Several new ventures are putting the museum online by offering viewers a virtual interactive experience. Which brings us to the question: Are we heading for a digital reset of the museum?
By Reya Mehrotra
Simplicity is an extraordinary trait in Bhuri Bai’s work. The artist, who is from the Bhil Adivasi community, paints traditions and murals in earthy and primary colours, with a certain ‘Bhilness’ to her approach. Her imagination draws inspiration from her roots—her village (Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh) and its flora and fauna—and replicates itself on canvases ranging from walls to paper. It was her art that helped Bai secure a prominent place in an otherwise male-dominated community, making hers a story of strength and courage.
Not surprisingly, when a one-of-a-kind Indian art initiative was to premier, it chose to begin with her work. It’s not just the inclusion of Bai’s art, however, that makes Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) stand out. South India’s first major private art museum, MAP aims to offer viewers both a physical and virtual experience.
Launched digitally (www.map-india.org) on December 5, MAP challenges the traditional idea of a museum by offering a virtual interactive experience to viewers. The parallel physical experience is underway too—in a five-storey facility on Bengaluru’s Kasturba Road, with art galleries, an auditorium, education centre, art and research library, cafe, as well as a conservation and specialised research facility. The space is slated to open some time next year.
Launched at a time when ‘digital’ is the word of the hour, the museum will continue to exist both digitally and physically post the pandemic, too, says Kamini Sawhney, director, MAP. “We see the digital and the physical museums as two parts of a whole… the former will remain post the pandemic and will act as a parallel programming space for MAP to reach out to audiences all over the world. Digitally, wider audiences—geographically and linguistically—can be reached since content can be made more easily accessible in multiple languages,” Sawhney adds.
MAP isn’t the first museum, however, to go digital. Because of the pandemic, many have shifted online. In March, as the world was locked in, Google teamed up with more than 2,000 museums around the world to give people free virtual tours of the spaces through its Google Arts & Culture app. In November, the company Digital Jalebi—which designs interactive installations and software for museums, exhibitions and planetariums—created a first-of-its-kind Digitalised Heritage Museum and Knowledge Centre in Kolkata for people to get a real-life feel and glimpse of Sister Nivedita’s life.
This visible digital shift prompted them to conceive MAP with an online version, too, says Sawhney. “We began looking at how we could engage with our online communities. From interactive digital engagement pieces to taking our Art & Culture lecture series online and enhancing our website to feature more content, we experimented to understand our audiences better,” she says of MAP, the brainchild of MAP Foundation, which was established in 2011 and has founding patrons, including Tata Trusts, Wipro Foundation, Infosys Foundation, Manipal Foundation, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, among others.
Besides Bai, MAP’s opening exhibition also included the works of Suresh Punjabi—monochrome photographs of people in Madhya Pradesh’s Nagda town, captured between 1979 and 1990. A farmer, clad in a white shirt and turban, stares into the lens, as he poses wide-eyed. The exhibition compares Punjabi’s captures with that of his contemporaries in other parts of the world to bring out the evolution of studio photography. Another masterpiece included in the exhibition is Tallur LN’s video work called Interference, which captures the cleaning of a two-century-old carpet that once belonged to Muhammad Mahabat Khan III, the last ruling nawab of the princely state of Junagadh. These exquisite exhibits are part of MAP’s growing collection of 18,000 artworks, from the 10th century to present day, covering categories as varied as photography, folk & tribal art, craft & design, pre-modern art, modern & contemporary and popular culture & textiles. Accenture Labs, through its Tech4Good initiative, has also combined technologies such as AI with human-centered design to create the country’s first conversational digital persona to help visitors have a more engaging experience at MAP.
The digital museum will also offer curated online exhibitions and accompanying programming elements such as panel discussions, workshops for children, masterclasses for adults, etc. There will be articles, blogs and short content as well for people to access. Since the collection is gradually being digitised, a new set of artworks will be made available for researchers, students and art patrons every month. “Our online talks and events programme will continue to run, while our archive of past events and lectures will be available for people to listen to and watch. In the first quarter of the next year, we hope to open the MAP museum store online, which will have a selection of curated and well-designed items,” says Sawhney.
One wonders, however, if going digital eliminates the need for a physical space. “A digital platform has a bigger reach than a physical one and saves cost as well.. so why would one spend on physical spaces when it can be digital? In the coming years, there will be a permanent digital reset,” believes Sravanth Aluru, founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based company Avataar.Me, which empowers digital marketing and commerce experiences using AR. “Even before Covid, digital walk-ins were complimenting physical ones and experiences were being brought in 3D formats in living rooms,” he adds.
Sawhney, however, says a digital museum might not necessarily mean fewer costs. “It might be more true to say that it incurs different costs as compared to a physical building. We allocate budgets towards server space, technology, video content, etc,” she explains.
With a digital museum, content can be made more easily accessible in multiple languages
— Kamini Sawhney, director, Museum of Art and Photography
A digital platform has a bigger reach than a physical one and saves costs as well
— Sravanth Aluru, founder & CEO, Avataar.Me, a Bengaluru-based 3D AI company
Some museums that went digital in 2020
British Museum, London
Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Museum of Art, Sao Paulo
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, Manhattan
National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico