Tasneem Zakaria Mehta: ‘Museums are safe spaces for critical thinking’

The art historian and cultural activist says museums need to respond to contemporary culture.

Published : Dec 14, 2022 18:00 IST

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta.

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta is an art historian, curator, and cultural activist, best known for bringing the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDL) in Mumbai out of obscurity. As Managing Trustee and Honorary Director of the museum since 2003 she has a future-forward approach to what she describes as a “jewel box” museum, rich with exhibits but also “compact and easily navigable within an hour or two”. In this interview to Frontline, she talks of that most critical aspect of museums—how to stay relevant and continue to engage the public. Excerpts:

How should museums evolve so that they do not become anachronistic? Are museums always about the past or can you curate things of the present already receding into the past?

Museums have changed significantly from what they were even 10 years ago in India, and in many ways the BDL enabled this change. We won UNESCO’s highest award for the restoration work we did in 2005, which gave this until-then-unknown jewel of a museum back to Mumbai. We re-curated the collection to bring in a new focus on the city and on contemporary artistic practice. We introduced radical new ways of engaging audiences through contemporary exhibitions and detailed information labels; and extensive education programming targeting different age groups and trilingual audiences. Our contemporary and historic exhibitions interrogate the collection and the founding principles of the museum, prompting visitors to read the collection with a new perspective, make new connections. The museum also has an extensive education and outreach programme.

The museum’s robust exhibition programme invites important contemporary artists, such as Jitish Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty, Nalini Malani and L.N. Tallur, among others, to respond to the collection, to the history and archives, addressing issues that speak directly to the traditions and tensions that underlie the founding of the museum, yet invoke the present by challenging orthodoxies and questioning assumptions.

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For example, Sheba Chhachhi’s work Mistry ke Haath depicts the photograph of a laid-off factory worker holding the last remnant of his working life, a floor tile, in his hands in a gesture of humble appeal. The image is a testament of forgotten and marginalised histories. This work has a particular resonance in the museum’s space as despite the colonial interest, promotion and eulogising of Indian craftsmanship, the craftsman was rarely acknowledged, and remained anonymous and unrecognised in the museum space.

In 2018, BDL hosted ‘Asymmetrical Objects’, an exhibition that aimed to explore the critical discourse on environmental degradation in the current geological age of the Anthropocene. The museum continues to hold discussions on climate change, health, and sustainability among other topics, which are all extremely well-received.

It is fascinating to see a museum take on a current critical issue.

BDL actively engages with contemporary issues. When I curated ‘Asymmetrical Objects’, we showcased the interpretations of 10 of India’s foremost artists who were encouraged to revisit the early focus of the museum on natural history and address the problems of the Anthropocene. Each artist explored a different theme such as alienation, pollution, destruction of biodiversity, unnatural divisions, mutations and distortions, the politics of water and waste and the destruction of landscapes and rivers. Is healing and redemption possible? What does the future hold? The exhibition invited viewers to form their own conclusions and share these in a dialogue that continued for the length of the exhibition through many activities and discussions. 

BDL has also hosted several online and in-person sessions on climate change, waste management, land ecosystem, ozone depletion, and so on, which have received an overwhelming response from schools and NGOs. Another exhibition looked at the history of textiles, an area that has been critical to the development of the city. Contemporary artists explored different aspects of this fraught history to provoke a rethinking of how we can perceive received histories.

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Are museums just storehouses of the past or can they be active learning classrooms? 

Museums are not only repositories of the past but an excellent environment for experimental, interdisciplinary learning. BDL completed 150 years in 2022, and to celebrate that we did some in-depth research on our collections and brought out a book Mumbai: A City Through Objects101 Stories from the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum that was co-published with Harper Collins and authored and edited by me. The book explores the museum’s objects as time machines and tells the story of BDL’s evolution and the role it played in the development of Mumbai.  Many architecture and design colleges have expressed interest in teaching the book as a case study of narrating object histories as stories.

“Museums are not only repositories of the past but an excellent environment for experimental, interdisciplinary learning. ”

How does one encourage a museum culture—one in which people feel motivated to visit a museum perhaps twice a year. With knowledge available on one’s phone, for instance, how does one ensure museums still stay relevant? 

Museums need to respond to current trends and contemporary culture to stay relevant and we have tried to do this through an extensive outreach programme, which includes a year-long programme on art history and other courses that had also been planned before the COVID-19 outbreak. We hope to take these online now. Human and group interaction is far more valuable than anything one can find on Google, at least for the time being. People imbibe museum culture if they have been exposed to it from an early age—our efforts are targeted at young age groups and the response has been tremendous. For example, we have a full day games mela or a children’s festival where the whole family participates. We have craft melas because people love to shop and it helps the craftspeople as well. We do workshops with the craftsmen as well. Thus, many different strategies are deployed to bring in audiences and ensure they enjoy themselves but also learn in the process.  

Museum display has moved quite a distance from rows of glass cases but what is the present trend? 

The definition of a museum has changed radically in the 21st century. Museums in the 19th century were established as “cabinets of curiosities” displaying objects with the intention of encouraging “good taste” and public education via labels. Even though the museum is a historic place, it was always meant to reflect contemporary design and innovation in the arts, showcasing the best examples of Indian craftsmanship that was in high demand in the international market. We have continued this as part of the museum’s revitalisation programme and have invited contemporary artists to respond to our archives and collections. 

What is the main challenge before museums today? And what plans are you making for Bhau Daji Lad?  

Since the COVID outbreak, various museums and cultural institutions, large and small, public and private, have had to remain closed temporarily, resulting in massive financial losses. The museum industry is still grappling with the long-term implications and faces a continuous challenge to reinvent and revitalise in order to keep up with the quickly evolving times and to create more engaging exhibitions and educational programmes for visitors. We are working towards exhibitions and programmes that will encourage people to think critically about the world and to think of creative solutions to the problems we face today. BDL has already hosted exhibitions around this and will continue to engage with civic issues as well as questions around decolonisation, gender disparity, injustice and violence. 

What makes you take on social justice issues like these? It is very different to the normal path a museum treads.

Today, museums are more important than ever as safe spaces for critical thinking. Museums have the ability to start dialogues on sensitive issues that shape our society, and they can also play a significant part in creating more conscious future generations. Objects are not just about beauty but tell us about the world of the maker and the patron, their intentions, and the hazards they confronted. History repeats itself in different ways and by looking at the past we can perhaps reflect and understand the present better.

Our book, Mumbai through Objects,attempts to engage audiences in a panoramic journey that helps make better sense of the present. We work to create a space where we can address cultural, social and environmental issues and alter the way we perceive the past, the present and the future to create a better world.

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