Contrary to my rambles on here and my social media presence, I have not been to many museums. At least, not the way I have wanted to. So I don’t really count the times I have been to Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art, JawaharLal Nehru Planetarium, Venkatappa Art Gallery and Government Museum, Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, Malaysia National Museum, National Textile Museum, Galeri Petronas, The Royal Museum (Old Istana, Negara), Orang Asli Craft Museum, Urbanscapes House, Pinang Peranakan Mansion, George Town World Heritage Incorporated, Penang State Museum and Art Gallery, Batik Museum, National Museum of Cambodia, etc. All right, I have been to museums, but I was not museum literate. Even as I visited these cultural heritage spaces, apart from the natural scepticism for the preservation of the cultural heritage of the region, I felt lacking in truly comprehending the artifacts, the ulterior motives in the information laid out for us visitors. I was a curious child and always felt unsatisfied with the visits.
Now, with the experience of having worked with the National Gallery of Art I now feel more museum “literate”. Is it necessary to want to squeeze out every drop of knowledge from a cultural institution? Of course not, I believe I overwhelm myself very often, and that’s exactly what happened when I visited the outside of the Smithsonian National Museum of National History and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. If I could not eke out and wonder at every exhibit, for an entire day at the very least, what was the point? And even then, what was it I was looking for?
As an insider-outsider in at least 3 fields at this point, I wanted to rationalize the exhibit experience from a visitor perspective. I am also inquisitive about the Indian museum scene. Back in the halcyon (hah) days of Facebook over-usage, I used to keep track of events around the world; literary, cultural, historical, what-have-you. Few of them were museum tours and heritage trails. The Indian Humanities and Social Sciences were a very real career arc possibility I would have pursued wholeheartedly, if it were not for the societal penchant for STEM degrees. No matter, I chiseled my way through to Digital Humanities as the closest alternative and now I was on the hunt for possibilities in Indian museums and socio-cultural-art-historical institutions.
For my project with the NGA on simulating visitor behavior while interacting with art objects I was interested in understanding the process of curation. I began reading Hans Ulrich Obrist’s A Brief History of Curating. Why is a piece of artwork selected and positioned in a specific order? Is the artist’s intention taken into consideration with the curator’s vision? How does the process of curating a virtual exhibit differ from on-site gallery curation?
I had a couple of weeks before the NGA internship was to begin when I found out about Drishyakala Art Museum’ call for applications on co-curating the exhibit on Bengali artist Chittoprosad, in association with Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata. I immediately signed up. I have written about the role of Digital Humanities in Western Art Museums earlier but this was my first foray into the Indian Museum. Not only was I going to get the answer for these questions and learn more of the Indian arts and museum space, I was also going to get a behind-the-scenes view of a major private cultural institution as well. With weekly calls, a group of 8 to 11 of us, The Curious Curatorium, would get cracking on Chittoprosad’s artworks. We had discussions on assigned readings, documentaries from Prague, discussions on his artwork styles, art movements of the pertaining era, the network topology of the art styles, webinars with experts in the topic, and finally a demo exhibit to present on. We divided into two groups to focus on two different sets of artworks based on recurring themes, research questions, titles, subtitles, and focus to bring to light with the virtual exhibition using Google Jamboard.
In one of the meetings I demonstrated the usage of Omeka S as a virtual exhibit, related plugins like n-gram viewer, NeatLine, as well as visualization tools like Knightlab’s Timeline.js, Storymap.js, as well as a quick crash course on various museum tools and software, like content management systems like TMS and PastPerfect Museum Software.
My contribution was to harp on the advantages of virtual mode of art exhibit celebration.
- Detail on Demand (hover-on / annotations)
- Zoom-in to the artworks
- Get more space for backstory text on artworks
- Data will capture trends in interests
- Viral factor
- Spend more time with an artwork
- No need to travel to the artwork
- Wider and global audience reach
- Easier to retain information
- Archived for posterity’s sake
It was an interesting exercise, in that, I learnt to introduce the field itself and communicate Digital Humanities techniques, thought processes, software, with a multidisciplinary audience. My fellow co-curators are students of history, art, art history, music, museum studies, archaeology, graphic design, literature, political sciences, etc. As is the case in many of the (Zoom) meetings I am a part of, I was the only techie student but this time, this time, I was not the only woman person of color, although I believe in an Indian context the inter-sectional requirements have ways to go still. I am grateful for the opportunity and hope to contribute more to the Indian Digital Humanities field, if even to only introduce it to more people.
Personally, I learnt more about India’s political past beyond our school texts and public knowledge visually and critically. I understood the context of artworks outside the mainstream. The international connections between Independence-era India all the way to Prague, Russia, the worlds within the struggle, as well as the scope of activist Indian art outside of newspaper features, before social media, resonating even today.
Online exhibition and events
October 10 to November 15, 2020
Banner Image: Chittoprasad’s Puppets