Reflecting on India and the World at CSMVS (Vaidehi Savnal, ITP 2016)

Written by Vaidehi Savnal (ITP 2016), International Engagement Coordinator, CSMVS Mumbai

A Landmark International Exhibition at CSMVS, Mumbai
A collaboration between British Museum, London, CSMVS, Mumbai and National Museum, New Delhi
November 11, 2017 – February 18, 2018

‘The things we make have one supreme quality — they live longer than us. We perish, they survive; we have one life, they have many lives, and in each life, they can mean different things. Which means that while we all have one biography, they have many.’
Neil MacGregor

Objects in conversation: An image of Christ from Goa, India and Ganesha from Java, in the section Picturing the Divine © CSMVS, Mumbai

The idea of the India and the World: A History in Nine Stories exhibition initially was in response to a question posed by Neil MacGregor, then Director, British Museum to Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General, CSMVS. Having successfully concluded the second collaboration between the British Museum and CSMVS — the Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia exhibition in 2014, the question that quite naturally arose was, ‘What next?’ The world was still reeling under the phenomenal A History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition curated by Neil MacGregor which had been travelling to several museums the world over. This would have seemed the next obvious choice, however Sabyasachi Mukherjee in his characteristic style, wanted ‘more’. He wanted something that an Indian audience would be able to relate to and where there would be a larger representation of Indian history in the objects being displayed.

In order to encompass nearly two million years of our shared human history, the exhibition India and the World: A History in Nine Stories presented small groups of objects from key periods, brought together in conversation with each other. The Indian objects were sourced from the collections of CSMVS and other Indian museums and the objects representing the rest of the world were chosen from the collection of the British Museum. The idea was that while similarities can lead to an appreciation of the long and shared histories India has with the rest of the world, differences would demonstrate respect for parallel systems of knowledge, as well as present opportunities to learn something new. The exhibition followed a chronological pattern and discussed the dominant themes emerging at each of these moments in time. The last section questioned the chronological or linear manner adopted while looking at alternative notions of time.

British Museum ITP Workshop Creating museums of world stories 
© CSMVS, Mumbai

In November 2015, CSMVS in collaboration with the British Museum hosted a workshop in Mumbai to mark ten years of the British Museum’s International Training Programme. The theme of the workshop was Creating museums of world stories and was based on the model of the India and the World exhibition. It was attended by forty participants representing over twenty countries. The idea was that the workshop would act as an incubator for global curators to brainstorm and debate around proposals to develop new forms of ‘encyclopedic museums’ that might be created beyond Europe and North America. These museums, or perhaps in the first instance exhibitions, would present familiar local and national histories in the context of global stories.  A legacy of this workshop manifested through a project ideated by some of the participants, including Manisha Nene, Assistant Director, CSMVS where the city of Bristol was selected and Bristol: the bigger picture was planned, which will take the form of an online exhibition.

(L-R) Mr. Neil MacGregor, former Director, British Museum; Mr. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General, CSMVS; Sir Richard Lambert, Chairman, British Museum Board of Trustees and Mr. Hartwig Fischer, Director, British Museum at the CSMVS, Mumbai
© CSMVS, Mumbai

It was at this key juncture that the British Museum had a change in leadership: Neil MacGregor retired and Hartwig Fischer, former Director of the Dresden State Art Collections (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) took over the reins. Hartwig Fischer seamlessly joined Sabyasachi Mukherjee in steering the team. A third partner joined hands with the British Museum and CSMVS at this stage — National Museum, New Delhi. The exhibition, it was decided, would first be on show in Mumbai and would then travel to New Delhi.

Plotting the Line

The team worked over the course of a year engaging in site recces at various museums to assess ‘shortlisted’ artefacts, secure them on loan, gather information about them and photograph them. 28 institutions and three private lenders ultimately joined hands with the three partners in lending artefacts for the exhibition. The process of selecting objects and finalizing loans was a tedious process. The CSMVS had to weave its way through several challenges including AA category artefacts that could not be loaned due to their historical significance, artefacts that were certified as too fragile to travel to Mumbai and other such insurmountable situations. Despite these roadblocks, what emerged at the end however was a seamless narrative supported by several iconic objects, and the loss of certain key objects – rather than retracting the scope of the exhibition – allowed the curatorial team to explore new and emerging narratives that were more relevant to a contemporary audience.

Visitors at CSMVS
© CSMVS, Mumbai

A challenge we face in India is the sheer diversity of the populace visiting the museum. India is made up of speakers of as many as 780 formally recognized languages. As a proverb has it, ‘Every two miles the water changes, every four miles the language’. The exhibition had to engage with various demographics of visitors: those who spoke different languages, varying age groups, and people visiting with differing purposes.

Visitors at CSMVS
© CSMVS, Mumbai

The exhibition was intended then, to be presented in two languages – English and Hindi – which meant that the text was written and edited several times so that both languages would convey the same information while still maintaining a certain relevance to the target audience. An audio-guide, available in English and Marathi was also produced that would allow a visitor to embark on a self-led tour of the exhibition.

While the curatorial teams were at work on the narratives, the CSMVS was a hive of activity. Towards the end of 2016, preparatory work began in the exhibition galleries. Electrical re-wiring of the entire exhibition space was carried out followed by a thorough check and maintenance of the existing HVAC systems. One of the permanent galleries of the Museum was dismantled as was a multipurpose room and a new HVAC system was introduced in these spaces. A structural audit of the building was conducted to ascertain its load-bearing capacities as the object list had several works that weighed between 500 and 1000 kg. Structural reinforcements were added at certain locations for additional support.

The task of transporting the visitor through time in the galleries was ably managed by exhibition designers Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, helmed by leading architects Brinda Somaya and Nandini Sampat and supported by contractors Kaishar Interiors, graphic designer Aurobind Patel and lighting designer Dhruvajyoti Ghose of the Lighting Design Partnership, Sydney. Several meetings were conducted with them to acquaint them with the exhibition and the unique challenges that were a part. The exhibition narrative and object list itself was extremely fluid at this stage and credit is due to all the designers who took this in their stride and supported us through these trying times. The designs prepared for the exhibition space, object display, and lighting were done in careful consultation with the CSMVS and British Museum teams, keeping in mind the safety and conservation regulations pertaining to the objects.

Unicode by the artist L. N. Tallur © CSMVS, Mumbai

The installation process stretched the team in all manners. The Unicode by artist L.N. Tallur from the KNMA collection weighed nearly a ton and its massive size did not allow it to fit through the doors or lift to take it up to its place in the 2nd floor gallery. The object, however, was a very vital part of the narrative and could not be swapped for another. The only way up to the 2nd floor then was from the front of the building. The process began by removing the windows of the corridor outside the gallery.

Lifting Unicode up to the second floor of the Museum using a crane
© CSMVS, Mumbai

On the following day, an industrial crane was brought in and the object still packed in its crate was lifted up to the 2nd floor. It was then pulled in through the building using a pulley system. The crate was then unpacked, and the object installed in the gallery. Once the crate was brought down using the crane, the windows were fitted back. As the 2nd floor corridor was just outside the last exhibition gallery, the exhibition designers had incorporated it into the design and work began the following day to transform it into an interactive space and exhibition merchandise section.

Discourse and Engagement

Hands-on activity Harappan and Egyptian weights and measures in the First Cities section © CSMVS, Mumbai

The exhibition galleries saw a footfall of more than 3000 visitors on most days and to make sure that every visitor found something to engage with, special zones were created in the exhibition space for interactive elements. Each section had a short 2-3 min film where a member of the curatorial team would speak about the section and one of its more intriguing objects. The galleries also had ‘hands-on’ activities for the visitors. In the section First Cities which focused on the earliest townships of India, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the counters had a set of scales with weights and measures where visitors could ‘trade’ goods that were exchanged in these cities. One of the sub-sections in the Empire section was called The Word of the Emperor. Here, visitors could stamp their names onto bookmarks in the ancient Brahmi and Roman scripts. In the State and Faith section that had a display of coins from around the world, visitors could ‘mint’ their own coins with dies that had the image of some of the coins on display. Space was also set aside for a Reading Corner which had a carefully curated set of books for children. A comfortable low seating was created here where parents and children could spend time reading together. Experts were invited to conduct workshops and some of the most popular ones were Cartography, Art Analysis, Script Crypt, Stone Tool Making and Storytelling.

Workshop Script Crypt where children learned about the development of scripts through hands on interaction with replicas of iconic artefacts © CSMVS, Mumbai

The public outreach programme designed by the Museum targets various audiences and focuses on building positive responsive relationships. The set of academic programmes associated with the exhibition India and the World and designed by Ranjit Hoskote, cultural theorist, poet and independent curator, was intended to engage with the spectrum of diverse periods, concerns and artefacts that the project brings together through its nine sections. It was designed to emphasise the key processes of meeting and mingling that form the core of historical evolution. The aim was to convene a diversity of contributors active in the fields of cultural history, museum practice, curatorial engagement, institution-building, architecture and related disciplines – who would act as yet another layer of interface and communication between India and the World and its public across India.

The three key components to the public academic programme were the Keynote Lecture Series, a Special Lecture Series and a set of panel discussions titled The Itinerant Institute. The Itinerant Institute, a newly initiated programme, was the first of its kind developed by the Museum. A series of panels were designed that brought together international and local scholars who discussed their areas of research and scholarship. The panels were themed The Avatars of the Museum, Transcultural Dialogues, The Porous Borders of Antiquity and In the Shade of the Calpataru. These panels took place in various cities around the country in an effort to foster local collaborations, involve various lenders in the exhibition and tap into new audience bases. The academic programme in all engaged with as many as 15,000 people.

Children interacting with the handling collection of the India and the World exhibition on the Museum on Wheels © CSMVS, Mumbai

The Museum on Wheels is a pioneering outreach initiative by CSMVS for the city of Mumbai, carrying travelling exhibitions of the Museum to distant places in a customized air-conditioned bus. The bus is fully equipped with display cases for objects, interactive demo kits, art supplies, audio-visual equipment and digital media such as touch screens and digital tablets to set up exhibitions in semi urban and rural areas. Given the vast scope of the exhibition India and the World and the presence of such a useful tool as the Museum on Wheels, the exhibition was modified to suit the format of the bus which would travel to various locations in and around the city for a period of six months. Key messages of each section of the exhibition were chosen and replicas of the most fascinating objects in the exhibition were commissioned. Between November 2017 and February 2018, the bus travelled to about 30 educational institutions in Mumbai and rural Maharashtra and registered a count of more than 130,000 visitors. It continued to travel with the exhibition until May 2018.

Assessing Recall and Responses

Give the scale of the exhibition and the fact that it set precedents in many ways, we initiated for the first time several new feedback mechanisms. We had a set of observers in the galleries through the course of the exhibition who kept track of visitor demographics, their reactions to various objects, their interactions and helped gather very valuable data. The exhibition, we realized, was most popular amongst children, students and young adults. Local visitors from Mumbai and the nearby cities and towns accounted for about half of the total visitor count. The most popular galleries were Shared Beginnings and First Cities, because they were the first two that one encountered and initiated a sense of wonder in the visitors and curiosity about what lay ahead. The next most popular section was Indian Ocean Traders and the visitors appreciated the stories that the objects told and the beautiful design of the space.

The ‘Post-it wall’ was popular with visitors and served as an excellent means of assessing recall and collecting feedback © CSMVS, Mumbai

A new feedback mechanism we initiated was the ‘Post-it’ wall. Six prompts were put up on a wall at the end of the exhibition where people wrote down their thoughts on post-it notes and stuck them on the wall. The prompts were: My favourite object, My favourite gallery, Something new I learnt today, Something I would like to know more about, A place I would now like to visit and What India and the World means to me. Through the course of the exhibition, we collected about 1500 responses. The interactive gave us a good sense of the pulse of the visitors and served as a valuable mechanism to understand the recall value of what the visitors had experienced in the exhibition. While some visitors used the specific names of the objects they liked, others used descriptions that reflected how much of the interpretation provided to them had made an impact.

The India and the World: A History in Nine Stories exhibition saw a phenomenal response in the thirteen weeks it was open.  More than 200,000 visitors saw the exhibition and about 200 schools and colleges visited the exhibition with their students.

What made three long years of hard work absolutely worth it were the words of encouragement that visitors left us. One of the post-its read, ‘To collect fragments strewn across the world and stitch and fabricate them in time to tell a wondrous story is the beauty of history and a historian. This is what is done in this particular exhibit — looking forward for more.’

This enthusiastic visitor spent all day in the exhibition making sketches of and taking notes about objects she liked. © CSMVS, Mumbai
She had even stuck coins made in the ‘Hands-on’ activity in her journal! © CSMVS, Mumbai

Vaidehi Savnal, CSMVS

One thought on “Reflecting on India and the World at CSMVS (Vaidehi Savnal, ITP 2016)

  1. Wow seems like a very interesting and wonderful exhibition, how i wish I could be part of the audience. Congratulations to you and all who were involved in this exhibition development. Bravo!

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