When we talk of museums we think of a large, monolithic and imposing structure where people go to look at objects that stand in mute testimony of the glories of the past. As the cultural data banks of society, museums acted as a bridge between the cultural past and the present contemporary public. As the keepers of the tales of the past, museums tell the stories of societal transformation while preserving the knowledge of cultural origins. Historical assumption compels museums to host objects that represent the historical drama of a time gone by. Being the curators of collective memory, clearly, museums have an important role to play in the social narrative. They thereby need to be reflective of not only the days gone by but also need to resonate with the mind sets of the present, and be capable of providing inspiration – today!
Museums in India were usually institutions that were established during the British Raj and presented the world narrative through the eyes of the colonial powers. But today, museums are not only pipelines to the past but are also spaces that showcase the present culture and its assumptions. Today, there has been a greater democratization of art and culture across the globe and India too, has become an active participant in that movement. The 90’s brought globalization and a change in attitudes worldwide. As our world view changed with the socio-economic and political conditioning of the society, there also came an innate desire to reconnect with the past – but challenges persisted.
The oral stories that spoke of our earliest roots were being lost fast. Documented stories were subject to invasions and amalgamations and were either completely destroyed or reinterpreted. The stories of local histories that contributed so much to the social fabric of the society lay silent. The question then became, how can we truly connect with our past to rediscover our identities when faced with such huge gaps? This is where the museums of today have to fit into this complex narrative.
While museums will almost always continue to be examples of iconic, large civil architectures, museum design today is becoming more flexible, public, and increasingly welcoming. These spaces are aimed at achieving a greater balance between active and more contemplative spaces, accommodating the public, and inspiring greater dialogue between the subject and the viewer without sacrificing the quieter, more traditional museum experience. Self-directed experiences and curated experiences, blending education with recreation, and creating contemplative spaces that provide a layered sensory experience are becoming increasingly common. These are essential ingredients to create truly inspirational museum spaces that help in promoting a deeper understanding of the displays and collections.
Designing museum spaces though has to stem from the perspective of being the bridge between the past and the present. The focus should be on showcasing the stories of the past, but in a manner that establishes their relevance today. The museum thus has to derive its essence from not only the narratives and the journeys of the past that are being showcased but also has to be reflective of the times that we, the viewers, are in. Creating the design has to become a process of analyzing, understanding and finally internalizing the mindsets of the creators of the museum. and finding a defining core personality of the museum that becomes reflective of that mindset.
This provides the three corner stones for the design – the story of the past, the values of the creator, and the message for the present. It is when these three come together that the museum can connect with, and then inspire today’s viewer. As an example, the Gandhi Research Foundation Museum in Jalgaon, Maharashtra looks at the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi but tries to place this admittedly great man in the context of today without painting him as an unapproachable godly figure. The values on display, like eschewing greed, are specifically picked to resonate with the Jain values of the creative force behind the museum.
At Lokusdesign, we approach designing of museums as an opportunity to create experiences that inspire the visitors to do something good for themselves and the society they inhabit, driven by their inherent strengths. We strongly believe that such a bold approach is vital if museums have to stay relevant, and resonant in our age. In the words of Alfred H. Barr Jr., “The historical museum has to be very conservative and careful in its choices. The modern museum, on the other hand, has to be audacious, to take chances. It has to consider the probability that it would be wrong in a good many cases and take the consequences later.”
Museum design is not about creating larger, or more imposing spaces than the other but more about understanding, and then impacting the psychology of the viewer. This comes from aggressive decluttering of the noise that resonates around us. We have to let go of restricting thought processes and metrics that bind us down. The focus should be on creating thought spaces that help in creating a greater understanding of our collective heritage and foster curiosity, dialogue and a certain degree of self-reflection. As Renzo Piano said, “A museum is a place where one should lose one’s head.” It may be time to find ours while designing that museum!
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