The day after #InternationalMuseumDay 2017 is as fitting as any to reflect on the current state and potential futures of #Mumbai’s lesser known, small #museums. For much of the last three weeks, I have been prepping, facilitating and evaluating an intensive summer workshop for undergraduate students, aimed at critically engaging with several of these spaces, histories, collections, and, most significantly, their varied audiences – real/potential, onsite/online.
Our objective in this workshop was to critically evaluate the present position of these smaller city museums – their collections, display systems, use of interpretive media and tools, their public programming and outreach, online presence (if any!) – and then to chart out exciting, imaginative and practical ways forward, in an effort to put these public resources ‘on the map’ for anyone and everyone! Our framework for this evaluation and planning was the latest in the theory and practice of museum interpretation and audience understanding internationally.
Our workshop began with an in-depth online and in person exploration of some of the latest ideas, theories and lessons in museum-audience relationships. Participants shared their specific areas of experience and interest as well as personal challenges and reasons for signing up for the workshop. For most, the concept of interpretive planning was completely new, even daunting, at the start of the week. Over the next four days and six museum visits – from the newest, to the most ‘hidden’ and difficult to access – we discussed, critiqued and, generally, immersed ourselves in the world of Mumbai museums.
Given the right cues and markers to critical museum visiting, and the space, time, encouragement to express their thoughts and give feedback, the participants went from passive, quiet visitors to engaged, confident and critical audiences. Importantly, their critique gradually matured with each experience, tempered by a growing understanding not only of where the museums could aim to reach, but crucially of the many real challenges and obstacles they face. The workshop encouraged building plans that incorporated these challenges, and were not over-simplified, flights of imagination only.
And what fantastic plans they built. From creative themes, catchy names, tag lines and hashtags to recognizing potential communities even I hadn’t imagined, and out-of-the-box communication tools and media, the interpretive plans presented at the final session not only pushed boundaries, but excited us most by how do-able they actually are.
Some museums were received with more joy and inspiration than others. This difference was based on how welcoming, comfortable and engaged the students felt in these spaces. We experienced a wide range of reactions – from special, behind-the-scenes visits, to literally being asked to leave one ‘museum’ for no apparent reason. It has to be said that some museums in Mumbai need to rethink calling themselves as such, given their complete lack of interest in being spaces for engagement, learning – even mere public presence.
That said, despite the distance we have yet to travel, the participants consistently expressed amazement at the diversity of the ‘hidden’ museum resources in the city. Many were spaces and collections that have never seen or heard of before. At the end of the week, they left excited by the vast potential that Mumbai’s Museums of the Future hold.
On my part, I was thrilled that their evaluation sheets indicate that they will never again just passively visit and enjoy museums. My aim always is to make participants even just a little bit more critical and dissatisfied – and therefore demanding of change.