Thursday, May 12, 2011

Staying Alive- on museums in the city

What is a museum?
‘  A Visitor’s attraction- is the "front porch" of the community, welcoming visitors and giving them an overview of what's special and unique about this place. A Catalyst for change- exists to deliver a message that will encourage people to think differently about their relationship to others or to the world.  Center of creativity-engages visitors in activities where they make and do things. Visitors, rather than the museum, determine the outcomes. Memory bank- displays aspects of the history of a place, person, cultural tradition, etc.  Attic- preserves objects and images that would otherwise have been discarded. Treasure trove- preserves valuable, meaningful, and/or rare and unusual objects and images. Shrine/hall of fame- honors a particular group or individual and assumes visitors have a built-in interest in this topic. Exclusive club-although open to the public, it is primarily aimed at people with special interests in and knowledge of the topic.
Above all it is a Storyteller ‘

‘Whatever the museum's role, staying alive today isn't easy’, says Alice Parman in one of her essays on strategic management and revitalisation of museums. Museums house a history and are themselves part of history. They are story tellers.  However they are also living institutions that must continually cope with the present and imagine how to prepare for the future. With internet and cell phones transforming how people communicate and learn, there are both threats and opportunities present for museums. When in their studios, architects often assert the unassailable timelessness of museums as keepers of the past, and emphasising on the poetry of the built form to make the museum iconic- they often forget that what marks the museum on the map is often not architecture alone. This is also the reason why some museums thrive and some struggle to survive.

With different kinds of museums in India-from museum of archaeology, anthropology, history, modern art to biographical, railway, transport, the state of Gujarat stands second in India in respect of the number of museum. From the government to private organisation, all want to build museums. Some museums are found-like Kocharab Satyagraha Museum, Baroda Museum, Calico museum of Textiles, Tribal Museum; while others were built like Gandhi Smarak Sangralaya, Shreyas Museum. Many more are proposed.  The Ministry of Culture, Government of India has constituted a Panel for identifying and documenting sites associated with Mahatma Gandhi. The proposed Dandi Musuem is one such initiative. Why do we want to build these museums? The Ministry puts it as a view to strengthen the upkeep of our history and conservation for posterity. Ahmedabad houses twenty two of these fifty seven museums in Gujarat.

In this paper we look at the stories of two museums in the city, in terms of its content, context and language (i.e. curator, architect and audience) and try to begin unwinding the intertwined stories of the museum, an institution housing memory in our public culture- intertwined in its built form, in terms of its functional aspects, in a socio-cultural context and many more.

Tied within architecture: Sanskar Kendra
Beating the summer’s heat as one enters one of the first concrete buildings ever built in the city, and designed by none other than Le- Corbusier, the designer of the ever so modern grandiose called Chandigarh. Moreover this visit is to the city’s only City Museum and the Kite Museum. For a Sanskar Kendra, literally translated as the Centre for Culture, one expects a busy bustling building. But it is something far from that. May be it is the summer’s heat which is keeping people away from this institution for cultural exchange. Driving in from a busy road, at the first glance itself at the monolithic exposed brick façade, the building seems introverted. A cultural node of a city, not in dialogue with the city itself? This was apparently the reaction to the city’s heat. So the architect instead of going sub-terranean(or any vernacular architectural solution) opened up the building in its insides to a beautiful, sunny but empty court, with an amorphously shaped, but now dried water feature. “This was the map of what Ahmedabad used to be”, says the self-appointed guide of the museum Chetanbhai, one of the helping staff at museum since the past 10 years.

Standing on 64 pilotis the entire building is lifted from the ground. It was meant to give a sense of floating. However the later additions of the heritage cell and the kite museum near the ramp does not any more do justice to the sense of ‘float’ to the building. But they do add a busy feel to it. In addition to lots of bikes and a few cars parked outside the building that promises some activity upstairs which the ground was devoid of. In midst of the court is a ramp, one of Corbusier’s signatures going up to the museum space with an inscribed granite template at the entrance which marks the entry-with the name embedded on it-Karnavati: Atith ki Jhanki(Ahmedabad: peep into the past). And as we walk up the ramp, one cannot help but admire the subtle monumentality and the style of architecture left behind by one of the avant garde modern architects of our times. Invited by the Sarabhais-one of the movers and shakers of Ahmedabad, to design their house, Le Corbusier was soon commissioned the museum. Located near Sardar Bridge, which is one of the bridges which connect the new city to the old, Sanskar Kendra was aspired and designed as the cultural node of the city – with programmes like centres for Natural History, Anthropology, Archaeology, Open air theatre, library, restaurant and workshop areas along with the present exhibition space. Now the complex is shared only by the Tagore hall, an auditorium. Interestingly Sanskar Kendra is also located opposite the campus of National Institute of design, designed by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai.

Initially the only exhibition that was housed here was the NC Mehta Miniature collection. However owing to neglect, the collection was moved to a newer gallery adjoining the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai museum designed by Ahmedabad’s famous architect- BV Doshi. Lying defunct and neglected for many years, ten years ago this defunct building was revitalised by incorporating the city museum. And a few years later, a kite collector Bhanu Shah decided to exhibit few of his precious collection and thus came about the kite museum, one of its kinds in the world. Another one exists in Tokyo, Japan.  

The City Musuem- Kanavati: Atith ki Jhanki, a peep into the past of Karnavati, (as Ahmedabad was called before) came about. It was architect Yatin Pandya, the Associate Director at Vastu-Shilpa Foundations who spear headed the programme. Along with an advisory board which included the who’s who of art and culture in Ahmedabad, like Amit Ambalal, Piraji Sagara, Esther David, Mallika Sarabhai, Niranjan Bhagat, B V Doshi to name a few. The museum was conceived as an institution to nurture and restore the values, ethos, pride and aspirations of the city and its citizens. It would be an event - an experience that recreated the pulse of the vibrant city of Ahmedabad and its enterprising people. No architectural commentary can be complete without the experience.

As one enters the museum, the first reaction is of confusion. There is no authority to man the desk or guide you. The only people you see, once you have walked up the ramp in the court from the ground floor and reach the entry, are a few guards and the woman in charge of cleaning. Opposite the ramp exactly is a door/window going nowhere. That is where the extension or the connection to the appendage block was meant to be. After filling in a register the time one is entering the museum- 3.40 pm, one realises that he is the third visitor today. A whole array of display objects are exhibited in a seeming order. The aspects depicted are history and antiquity, Gujarati literature , industry and commerce followed by the compartment displaying textile craft, independence struggle, etc- ‘all the characteristics of Ahmedabad’ There is a large section dedicated Contemporary Arts and artists in the city. The mural wall made of traditional wood work and intermittent mirrors where the visitor can see himself in conjunction with old and the new in the backdrop. There were also architectural models of the Mill owners Association building, Sarabhai house, etc.-most of them being CEPT student work, along with drawing panels by the Vastu Shilpa of various important architectural buildings-both old and new, in Ahmedabad. Along with this there was also an old CEPT poster and faded NID panels displaying the various courses they offer!

The building, itself can be seen as an object of display. Also a heritage building, it was also in dire need to be restored. “Ahmedabad is, arguably, the only city in the world after Paris to possess four architectural edifices of the internationally-acclaimed modern master Le Corbusier. Sanskar Kendra, one of them had hardly been maintained and the property had fallen prey to all kinds of encroachments and vandalism. Structure and finishes had eroded due to neglect and abuse” says architect Yatin Pandya in one of his interviews with a local daily, DNA

About the building, there are many- ‘could have happened, but didn’t happen’. However this was the building which inspired his design of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and it shares the same plan and similar elevation features of the Sanskar Kendra. Critics say that both this and Tokyo Museum were in a vague way derived from the pre-war Museum of Unlimited Growth scheme, which orthogonized a spiral to suggest unlimited growth- a good strategy for the sales pitch for museum curators  who always complain of the building being too small for their needs. The proposed/designed appendage buildings could be accessed from the main building by bridges. However these appendages never happened. Another thing that didn't happen was the ‘green’ roof. It was supposed to be a refreshing paradise of water-basins, carpeted with lilies and sending refreshing splashes down into the courtyard pond below. If all that had materialized it would definitely have been some kind of Corbusier version of the Hanging Gardens. However now the roof is a barren wasteland and the courtyard loses all sense of promenade with its ponds empty and traversable.  Versus this, the Tokyo museum is thriving cultural research center.
Why the ambitious project never could completed as Corbusier imagined, or why Sanskar Kendra isn’t the cultural hub of the city of Ahmedabad are interesting areas of investigations. The investigations will reveal stories of what kind of spaces are consumed in the city-where a sari sale in the Sanskar Kendra is more visited than the City museum next door, irrelevance of the fossilised curation of the city to locals or to the tourists-who easily can acquire a peep into Ahmedabad through the internet, faulted bureaucracy-where the directors head the institution as another government job without a literate curator to him, disgruntled locals of the nearby who are not allowed to use the empty premises for their cricket matches and drying of papads, also the scooters and cars parked below belong to the heritage department and the election commission which are now housed here.

Extending beyond architecture: Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya
‘Shoes allowed’ is what the board at the entrance steps to the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya says. An attitude of devotion is expected, since we are visiting the memorial of perhaps India’s most documented political hero, whom Indian history loves to immortalise as someone who has delivered the nation. The Gandhi memorial Museum is a building dedicated to archival material on the Mahatma, sitting within the Satyagraha ashram complex, which was the centre of many of Gandhi’s political and social activities. Situated on the banks of the Sabarmati, the complex no longer functions as a working ashram but as a museum and also houses various institutions whose aim is ‘to preserve and propagate the legacy’ of the Mahatma. There is a sense of pride in every Indian, moreover Gujrati for the fact that Gandhi belonged here. As the museum brochure says with all its attempted humility ‘The Ashram has stood witness too many important happenings, happenings which were instrumental in shaping the Karmavir Mohandas into the Mahatma and the Father of the Nation.’ Either to pay homage, or out of curiosity, more than half a million visit here every year. The space inspires and enlightens.  It is an institution which has connected, with both the tourist and more importantly the Amdavadis.

The space of the Sangrahalaya imitates a kutir, a monastic form of space. Planted in a landscape filled with flower plants, lawns and champa trees, the ground storeyed building generously opens into the landscape. Also in the main lobby areas the pitched roof stands on columns, amplifying the sense of openness. “I want my house to be without walls, so that breeze of different cultures can blow in….”was Gandhi’s famous quote. The architect Charles Correa stays true to it. Made with very modern materials, the form of the building is inspired by the kutirs of an ashram and is designed as cluster around a central court-water body. The shaded, open, airy verandahs are ideal for people who want to escape from the harsh sun of Ahmedabad. Thus we find some taking short naps on the benches in the corridors or sleeping on the cool shaded Kota flooring of the museum. Also there are some Amdavadis who come and sit on steps by the river, couples grabbing sometime for themselves in the lawns, children running around in the garden, some playing cricket near the open aangans of Hriday Kunj. However this did not seem negligence, disrespect or ignorance. It just heightens the idea of a recluse. Even though there is museum of Gandhi at Porbandar and Kocharab, it is Correa’s museum which records the maximum number of footfalls. With a human scale of designing and lot of references from vernacular architecture, is it the architecture which connects? Or is it the philosophy of the Bapu?

The exhibition in the museum begins with this philosophy, the very first kiosk houses - Gandhi’s philosophy and his role in the freedom struggle. The exhibition begins with panel made of handmade paper, showing Gandhi’s probation with Gokhale-one of Gandhi’s key inspirations. Following are panels which tell the viewer- why the ashram was founded, why shifted from Kocharab, Gandhi’s philosophy of ashram life, etc. Thus the philosophy of the Satyagraha Ashram! Familiar words from history like Non-Coperation, Civil Disobedience, Quit India glare at us not just as words, but as evidences with newspaper cuttings, letters sent by leaders to each other, court notices to handwritten draft on the Swadeshi Sabhas. Throughout the exhibition, Gandhi is shown as a principled and righteous person-with panels showing incidences such as accounting his grandchildren’s visit to the ashram, his sister Ralityatben leaving the ashram since she refused to eat along with the Harijans. There were also some interesting panels which show Gandhi and Ba-his wife’s relationship. What was interesting is the little space for critical questioning the exhibition designer had niched out in the form of questions on the panel. Some staring questions were: Did Kasturba prepare women for Satyagraha only to help men? Though depicting only Gandhian philosophy, there was also a historical documentation of our nation or a critique of the society and its customs prevalent in that time.

The next kiosk houses many paintings of Gandhi donated by Chandulal Shah, a wealthy and the next one houses a library and the museum shop where also some publications and mementoes are on sale. Adjoining this is an exhibition mapping Gandhiji’s life-from his childhood to his death with the help of photographs. At the entrance says, ‘my life is my message.’ The rare sepia toned and black and white images of Gandhi build up a narrative of the journey of Mohandas to Mahatma.

The philosophy extends beyond the museum building. Flanking the Sangrhalaya, sharing the courtyards of Hriday Kunj- Gandhiji’s residence and Vinobha Kutir, the old guest houses have been now converted to the working offices of Harijan Sevak Sangh and Manav Sadna. It is interesting to see how the Satyagraha ashram doesn’t work as a space of dead archiving, but is taken forward as the philosophy continues with the help and outreach of these daughter organisations. In 1990, some young volunteers inspired by Gandhian philosophy of love and compassion, began under a tree in the ashram an alternate school for the under privileged children. This now has grown into Manav Sadna which works to empower people from the under privileged communities in Ahmedabad through programs in community building, value-based education, nutrition, health and women empowerment. It has also initiated disaster relief and rehabilitation programs in the aftermath of several natural disasters. It reuses the old spinning and textile units for training its volunteers and conducting their ‘learn to earn’ classes. With a range of people from different cross sections of the society, the serene and beautiful ashram complex is active.

 “In a semiotic sense, museums are 'dead', they are the past, and visitors go to pay homage to the glory of the past. Hence they are serious, severe and sombre. It is a challenge to keep a museum 'alive’. And that can happen only if the discourse that surrounds the subject is alive.” says Dr Seema Khanwalkar, a leading semiotician, on why some museums like the Gandhi ashram are ‘live’ and alive. Gandhi is definitely a living discourse, even in our day to day almost as a mythical hero. The museum thus has the possibility to extend beyond architecture alone, in the shade of the strong organisational system- Gandhi Smarak Trust, which runs the museum and the daughter organisations. Swami Narayan Museum is also one such biographical museum also amplifying a religious doctrine. In these situations the museum becomes ‘one of the functions’-in fact a tangible validation of their philosophy. This is what the City Museum has not been able to tap. As a window of the city, who is the audience? A tourist who is visiting the city? Who already has access to the Internet and travel Bible- Lonely Planet?

 Apart from what they house, museums are also very culture specific phenomena. So would not the act of viewing a museum be also culture specific? Along with the older questions of what to house, how to house, the important concern of many museums is how to stay ‘Alive’. Curatorial courses now look at strategic management as an important part of their course structure. Architects are re-programming museums inserting them into day to day. “Countries have found ways to keep histories and memories alive by experimenting with museum spaces that are not removed from day-to-day life, they are part and parcel of what you do and see. Like in Paris and Germany, the memories of the Holocaust is kept alive through monuments that you see on your daily walk and your daily conversation, or the Louvre is something you experience as you go through your daily routine”, says Dr Khanwalkar.

Google has now launched Virtual Museums. So one can take a tour of the museum, and the physical visit will remain for those enthusiasts who want the tangibility of that experience- of seeing history, of seeing art. The idea of a museum is no longer a physical. What can the pertinent questions be in a context when the museum is not only a part of public culture of global economy and media, but with technology- museums are on the move? How relevant are physical museums as a knowledge centre? Or is this physicality a monument alone?

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