By Simran Agarwal and Abhinav Gupta
Visiting a museum is both a physical and intellectual activity. Few experiences can replace the feeling of standing in front of an artefact as it becomes a passageway between the viewer and the work in front, connecting them across time, space and cultures. But as the COVID-19 pandemic forced shut galleries and museums, how these institutions collect, preserve, study and exhibit cultural heritage had to be reassessed. What emerged from this was the instrumentality of digital technology in creating meaningful interactions online, bringing us, somewhat, close to that feeling of standing in front of an artefact again.
Much like the role of a library, a museum’s responsibility is to make heritage a part of our lives. And to that end the development of digital curation for cultural pursuits cannot be ignored anymore. The experience of virtual museum-going via ‘interactive user-driven walk-throughs’ or ‘story-based audio walk-throughs’ in oddly empty galleries is obviously different from our usual experience of visiting these spaces as part of a crowd; demonstrably closing in on the recognised show-stoppers. However, once you shed some of your traditional expectations, a virtual museum opens up new avenues of knowledge-sharing and exchange of ideas. Many well-known museums have already begun curating their virtual environments by uploading digitised content and pre-recorded guided tours on their Web pages. The National Museum (Delhi), National Gallery of Modern Art (Delhi), Indian Museum (Kolkata), and Bhau Daji Lad (Mumbai) are examples of illustrious Indian museums that have committed to connecting with their visitors outside the confines of the museum building. But aside from these, many lesser-known museums are innovating to recreate the experience of the museum online, to keep their collections relevant and alive. Here are some. Just remember, your browser should be able to run Adobe Flash to properly access these.
Vaacha: Museum of Voice at Adivasi Academy, Tejgarh
Part of the campus of the Adivasi Academy, the museum functions as a platform for the expression of Adivasi creativity through dynamic displays of Adivasi art and culture. It also provides an intellectual space for marginalised groups, who, otherwise, find their stories side-lined in the mainstream narrative.
Best navigated on a big screen, the museum has created a fully interactive online walk-through, allowing visitors to virtually traverse its corridors blurring the boundaries between the inside and the outside, just like its fluid architectural style; truly ‘a museum without walls’.
Visvesaraya Industrial and Technological Museum, Bangalore
With nine interesting exhibition halls featuring touch-and-feel exhibits, VITM strives to encourage children to learn different principles of science through its interactive displays. Additionally, VITM offers eight virtual walk-throughs (at the time of writing) such as that of the Engine Hall, housing a replica of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk, where aside from traversing the museum space, viewers can also watch video snippets and zoom into objects to a great level of detail. Best accessed with earphones, the videos are helpful in informing the viewer about the various displays and their histories.
Regional Science Center, Calicut, Guwahati; and National Science Center Delhi
Interactive walk-throughs enable visitors to see the tactile kiosks, artefacts, and creative educational and informational displays across themes in the galleries. Both work akin to Google Maps while navigating. While these don’t provide information bullets along with the walk-through, parents can often take the opportunity to test out their storytelling skills here.
Ahmedabad Trunk: Voices and Weaves
Ahmedabad Trunk is a textile gallery on the premises of a boutique heritage hotel, The House of MG, located within the walled city of Ahmedabad. In 1924, this stately property was home to one of the wealthiest textile magnates of the time, Mangaldas and Chamalal Girdhardas, the ancestors of gallery founder Abhay Mangaldas.
The gallery, like the rest of the building, retains its old-world charm and houses a treasure of Gujarati textile arts that spans across techniques, materials and practices from far-reaching corners of Gujarat. Now, in a world of Net art, Ahmedabad Trunk has made available online 15 audio tours, enabling meaningful engagements with the stories and collections through our screens.
VMIS, Virtual Museum of Images & Sounds
Transcending the physical confines of a traditional museum, VMIS allows visitors to study objects in their ‘original’ context by virtually exploring sites and places in an all-inclusive experience. From the images of the Center of Art and Archeology to the recorded collections of the Archives and Research Centre of Ethnomusicology, the museum provides access to a world of art and music samples along with text, explanation and related images through a geocultural interface, timeline and thematic outline. This is a purely online collection and not a virtual representation of an otherwise physical collection like the others, so no surprise that this is the most comprehensive site on this list.
Much like books, physical museums are also making a digital transition to become accessible to their audience sans time and site limitations. Techniques like Web-based construction, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are helping fulfil the museums’ goals of interaction and education by bridging the gap between visitors and artefacts through extendable visiting experience and interaction with real objects. Those in charge of shuttered museums are already clamouring to optimise these opportunities on the World Wide Web.
For the museum-goer, with museums worldwide gearing up to keep their collections alive online, we can now enjoy, at least, a virtual visit if not roam the galleries of our favourite museums on foot. It may take some time to figure out how to click past, navigate and find the masterpieces you love, but, over time, the technology can grow on you. And if not, there is always the odd sense of comfort in seeing these enduring objects of history being preserved for the future, to remind us that, like everything, this too shall pass.
(This article is part of Saha Sutra on Sahapedia.org, the digital library of Indian culture, which also runs the project museumsofindia.org)
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