Museums are like time capsules that record and preserve crucial information about a civilization, its many communities, the cultural aspects of each community, and the tragedies. These facets evoke emotions of pride in people, and that pride pushes people to create awareness and preserve what is still left of that civilization. Museums across the world gather tourists from different parts of the world. If you truly want to explore a place, make sure you visit their museums too. Indian museums are a treasure-chest filled with gems of history, pearls of ancient wisdom, and other precious stones of India’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
However, that said, a large crowd does not flock to these museums. Even with the large collection of artefacts, low cost entry tickets, and guided tours, museums do not attract visitors. Maybe, it is time to go beyond collections. That is where ReReeti steps in.
We were in conversation with Tejshvi Jain and Tiggy Allen from ReReeti, an organisation that designs strategies and programs to bring people, cultural institutions, and museums together. ReReeti works with museums across India such as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, the Indian Music Experience (IME), Rumale Art Gallery and more. They spoke to us about the organisation’s work and its projects, and their vision for Indian museums.
“Museums are harbingers of tradition and of our collective history, origins, and culture. For India, they are both part of our inherited colonial legacies, and spaces to reclaim national and community histories. This means that museums are a primary way in which our nation can promote itself, and therefore function as a method for communicating what India is, what it has been, and what it can become,” they said.
The Story of ReReeti
Tejshvi Jain is the founder-director of ReReeti, who has had over a decade of experience working with museums and cultural centers. She was selected for a two-week training program at the V&A London, the world’s largest museum for decorative arts and design. An eye-opening experience that led her to the best practices of a world-class museum.
“It was during this trip that the idea for ReReeti first came to me. I realized that the UK had a very strong community of museum professionals who were involved in collectively solving challenges faced by them. I wished India too had such a network,” Tejshvi expressed. It was only two years later during her Arts Think South Asia fellowship that she was finally able to conceptualize the solution for the gap.
The name ReReeti comes from this origin story: Reeti means traditions in Sanskrit, and museums are holders of traditions of sorts. Our aim is to revitalize these spaces, and hence the name Re-Reeti was born.
Tiggy Allen is the operations manager at ReReeti and her first visit to a museum in India was in the Lal Quila (Red Fort) in Delhi. “With places like this, they are both museums and heritage sites in their own right, so it is slightly different to visiting a private museum or purpose-built space. I was blown away by the breadth of India’s history, communities, geography, architecture and art, and I think that the country’s wealth of museums reflects this - each is a microcosm of this variety and complexity,” she reminisced.
Her time in India was initially supposed to be for a few months, but over time she realised her love for Bangalore - the weather, the people, the buzz - and found a community of people that she did not want to leave. Tiggy’s partner is Indian, so the couple chose to stay here. Later, she became involved with ReReeti after reading about their White Pepper Black Pepper: Bangalore in World War 1 project online. She began working as a volunteer soon after, finding ReReeti’s approach to heritage and to museum work very interesting and innovative.
Showcasing India’s Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage
Integral to the 5000-year old Indian heritage, is her culture and traditions. This most definitely includes India’s intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which has created an impact, in many different ways, on various parts of the world. A dynamic and multifaceted civilization, India’s development, over the centuries, can be seen in the various intangible art and cultural traditions, and museums bring them to light.
“There are some great examples of museums in India also working to showcase intangible cultural heritage, for example the Orissa State Tribal Museum, the Conflictorium and Mehnat Manzil in Ahmedabad, and the Museum of Mankind in Bhopal. India also has many national parks that are part of UNESCO’s natural heritage (GHNP for example.) Museums have the capacity to showcase both tangible and intangible heritage, and to become leaders in the movement to have more of India’s heritage recognised both nationally, and globally,” Tejshvi said.
“Most of the collections in museums in India be in archaeology, art, music or on personalities/communities all have an intangible component tied to it either in its influence, making or use. Highlighting these aspects can uplift India’s ICH. When creating our learning experiences, we ensure to touch upon these aspects of intangible heritage, where relevant,” Tiggy added.
Role of Media in Museums
Growing up, most of us have often come across shows that gave the museums a dull and boring outlook. We asked Tejshvi to help us understand if the media truly had an impact on the public, in this regard.
“I wouldn’t blame the media for portraying museums as ‘boring places to visit’. Let's ask ourselves how many museums we have visited are interesting? Indian museums have great collections, but unfortunately it stops there. The lack of interesting displays, absences of easy and consumable content and lack of relevant and engaging programming are few reasons for this labelling,” she explained.
“Of course this is only the front-facing aspects, as there are many back-end challenges that also add to this perception. One of these is funding: funding for the country’s myriad government museums, and private ones, is in the single-digit percentage of the country’s GDP. This also limits how much museums can do, or improve upon. These are the problems ReReeti wants to help museums to solve,”Tejshvi envisioned.
That said, we wanted to know how television shows, films, theatres, and other Indian performing arts can create a platform to promote museums.
“We were also curious on how television shows, films, theatre, or other Indian performing arts can create a platform to promote museums. Using the content, collections and stories that are hidden in museums in their scripts is one of the ways to indirectly create curiosity about what museums hold. Engaging the museum space that goes beyond being a venue for an event, hosting relevant and engaging programmes for various audiences and strong communications and marketing plans are few of the other ways to promote a museum.”
Stories hidden in museums are plenty. They are natural storytellers, taking us from one civilisation to another, one dynasty to the next, one era to another. Creating stories/films/tv shows with a museum built into the plot, organizing events in museum locations, sharing the stories of the artefacts using tech (AR,VR), can bring the world to the museum.
“At ReReeti, we have also developed object-based learning workshops and worksheets which can transform an object into the origins for a fascinating story for school students. Also taking museums into classrooms, and working with teachers to help them utilise museum resources,” Tejshvi said.
In the initial years of ReReeti, they used to host engaging programmes for families and students in museums. These programmes would use the objects in the collections as entry points to explore other related concepts and themes. These had hands-on activities as a very integral part of the experience. They have worked with almost all the popular museums in Bangalore and have also hosted a four day festival at the State Archaeological Museum in Bangalore. This has been more difficult recently, due to the pandemic.
With designing a museum, the key is to look at its community and its message: who are the regular audiences, who will come occasionally, and who might come once in their lifetime? What does the museum want its visitors to come away thinking about, or reflecting on? By looking at these aspects of engagement, the best way forward for designing the museum becomes clearer.
“We first try to understand the pain points, or problem areas, that the museum wishes us to help solve, and work from there. We always try to put community first, and like to speak to as many members of the museum staff and volunteers as possible to collect information - everyone has a different, and equally important, perspective,” Tiggy explained.
Making museum displays interactive is a key way to engage onsite visitors, promoting learning and engagement at a deeper level. Interactives do not have to be hi-tech or costly - simple push and pull mechanisms, space for audiences to add to exhibits themselves, and pop out panels if done well can be equally as effective.
Role of Government and Academic Institutions
Museums in other countries have a lot more funding, and are therefore able to do more, and are marketed better. Also, often when abroad people are on holiday, and therefore have much more leisure time. “The key is to encourage Indian domestic tourists to visit museums when they are on holiday as well - and this requires more funding, and more innovative programming and marketing strategies powered by better resources,” Tejshvi expressed.
Indian museums can improve vastly if they have institutional (government and private) funds and resources available to upgrade their displays, make their artefacts and objects more appealing to the visitors, and develop exhibitions that speak louder to local communities (culture, traditions, language). Indian museums contain some of the most interesting artefacts, but suffer from terrible aesthetics and marketing. Simple things like an entire room illuminated with one or two regular tube lights, which isn’t enough and often reflects on the glass cases that the objects are housed in. And lastly, relevant and accessible programming to bring people into the museum and engage with the exhibitions could help to increase foot traffic.
“One of ReReeti’s central goals is to make history relevant, relatable, and accessible to school students. We’ve been designing and organizing virtual field trips to heritage sites and developing classroom worksheets on museum objects to help students familiarize themselves with these historical artefacts and understand how they relate to these cultural sites and objects. We regularly partner with interested schools across India to deliver workshops and provide resources aiming to develop museum-based educational opportunities for school children. We also provide teachers with targeted training programmes which develop museum and object-based teaching skills,” Tiggy elucidated.
With the pandemic still upon us, we asked ReReeti on how museums can be digitalised, and what has the response been like, with their initiatives.
ReReeti developed a few programmes in response to the pandemic, all of which were virtual. For the museum sector, to support institutions and individuals through the time of crisis, we developed Talking Museums - a series of informal conversations between museum professionals working in a variety of spaces and places, Talking Museums aimed to build community in a time of isolation, providing a safe space for sharing best practices, discussing common issues, creating a network of support within the sector. We also partnered with Science Gallery Bengaluru to offer a free-of-cost practical workshop to fellow heritage professionals about how to build an online exhibition: the workshop was a huge success, and due to the huge numbers registered, we ran it twice at full capacity.
In education, we developed ReReeti Visits... a virtual programme designed to counter the fact that many school-going children missed out on field trips and interactive learning opportunities due to the pandemic. These virtual trips are immersive, interactive, and exciting, and are packed with interactive activities that allow students to look at history through fresh new lenses and engage their critical thinking through fun and engaging discussions. ReReeti currently offers trips to five different historical locations in India, ranging from the Independence Movement to the oldest civilisation in India.
The response to these initiatives during the continuing pandemic could be best described as a wave! The initial response has been very positive, but we have to deal with people’s erratic schedules and more so, with screen fatigue. Audiences are interested in attending our variety of online events (skill development, workshops, teacher training, virtual trips for schools) but there have been times the interest has not translated into real-time attendance. We still consider this to be positive as it reflects that our programming is resonating with our audiences!
ReReeti is envisioned to be a platform for museums and museums professionals in India to network, share and collaborate. "We see ourselves as a resource house for museum professionals and a catalyst for museums to increase their social impact by being centres of life long learning and mental well being. We aim to be advocates of the museum sector in India, providing support in as many areas as possible," they remarked.