But, admittedly, for most visitors to museums in India, especially parents with children to engage and inspire, they can be difficult and unsatisfying places.
Too many objects, too much factual, tangential, even irrelevant, information, too few stories!
The stories that everybody wants. The stories behind, about and around collections that bring them to life. That make you actually see, connect and go oh-kay that’s pretty cool. That make the switch go on. That make you smile, maybe shake your head in wonder. That make you go back to museums, again and again.
Even in the best cases, these stories are usually available only when trained, engaging guides walk you through museum spaces and collections. (Whilst they are getting better, it is no secret that museums in India are nowhere near as responsive to audience interpretation needs as they should be.) Having worked in a museum for the last few years and led innumerable museum tours and workshops, I am exceedingly conscious of how necessary this interpretive avenue continues to be in Indian museums. At the same time, I am also aware of how impossible it is to offer every visitor a guided and personalised museum experience.
So, parents, in an effort to spread my love of museums, I thought it might be useful to offer a few cues to help you explore museums with your children.
I’d almost always suggest a highlights tour where you and your family are able to spend time with a few objects, rather than no time with all. Don’t worry about knowing which particular objects are collection highlights – let your kids pick the objects they are drawn to and would like to see more closely. In any gallery, ask them to point out one object that strikes them at a time. Let them set the pace, move from one object or showcase to the next whenever they are ready. You could carry a notebook and together record your experience – new things you’ve seen, new ideas, stories you made, what you liked best etc.
At the museum I work at, it’s almost always a towering sculpture, a pot inspired by a bird or a gruesome weapon in the central gallery that first catches a young visitor’s eye.
When you’re standing in front of the highlight, really look at it, together.
What kind of object are we looking at? Painting / sculpture / art installation / craft / artefact / model / object of use.
If you’re standing in front of a painting, begin simply by describing it together. Is it colourful / dark / abstract / old / large / mini?
How does the painting make you feel? Confused / happy / uneasy / scared / sad.
What do you like / not like about it? What is happening in the painting? Are there people in it? What are they doing? Imagine if this were a movie you were watching or a video game you were playing – what would you hear? What would happen next? Jump in to the painting and become a participant in its plot!
Pick any one character from the frame that finds / strikes you and together imagine his or her story. Get as creative as you like!
Do you notice anything strange or special about the painting? Is there a signature / is it incomplete / does it have an unusual shape / is it displayed in a different way? What do you think it means?
Spend as much or as little time using these prompts and move on to the next highlight whenever you’re all ready to do so.
If it’s an object this time:
What attracted you to this object or showcase? What do you like about what you see? Is it old / beautiful / colourful / detailed / scary / strange / shiny / smooth / interesting / bright. No answer is wrong but encourage explanations – what is beautiful / interesting about this object?
What material is it made of? Imagine holding it in your hand – how would it feel?
Is it man-made or found in nature? Do you recognise what it is? Is it still in use today? If you can’t recognise it use your imagination! Take turns guessing.
What story could it tell? What could it have been used for and by whom? An adult? A child? Try and build that person’s life together – name, age, how they lived and what they did.
How has it been displayed in the museum? Are there similar objects next to it? Together what could they be telling you?
Why is it in the museum? Can you decide together?
Look at the object again – does it have any special or strange features? Is there an inscription? Does its label give you more information?
If you’ve picked a sculpture for your next highlight:
Do you recognise the sculpture? Describe what you see in turn. Is it old / broken / human / religious?
If the sculpture could talk, what could it tell you? Use your imagination again and strike up a conversation! Maybe you’d learn about its life before it came in to the museum? Where was it earlier and how did it get to the museum?
Is there anything special or strange that you notice? Are there similar sculptures nearby?
Why is it in the museum?
Clearly, I could go on like this! I’ll end here with a few lessons I’ve learned over the last years.
To make a museum visit engaging, stimulating and inspiring all it takes is encouraging critical and creative thinking. Therefore, there are actually no wrong answers and each thought can be used as a stepping stone to thinking more deeply, more imaginatively. The difference between a museum and anywhere else, at home with a book or the internet for instance, is the object in front of you. Spend time really looking at it. You’ll be amazed at what a few extra minutes in front of an object can help you see. Finally, make the leap from what your eyes see to what you can imagine – to stories you and your kids can create. Perhaps you’d like to record these and share them with family and friends?
If you do try these prompts, I’d appreciate any feedback. And of course comments on this post are welcome as always.