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A rendezvous of past and future: India’s first digital museum set for launch

During its eventful journey through space and time, art has found itself in a multitude of places ranging from prehistoric caves to digital gadgets. From being standalone specimens in the initial days, the works of art have undergone evolutionary changes in their form and presentation. When Walter Benjamin penned his 1935 essay ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, he was gazing at a flood of physical copies that affected the ‘aura’ of the ‘original’. Eight decades have elapsed since this path-breaking essay was written. And the mechanical reproduction, which at Benjamin’s time primarily meant printing technology, has given way to much powerful digital tools, where the concept of physical form itself has virtually disappeared. Nevertheless, this technological evolution has made artworks more accessible to the masses. There was a time when valuable paintings and sculptures could be enjoyed only by visiting the museums situated in faraway lands. These works, through their privileged positioning, were meant to be enjoyed only by a section of the society that could afford long-distance travels and pricey tickets. Come the digital era, the idea of museum space itself has remarkably changed. Several museums across the world had already established or were in the process of establishing digital sections when the Covid health crisis swept across the globe. While the pandemic has toppled the lives of millions, it has also opened up new vistas in many fields, including art. ‘Virtual’ has become the new mantra when it comes to interactions in the age of pandemic. Unlike the earlier periods when epidemics like plague or Spanish flu forced people to stay away from each other, the contemporary scenario allows the coming together of people even while they are physically distant from each other, thanks to digital technology. Virtual exhibitions, virtual meetings and virtual interactions have become the order of the day during the Covid crisis. It is at this juncture, the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) is being launched, virtually, before it’s physical launch next year. While usually the physical space precedes the virtual space, the MAP is reversing that concept, by first launching itself as a digital museum.

To mark this India’s first digital museum launch on December 5, the MAP is organising a week-long virtual programme titled ‘Art (is) Life’, besides inaugurating it’s ‘Museums without Borders’ initiative. According to a statement from the founders of MAP, the institution has a collection of over 18,000 artworks, including sculptures, paintings and photographs, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent. The entire collection is categorised into six genres: Pre-modern art, modern & contemporary, photography, folk & tribal, popular culture, and textiles, craft & design. The highlight of MAP is a vast collection of photographs — both historical and contemporary, and on popular culture – which is not common for an Indian museum. Moreover, this photography collection boasts one of the most extensive line-up in the country. This collection has works of 19th century photographers such as Samuel Bourne, John Burke, Francis Frith, William Johnson, Colin Roderick Murray, John Edward Saché, Charles Shepherd, E. Taurines and Raja Deen Dayal; 20th-century prints by photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marc Riboud, Martine Franck, Raghu Rai and T.S. Satyan. Contemporary Indian photographers like Dayanita Singh, Abul Kalam Azad, Vivek Vilasini,  and Gauri Gill are also a part of the collection.

“The digital platform will allow MAP to offer curated experiences to the audiences who will be able to interact with the exhibitions from the comfort of their homes at any time,” said the official statement from MAP. Termed as South India’s “first major private art museum”, the MAP, located in Bengaluru, is aiming to bring its collection accessible to diverse viewers. The museum, once launched, will have a five-storey building with galleries, auditorium, research library, education centre, conservation facility and a cafe. According to Abhishek Poddar, the founder-trustee of MAP, their vision has always been to reach out to people from all walks of life and make the collection available to the world. “… Then why should we wait for a physical museum to come up? Launching digitally is the next step for MAP to achieve its agenda of inclusion and accessibility. In challenging times such as these, museums and cultural institutions need to rethink and reinvent themselves to be truly relevant. MAP’s digital launch is the birth of a new museum for a new era,” he said.

While it is appreciable that the founders of MAP are aiming at diverse viewers, it is equally important that they focus on the diversity of artists whom they showcase/promote. As the art market in India continues to be dominated by elite interests and privileged artists, it would be heartening if MAP brings more artists from diverse backgrounds to the fore. Since the MAP comes with a promise of being rooted regionally with a global outreach, there is a scope for regional artists getting represented. This is especially important in the case of photography since there is a very limited representation of regional photographers in the national and international arena and the MAP could change that.

Even though the digital space provides a cost-effective and convenient meeting place for the artists and connoisseurs, this space is still in a nascent stage in India where digital penetration is yet to move beyond smartphone screens. The difference in experiencing an artwork at a museum space and a digital space will vanish for sure with the passage of time and development of virtual reality (VR). However, at the current juncture, taking the pandemic into account, digital exhibitions can be termed more as a stop-gap arrangement, complementing the physical exhibitions scheduled in the upcoming days. In this background, the ‘Museums Without Borders’ initiative launched by the MAP is a step taken in the right direction. Organised in collaboration with 50 international institutions, including the British Museum, Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), Morgan Library and Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, Vitra Design Museum, and the Rhode School of Design, this initiative will see ‘juxtaposition’ of objects from different collections, in the virtual space. Usually, prized museum pieces are taken across the world for exhibitions. But here, the ‘Museums Without Borders’ is bringing together artworks from distant collections without their physical movement. Initiatives like this could be marking the dawn of a new era where the concept of dimensions, reality, space, and time would be taking new incarnations.

The programme details of Art (is) Life, which begins on December 5 and will continue till December 11, can be accessed here.

Suresh Punjabi, Suhag Studio, MAP

Suresh Punjabi, Suhag Studio, MAP