Museum of Art & Photography opens to encourage a ‘museum going culture’

STIR interviews Abhishek Poddar on the recent launch of MAP and his vision to present varied forms of Indian art and crafts under one roof.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Jan 20, 2021

“In my opinion, what really makes a museum come alive is good storytelling,” says Abhishek Poddar, Founder, Museum of Art and Photography (MAP). He reminisces the time, about 15 years back when western museums frequently made request to borrow from his art collection for specific curated exhibitions. While it was a matter of pride and satisfaction to be lending significant works from India, Poddar felt the need of museums within the country. And this planted the seed for establishing MAP. The collection is wide ranged and not limited to fine art alone. The holdings have been categorised into six key areas, namely, Modern & Contemporary, Photography, Folk & Tribal, Popular Culture, Textiles, Craft & and Design and Pre-Modern Art. “The idea for our curatorial strategies is centred on interconnected and interdisciplinary narratives, focusing on non-dominant voices. Re-drawing the map, so to speak,” says Poddar when asked how all this fits together.

I speak to him soon after the digital launch of the museum, on the need for a museum, his vision for MAP, and the unique use of technology as an enabler.

Rahul Kumar (RK): MAP’s stated mission is to “take art and culture to the heart of the community, making it accessible to diverse audiences, and to create a museum-going culture that encourages people to experience art and heritage in new ways”. Please elaborate on how this is being envisaged and what are the precise innovative ideas to bring about a cultural change in Indians at large?

Abhishek Poddar (AP): I have been collecting art for the last 35 years and have had the privilege of growing up surrounded by art. One of the reasons for building MAP was to look at how I could help provide this opportunity to others as well. I strongly believe in the capacity for art to change the way in which we view the world and the relevance of museums as agents of positive change.

Our primary mission at MAP is to take art into the heart of the community and this, we hope to achieve through our focussed outreach initiatives and collaborations with institutions, not only in Bengaluru, but all over the world. Our aim is to actively work at reaching new audiences through digital campaigns, curating relevant exhibitions, building international collaborations and commissioning interesting content. Another important element of reaching out to diverse audiences is our recently launched Digital Museum. However, the Digital Museum is just the beginning of what we hope to achieve. The upside of digitising collections and hosting online exhibitions is that it is possible to reach much wider audiences – not just geographically but also linguistically, since content can be made more easily accessible in multiple languages.

In the next few months, we will be working on the translation of our content so that eventually large portions of the site will be available in Hindi and Kannada and we are building for development in terms of human resources and technology. We see the Digital Museum as another site for the museum, in addition to the physical building in Bengaluru. And we see both of them as dynamic places for people to discover and participate in art and culture.

Last Supper by Vivek Vilasini | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Last Supper by Vivek Vilasini Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

For MAP’s physical space, our aim is to provide enriching experiences. Many components come together to build memorable museum experiences: from research, artefacts and display, to interactive programmes and exposure to different perspectives. Technology also plays a significant role at the physical space of the museum, through which we hope to draw in younger audiences and make the museum a space that is interesting rather than a storage of dusty, old relics. We have a holographic installation that will showcase several 3D works from the collection, allow for virtual curated exhibitions, as well as highlight artworks in the collection. We have already scanned around 200 objects in the collection and aim to do about 40 each month. With MAP being in Bengaluru, often called the Silicon Valley of India, we are surrounded by some of the brightest tech-minds in the country and a number of these companies have come forward and as part of their CSR worked with us on developing cutting-edge tech innovations for the art and culture space.

A Meena (tribal) woman decorating the bullock for 'Gordhan' festival by Jyoti Bhatt | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
A Meena (tribal) woman decorating the bullock for 'Gordhan' festival by Jyoti Bhatt Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

RK: The collection includes a very vast range of works from pre-modern, contemporary to pop art at one hand, and tribal and crafts on the other. It comprises objects from the 10th century to what was created yesterday! How does the museum intend to bring about a cohesive presentation of this?

AP: MAP’s collection is perhaps one of the most diverse collections in India currently. The museum's holdings have been categorised into six key areas: Modern & Contemporary, Photography, Folk & Tribal, Popular Culture, Textiles, Craft & Design and Pre-Modern Art. However, at the heart of MAP’s identity is the idea of tracing and mapping relationships between these artistic disciplines – breaking away from older schools of categorisation, and striving instead towards a newer idea of narrative building.

So, in our curation of the collection, we hope to dissolve the borders between different categories or genres of art, and blur the demarcation between ‘high and low’ art. For instance, Indian art forms that emerged from tribal areas have not been recognised as true art forms and sometimes dismissed as ‘lesser’ or ‘outsider’. At MAP we certainly feel the need to give Tribal & Folk its due space and recognition and not just that but also challenge the binaries between ‘tribal’, ‘outsider’ and ‘contemporary’ art. The idea is also to be able to reach out to every section of our audience either in terms of their interests or in terms of a cultural connect. People should be able to enter the museum and feel that some part of their life is reflected here - the engagement is then enhanced. We hope to build a sense of belonging and ownership with the local community.

Woman and Four Horses by MF Husain | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Woman and Four Horses by MF Husain Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

In my opinion, what also really makes a museum come alive is good storytelling. Unlocking the rich histories and narratives of the artefacts for the viewer in a way that surprises and delights is what gives them life. This is why at MAP, we are very keen for audiences to embark on a journey of discovery through our collections, finding unexpected connections, fresh voices and new ideas to engage with.

Untitled (Flight into Egypt) by Jamini Roy| Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Untitled (Flight into Egypt) by Jamini Roy Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

RK: Did you consider other formats to achieve the objectives that are core to MAP, why in your opinion a museum format was necessary for this?

AP: Around 15 years or so ago, I began being approached by museums in the West who wanted to borrow artworks for exhibitions, or who were looking for donations for their collections. And while this was exciting for me, as it showed institutions abroad were looking more seriously at India, it also slightly bothered me. I felt uncomfortable that so much seemed to be happening outside the country, while so few museums shows were happening at home. It also bothered me that even while many Indian museums had great collections they were largely underutilised and sadly mismanaged—mostly due to a lack of funds—and I found myself most looking forward to going to museums, even exhibitions of Indian art, on trips abroad.

Krishna Eating the Fire by Manjit Bawa | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Krishna Eating the Fire by Manjit Bawa Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

I realised I had the opportunity to change things, and it was with this thought in mind, that the idea of MAP was born. I wanted to create a museum to provide a space where people could engage with art in a new and interesting manner; where they could choose to spend an entire day with their families, rather than going to the mall or the cinema. Indians who line up to go to museums abroad shy away in India as museums in the country have unfortunately earned the reputation of being either dry and dull when associated with historical objects or elitist and intimidating when associated with modern and contemporary art. I wanted to change this perception of museums from elitist, repositories of objects, to an inclusive institution and a space of cultural learning and exchange. The only way to do that was to create a new museum.

A museum format was imperative to generate awareness amongst the public about India’s rich artistic and cultural heritage. I also believe strongly in the capacity for art to change the way in which we view the world and the relevance of museums as agents of positive change.

In 2011, I helped establish the Art & Photography Foundation, my very first step in what has been a long, interesting journey – nine years down the line–culminating finally in the opening of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru.

Kabul, Afghanistan by Sebastião Salgado | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Kabul, Afghanistan by Sebastião Salgado Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

RK: In continuation, while there is extensive online and digital presence, does a physical museum limit access?

AP: I don’t think that a physical museum limits access, and MAP’s physical space will not be very different from our Digital Museum. In fact, I see the digital and the physical museum as two parts of a whole, each complementing the other. The pandemic may have changed things irrevocably in certain ways but it has been an incredible learning curve and also facilitated new opportunities of engagement. We have discovered how innovation and flexibility are invaluable to an organisation if we are to stay relevant. Since the virtual space is where the conversation has shifted, MAP has focused its attention on this space for the moment, to connect with its audiences and share its vast collection. The digital platform provides us the opportunity to provide new art experiences taking advantage of its reach and access.

But we do believe that people will always enjoy the warmth of human interaction, the invaluable experience of engaging with an artwork in the flesh and connecting with the museum as a physical experience – and we will be ready for this, when they are.

Hovering Angels by Jayashree Chakravarty | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Hovering Angels by Jayashree Chakravarty Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

Much like the Digital Museum, visitors in an offline or physical museum are also drawn in via the programming; however, the physical museum can also attract visitors who are passers-by and may not know about the museum beforehand. There is perhaps no comparison to viewing, engaging with and experiencing an artwork in person, as opposed to viewing it digitally. Add to that the experience of walking through a specially designed architectural space that can provide the visitor quietude, a space for reflection, and solace from the hustle and bustle of the city. In my opinion, the difference between digital and physical museums lies not in access, but in the experience and with both of MAP’s spaces - physical and digital - we aim to curate new and innovative experiences that will keep our audiences engaged and inspired.

Poster titled Writing Lady | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Poster titled Writing Lady Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

RK: Please share with us the public-private partnership experience of setting up MAP. What aspects are supported by the local government?

AP: One of the primary motivations behind the founding of MAP was the recognition of a real need for private citizens and enterprises to work proactively towards bettering the cultural landscape, instead of waiting for the government to do something. Currently, we are not supported by the government.

Textile label of WM Stirling & Sons, Glasgow depicting two horses with wings | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Textile label of WM Stirling & Sons, Glasgow depicting two horses with wings Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

RK: Lastly, how has the global IT giant, Accenture, helped with the technology for an enhanced visitor experience?

AP: By collaborating with Accenture we have been able to create a unique digital experience to keep our visitors engaged. Through its Tech4Good initiative, Accenture Labs has created a conversational digital persona, the first in the country, by using advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) with human-centred design such as face superimposition and speech synthesis. This will allow visitors at the museum to actually have a lifelike conversation with the digital persona on display.

Natural language understanding, natural language processing, and emotion detection technologies help ensure the conversation between the user and the persona. It also enables the digital persona to be as responsive, expressive, proactive, and adaptive as a real person would be.

One of our objectives is to create a museum-going culture that engages younger generations, as we have much to learn from our shared histories. I strongly believe that a great way for museums to accomplish this is to harness technology to create engaging interactions that enable the user to learn something new and have fun in the process.

Portrait of a Barasingha by Jangarh Singh Shyam | Museum of Art & Photography | STIRworld
Portrait of a Barasingha by Jangarh Singh Shyam Image: Courtesy of Museum of Art & Photography

Museum of Art & Photography launched digitally in December 2020 alongside an extensive virtual programming. The conversations included the likes of Nandita Das, TM Krishna, BN Goswamy, Shahidul Alam, Peter Lee, and more. Video recording of virtual tours and conversations can be viewed here.

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