Museums that Care

by: Poornima Sardana

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I am an anomaly in my communities in India for I feel at home in museums. As far as I know, most people don’t. I used to wonder,
why? I thus became a museum professional.

After some years of experiments in this space, I haven’t come across astonishing findings, rather I have realized that the answer is simple, humane. Our museums are not institutions that care for people, they do not have a foundation of well-being that could inform their purpose. Hence they do not matter to the diverse public in their daily lives and vice versa. Surprisingly, the very spaces that can value a potter’s terracotta pot as evidence of life or wisdom that once existed, the mundane that breathes today outside their walls, is not extraordinary for museums. Museums lack solidarity with the diversity that continues to exist and grow, they lack solidarity with their well-being. Please do note that I am writing in the context of museums in India, primarily state owned institutions.

Please do note that I am writing in the context of museums in India, primarily state owned institutions.

Since 2016, I have enjoyed disrupting this space, and found meaning in bringing those to museums, who might otherwise not visit; who would not interact and engage with the perspectives they would find in a museum, who might not feel represented, or those who might find these institutions to be emotionally or socially inaccessible. I have relied on playfulness for this purpose and co-founded Museums Mazzedaar Collective to make museums accessible through non intimidating, relevant experiences. Along with the participants I have utilized Science Centre’s archaic graphics on genes, as backdrop for poetry and earnest reflection on racism, hate and power. We brought together intergenerational groups to hunt for clues among steam engines and locomotives at the Rail Museum, to work together with strangers, to laugh and enjoy new information, to co-create knowledge. We had elderly participants actively engaging in improv at the Rashtrapati (President) Bhawan Museum. It was a powerful moment in the Science Centre when young adults reflected through skeletons on body and identity. It was eye opening when through railways we could talk about reach, tribal communities, economic development. In each of these experiences my role has included listening, to include as many narratives and perspectives as possible, to let there be more questions than facts. 

I have relished this letting go of control, and allowing myself to be a humble facilitator, to simply accompany the participants as they perceive and respond to the collections relying on their lived experiences. To neither assume a position of authority, nor seek a definitive narrative, to merely allow entry points, to be in a position of solidarity. I am in solidarity with diversity, and this solidarity thus makes place for as varied programmes as we have communities around us. This approach  has allowed eclectic groups to feel at ease in these museum experiences.

I have also relied on my own vulnerability to connect with collections and cultures as well as with visitors as fellow beings. In 2019, while undergoing chemotherapy, I found refuge in museums. I realized these were perhaps the only spaces where even in silence I was understood; I felt that my experiences were acknowledged through art created years ago in entirely different contexts. Museums made place for my melancholy, they made place for hope as well. I would often spend time at the Crafts Museum, where I would watch the crafts practitioners working with colors, textures, patterns and materials of different kinds. Their deft fingers working with threads or glass or metal, their hands shaping pots, their expressions of deep concentration when painting on canvas or textiles, were cathartic, rhythmic, forgiving and inclusive. My slowness could be embraced here, my desire to understand life better was answered in some of the songs that were being sung, the philosophies that are often carried forward in oral traditions. I was vulnerable and my vulnerability was welcome. That museum had seemed to be in solidarity with my vulnerability, with my need for slowness.

My response to my vulnerability has been my initiative Museums Of Hope, to rethink museums for people and the environment’s well-being. Though it started with programmes serving cancer patients and survivors, it is slowly evolving into a consultancy that looks at well-being through diverse lenses. I have witnessed in a museum, folk musicians bonding with children having vision impairment through instruments and songs. I have heard in museums narratives of trauma over partition and how it continues to impact generations. I have seen women sharing tips on health, pregnancy, sarees and navigating through complex hierarchies in relationships. I have seen children overcoming inhibitions and wondering aloud. I have seen possibilities, each time there has been solidarity with uniqueness, with our plurality. It is not a lot, but I urge my fellow professionals, it is worth the pursuit.

The pandemic has made us all aware of our vulnerabilities. To be in touch with one’s pain and vulnerability opens us to understand that of others, to touch their lives gently, meaningfully. I therefore earnestly hope that this devastating experience of the pandemic, also leads us to the clearer skies of channelizing our own learning into serving a diverse public better. To be aware of what might have caused barriers for a community, pain and exclusion, is a starting point to find ways to build bridges. To open doors, windows, to let people in. It is like making a place in your garden for the wilderness that will complete that ecosystem. To be in solidarity with that wilderness, that honest reality of our existence.

During the second wave of the pandemic in India, we saw an uprising in volunteerism, in a sense of ownership, belonging, community. We were functioning in solidarity with each other’s fear, pain and loss. It makes me wonder, if our cultural institutions can also have the intent to care, to be in solidarity with the well-being of those around us? If we could adopt that spirit of fellowship, then we could be caring institutions and find ways to facilitate meaningful experiences for diverse communities. 

Image by: Erik Tlaseca

Poornima Sardana

India/New Delhi, Museum Consultant and Curator

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