of the images.
Image Credits: CSMVS Museum Mumbai.

Day 3

The third and final day of the workshop focused on museum label writing and exhibiting our objects. The directive was to step away from how museum labels were traditionally written. We were urged to think from the visitors’ point of view. What kind of information would they find interesting? Relevant, thoughtful labels make their experience richer.

We were also taken on a museum walkthrough. With all that we learned from the workshop, we were able to look at the galleries through the lens of a curator- being more critical and discerning about them and how they were displayed.

Towards the end of the day, each group displayed their own object collection. There were five mini exhibits- each curating Indian art but with a different viewpoint. This showed us how there were so many diverse ways of connecting seemingly unrelated objects within the scope of an exhibition.


A participant collecting feedback from visitors after they were done looking at the mock exhibition.
Image Credit Courtesy: CSMVS Museum Mumbai.

Takeaways

Art not for art’s sake

As someone who has studied and is interested in museums, this workshop was a fulfilling experience. One key takeaway for me was the reiteration that traditional modes of displaying objects in museums and galleries needed to be re-examined. Art objects are nuanced, complex and speak to larger contexts such as the history of collecting, development of technology, patronage and form. If this kind of information is also included in the narrative, it provides the visitor with a deeper and more enriching connect with art.  

Stepping into the shoes of a Curator

The workshop provoked us to examine the role of the curator as someone who not only interprets a collection but also needs to constantly ask relevant questions of it. Personally, it was a huge learning listening to the experiences of other participants as well as the Curators from CSMVS and gaining insights into the constraints, challenges and passion of museum professionals in India.

How visitors connect with objects

Another big take away from the mini focus group sessions we conducted. It was interesting and revealing to see how visitors connected with objects when there wasn’t any accompanying information. What visitors ended up enjoying were not ‘key pieces of art’ or the usual masterpieces. It reaffirmed my belief that people come to museums and cultural spaces to make connections and to see themselves reflected in some way to the heritage on display. It is our job as museum professionals to draw on those connections.

The workshop was an intense but exciting space to think deeply about the immense opportunities that exist within the challenges that frame the exhibiting of Indian Art today. You can take a look a the programme brochure here.

Did this story inspire you? If you have participated in similar workshop or interned at a museum, share your experience with us at:
theheritagelab@gmail.com


Avehi Menon is a Museum Consultant and Oral Historian based in Mumbai. Interested in community engagement and the creation of diverse, participatory and immersive museum and archive spaces.

Write A Comment

Pin It
X