by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
The Wunderkammern or the cabinets of curiosities from mid-sixteenth century Europe are perhaps among the earliest models recognisable as museums. While the Library of Alexandria could be considered as another precursor to the contemporary museum, yet by the strictest of parameters, it is more an educational archive than a museum. The Musei Capitolini, widely recognised as the oldest museum, was built by Pope Sixtus IV, who also spearheaded the restoration of the cultural marvel that is the Sistine Chapel and created the Vatican Archives. It was his impressive collection of bronze sculptures which were given to the city of Rome as a gesture of charity through the newly built halls or the Musei Capitolini. These cultural halls built in close proximity to one another, held an ever-expanding collection decorated with artefacts from Roman excavations, from the Vatican, or from acquisitions trips designed especially to grow the museum collection. It was a scaled container of wonder much like the microcosmic universe of the Wunderkammern which was to become popular almost a century and a half later.
The Wunderkammern housed all manners of curiosities and objects of exotic fantasies, these carefully curated collections of specimens, diagrams, illustrations drew from both the rational world and the superstitious world (often the world of unexplained scientific phenomenon). It was perhaps the limitations of scale provided with a ‘cabinet’ of curiosities, the exclusivity of access given only to a select few of the upper class who would be invited to the home of a collector and taken through the hall of spectacle filled with a series of thematic wonder cabinets, which added to the awe-inspiring experience. The greater the show the broader the collector’s education and social learning it would seem. The perfect balance of an accomplished wunderkammern was a collection that showed naturalia (artefacts of the natural world), arteficialia (artefacts of the man-made world) and scientifica (artefacts attesting to the human ability to tame nature through scientific instruments and tools). These were the museums of the past, navigating between access and inaccessibility, between scale, curation, and thematic balance, questions which the contemporary museum continues to investigate.
At the centre of the recent Museum Biennale hosted at the Bihar Museum, was the enquiry into the nature of the museum as an evolving space for incubation and ideation, and as moving beyond their traditional role as repositories of history or static cabinets of scaled wonder. Among the various sessions sparking a much-needed dialogue on museum cultures and on the boundless potential of our evolving museums was an hour-long masterclass on ‘The Museum in the Age of the Internet’, with the digital museum Sarmaya. Interestingly, the name Sarmaya means ‘a collective or shared wealth’, it is in itself a bold declaration of the purpose of the contemporary museum.
Historically the question of accessibility and the idea of ‘a shared wealth’ has been a challenge for museums to achieve or live upto. Here I think we should consider the idea of accessibility beyond the museum going experience to also include representation in terms of who’s cultural history are we depicting, what are the stories we are telling, who are we engaging with and which socio-cultural narrative is given precedence?
In conversation with Paul Abraham, the founder of Sarmaya Art Foundation, I begin to unravel a few of the questions raised here. He explains the museum today as playing a role in collating culture through our collective stories, “The contemporary museum goes beyond the ajaib ghar of the past, the museum today is about storytelling, it is about accessibility, it is about creating a different point of view and it is about going where the people are rather than expecting them to come to us. A museum needs to be a space beyond boundaries, the engagement needs to be ongoing and continuous, especially via the channels that are available and popular among people - our desktops, phones, tablets, etc.”
If there is one glaringly obvious lesson we have learned as a result of the global pandemic, it has been the importance of the digital, which for sometime now has become the only route of connectivity available to us. The museums of the future undoubtedly would have to move to a hybrid model of physical and digital, and yet this opinion has long been subject to divisive viewpoints in the cultural realm. Museum scholars by and large believe that the museum experience benefits significantly from the physical and the sensory exchange of being in the presence of an artefact or a work of art. It is what the Indian aesthetic theory would call the rasa anubhuti.
However much importance we give to the physicality of an intimate interaction with art, one can’t help but see the immense potential for inclusivity that comes with the digital realm and the internet, ranging from the sheer expansiveness of the knowledge-sharing with digital museums, to the storage repository and the archival benefits. “We must not forget that there is another world out there that does not get to come to the museum, if you can access them then that is widening our cultural reach exponentially. Museums are urban-centric, they are not always publicly accessible, this is skewed in some ways to the elite. Another restriction of the physical museum you find everywhere is a restriction on the information shared. Next to an artwork or artefact one finds, but a sixty word description?” questions Pauls, “There is no space for a layered storytelling or for the multitude of perspectives that a cultural narrative naturally holds, this is possible with a digital museum. By 2023, there is an estimate of 450 billion people being connected via social platforms in some form or another, is it not relevant to the museum experience then?”
The Sarmaya model or the digital museum model has understood the importance of online platforms and adopts a leveled storytelling which is curated specifically for them. Whether this is the short form narrative, or the longer form, or a research-intensive account from an expert, and then additional articles, conversations, and more. There is something for everyone and a space built for regional languages providing an in-depth offering of cultural analysis. It is in fact through this form of compelling storytelling that the digital museum attempts to counteract the lack of physicality or the earlier raised question of rasa anubhuti. A simple leather puppet feature on Ramayana, for instance, can open up tales of migration starting from the Greek theatres via Alexander to the gypsy traditions of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, where the chitrakala spread to Andhra, Tamil Nadu, and Odisha. Adding to this is the art traditions of each state, their mythological take on the Ramayana and so on creates the cumulative experience of leather puppets building a microcosmic universe of wonder in itself. It is a better alternative to placing the leather puppet on a wall with a short plaque beside it, it reveals more and it shares more.
Sarmaya has understood a significant part of the puzzle, that is the prime place held by storytelling; in the short-attention span of the contemporary world, compelling storytelling is the currency of engagement. It is how museums draw their audience in, that is no longer possible through an age-old visual tradition alone. It is also perhaps through storytelling that we will be able to increase our representation whether it is a physical museum or a digital one. It is after all the need to share our stories which has always guided the museum experience, yet it is an aspect that is often left half-explored in the curatorial process of museums. It is storytelling which has lead to the rise of family owned and community based museums of eccentricities and oddities such as the Munshi Aziz Bhatt Museum of Central Asian and Kargil Trade Artifacts, or the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, Turkey, or the Museum of Things in Berlin, or closer to home the Neighbourhood Museum of CR Park. Each of these museums addresses a gap in accessibility - the accessibility to stories from the margins, accessibility to a niche historic culture, accessibility to art and culture for small town populous and communities, or to the thematics not traditionally explored in museum curation such as loss, innocence, and desire. Is this after all, what fills the contemporary cabinet of wonders?