Preserving the past: How museums are adapting to the forces of conflict and technology

If you've had a chance to look around a bit lately, you might have realised the world is not in the best shape right now. From the ever-widening socioeconomic gap to the unstable political dynamics to the never-ending wars and subsequent refugee crisis to climate change, things are far from ideal even from an optimist's outlook. In other words, there are far more pressing issues which demand our dedicated attention and actions with urgency, because it might just be a matter of time before you feel the repercussions of these global tosses and turns at your doorstep in one form or the other.

Bleeding arts

So, amid such monumental shifts, what role does a museum play in a society? Are they even relevant in times of conflict? Do we often overstate the impact an artist can make is such times? How important is it to preserve cultures and traditions as millions leave their homes and migrate?

During the just-concluded 8th Tata Literature Live Mumbai Litfest, a panel comprising Glenn Lowry (director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1995), Homi K Bhabha (professor of Humanities at Harvard University) and Matthew Teitelbaum (director of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts), discussed exactly the above mentioned questions.

One could argue, looking at their designations or where they come from, their arguments would be one-sided and reflection of the social bubble they operate in. True, perhaps. But at the same time, their opinions come from a quite an informed place and decades of experience. Here is the crux of what was said:

In times of conflict (in all definitions and understandings of the word), art shows us the truth. An artist leads the way in our understanding of the truth. A museum is where it all comes together.

Artists, by some inherent trait, resist the power that be. More specifically, the power that suppresses. The reaction to such a resistance by the ones in power says a lot about the art’s place in a society. People take notice when artists are suppressed, when museum funds are slashed, when art is censored.

 Preserving the past: How museums are adapting to the forces of conflict and technology

Museums exist to remind people of their place in the world and preserve cultural heritage. REUTERS

Institutions, museums more specifically here, exist to remind people of their place in the world and preserve cultural heritage. Museums invite people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to come together and learn about cultures, some of which might be on the brink of extinction. They ignite a curiosity among people, and once they find themselves inside a museum, hopefully, give them hope for a better world. The life of the mind is vibrant, one looks at art and sees the possibility of what one can strive to be or what the world can be. Art resonates with human beings, especially during conflicts. And conflicts, more often than not, inspire great art.

Much can be said about what governments, or museums by themselves, can and should do to make their platforms for accessible and more inviting to the masses. Museums are one of those places where all must feel invited and engaged if they are to really fulfill their purpose. It is also important for the museums to understand the undercurrents in a society and bring to people a narrative and experience they could not hope to get anywhere else.

Through the looking glass

It is not just conflicts that are disrupting the status quo of museums and bringing into question their relevance. There is something else. Something that has come into its own in recent years. Something that has a hand in disrupting the social order as much as any other force — social media and technology.

Museums around the world are reinventing themselves to integrate the latest technology in order to not just engage with a younger audience, but also to preserve and study their collections.

Eike Schmidt (director of Uffizi Gallery in Florence); (Eugene Tan, director of Singapore's National Gallery); and Tristram Hunt (director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum) took to the stage to discuss what strategies the museums are employing to stay not just relevant, but taking the experience of a visitor to new heights. The presentations and discussion was part of the same festival and was chaired by Tasneem Mehta (director of Mumbai's Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum).

First up was Schmidt, dissing Uffizi’s efforts. The museum has become engaged with social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter in recent years and has seen steady growth in its number of followers and engagement online. What the museum discover was people were especially keen to read up experts comment on artworks, as well as, what goes on behind the scene in a gallery.

The gallery now puts out experts knowledge and comments on the artworks present in the museum on social media and on their official website. The gallery has also been actively undertaking a 3D scanning project of their artworks to offer seamlessly detailed versions of their artworks to their people across the globe, including scholars and academics for further analysis.

The museum also live streams specially curated performances on social media platforms which are at times are viewed by millions of people from across the globe.

Next, Tan took over the presentation. The main focus of the National Gallery is the exploration of the art of Southeast Asia. Apart from engaging on social media, the museum has come up with what it calls the ‘social table’. These are a couple of giant iPad-like tables installed in the museum, big enough for up to eight people to use it simultaneously. Tan explained that how the these have become extremely popular in the museum as it lets the visitors explore artworks, mail themselves or friends information and print pictures of artworks among many other things. And since multiple people can use it at once, it creates a dialogue and engages young and the old alike.

The museum has also built a phone app which helps people explore with relevant information and audio guides. To take this even further, the museum has been working on projects meant for consumption only through online platforms. These include a series of videos shot in the museum itself, which can be are activated and viewed only in certain parts of the museum, providing and dynamic experience and encouraging people to go out of their way.

Finally, it was time for Hunt’s presentation. The V&A has undertaken a massive operation to digitise their collection, ie, photographing and cataloguing their artworks online. The museum is also constantly looking to give digital art a platform, and one of their major exhibition next year will be about video games.

They have also developed a mobile game for families called ‘Secret Seekers’, which sends you on a treasure hunt to uncover some of the secrets of the museum. They have also produced videos about various arts and artists around the globe which have been gaining popularity recently.

The question that was put to the three of them after the presentations was — with the advent of social media and digitisation, and even with all the steps the museums are taking to keep up, will the museums see a decrease in the footfall in the coming times? What will bring people to the museums when they can experience all the artworks, in much greater detail, sitting at home or on their mobile phones?

The answers seem to be unanimous — the digitisation has, in fact, increased the number of people visiting the museums. The reason? When people read about a piece of art online or see a picture on, say Instagram, they want to visit the museum and see the real thing. No matter how detailed of a scan is available online, there is an inherent desire to see the authentic work. Hence, more digital footprints equal more footfall.

But does all this use of the digital media by the museums just end up being a spectacle without any academic merit? On the contrary, all these efforts bring together scholars from across the world via digital platforms, something which is at best of times difficult to achieve.

So what does the future hold? Things look positive, but it's too early to reach any definite conclusions. The cost involved to undertake such projects remain high and time-consuming. On top of that, changes in technology are rapid and unpredictable.

In the end, we can all agree on one thing — digitisation is not a barrier and we shouldn’t see it as such. It is an opportunity to bring together communities and generations together to explore the history and the cultures in museums. A museum is not an isolated object of art which can be photographed, shared and admired on a screen, it is a carefully put together experience, and people love a good experience.

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Updated Date: Nov 25, 2017 15:40:09 IST