What is a museum?
For centuries, museums have acted as the guardians of history and antiquity, right from Ennigaldi-Nanna's museum devoted to Mesopotamian antiquities dating back to 530 BC and largely considered to be one of the first museums ever to be curated.
Today, museums are more common than in ancient Mesopotamian times and continue to multiply at an almost frivolous pace. These resilient sentries of civilisational culture are not just reminders of history but an agglomeration of the nation’s cultural wealth. But can a museum be more than just a repository of artefacts from history? Can it be a home for memories?
This was one of the central themes of the first instalment of the Bihar Museum Biennale held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai on June 3. The event, initiated by Outlook in collaboration with Bihar Museum, to give a preview of the second edition of the ambitious Bihar Museum Biennale in August. The event aims to bring forth a new perspective on museums in a bid to turn these often intimidating institutions into more accessible and democratic spaces.
“When we talk about museums -- we talk of a huge, intimidating scale and a hierarchical space. These spaces often don't leave room for discussion or debate. A museum biennale fills that gap between art, architecture, culture and memory,” says architect Neera Adarkar.
Adarkar was part of the panel of distinguished professionals including Anjani Kumar Singh, Director General, Bihar Museum in Patna, Kaiwan Mehta, Managing Editor at Domus India, co-founder and director at Arbour Research Initiatives in Architecture, Executive Committee member INTACH, Mumbai, film scholar, historian and critic Amrit Gangar, Nataraj Dasgupta, Director, Central Research & Training Laboratory, Bose Krishnamachari, co-founder and President of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, the organization behind the initiation of India’s first Biennale, a practising architect and urban researcher, and contemporary Indian artist Subodh Gupta.
According to Outlook Editor Chinki Sinha, who was moderating the panel and intimately involved with the upcoming edition of the Bihar Museum Biennale, there is a need to “democratise art”, a sentiment that was echoed by each of the panellists.
“There is a need to decode colonial mindsets of intellectualism around art and make it inclusive of Indian masses who inspire high art,” Gangar says.
The one-of-a-kind museum biennale was inspired by the biennale movement in art that uses found spaces as sites of conversation and emotion. “A city is a museum. There is memory in tastes, and sounds. So a song and a or certain kind of cuisine can also be akin to a museum. The body itself is a museum of experiences and memories,” says Chinki Sinha.
Kaiwan Mehta also agrees that museums can be more than just repositories of dormant antiquities. “A museum can be a much more active space, not just a repository of art', says Mehta.
The event was characterized by the emphasis on Bihari art and history. “The history of Bihar is in many ways the history of India. We have contributed greatly to art and culture,” says Anjani Kumar Singh.
To highlight Bihar’s centuries-old connect with Indian art, the 3rd-century Mauryan sculpture of ‘Yakshi’ - an important chapter in Bihar’s cultural history - was brought to life through a performance of traditional ‘Launda Bach’. Once performed only by men who performed women's roles, the rustic folk dance form reflects on themes of migration and gender norms that have shaped Bihar.
Art has always emerged from social and political contexts and such initiatives augment our understanding of history and politics. Museum Biennale, which is a first-ever initiative by the Bihar Museum, is a place for engagement with museums and a platform to understand the context and the future of such places that have the potential to make people understand and have multiple perspectives on history and disrupt reductive narratives that are now shaping our present and future and even altering the past.
Art and museum biennials facilitate community engagement with culture, history, and politics. They create consciousness about identity and pride in one's cultural heritage in an inclusive way. They are perhaps one of the most effective ways to preserve the truth in a post-truth world.