An Institution Reimagined: Aditi Nayar-Zacharias on Redefining Museum Culture

Anjali Alappat

Museums are often unfairly dismissed as musty, resting places for long-forgotten relics. Though many institutions allow treasures to gather dust and keep their collections behind thick glass, others are redefining museum culture and the spaces that they occupy in the public consciousness. Unafraid to explore new approaches and ideas, these are forums which encourage interaction, and serve as physical and virtual hubs for community and culture. While they remain committed to the conservation of art and history, these museums are also dedicated to the revitalisation of culture, reviving interest in semi-forgotten institutions, and connecting people to their heritage in new and interesting ways.

The Kerala Museum in Kochi is a great example of this trend. Founded in 1984 by pioneering entrepreneur R. Madhavan Nayar, the museum was a product of his love for the arts and history. Between 1990 and 1993, R. Madhavan Nayar set about acquiring paintings and sculptures by contemporary artists. Today, the museum houses around 300 pieces of art by iconic artists like Raja Ravi Varma, M.F Husain, K.G Subramanyan, Jamini Roy and Ramkinkar Baij. It also plays host to the Kerala History Museum Light and Sound Show as well as the Visual Arts Centre. The Visual Arts Centre showcases the Dolls of India exhibit, and serves as a space for dynamic programming like community events and temporary exhibitions.

Madhavan Nayar was determined to make art accessible to artists, students and the general public. It’s a mission that his grand niece and current director of the Kerala Museum, Aditi Nayar, continues to feel passionately about. Since she has taken the reins, the museum has experienced a heartening revival. Whether it’s throwing open their doors to community events or hosting film festivals, it’s clear that the Kerala Museum is adapting to the world around it, shifting and changing with these uncertain times. We approached Aditi to talk about the revival of not just the museum, but what it means to hold space for history, culture and art for future generations. She tells us about her role at the museum, reimagining visitor experiences, and changing the way we interact with museums today.

Why did you choose to get involved with the Kerala Museum? Can you tell us a bit about your role?

When the board of trustees of the Madhavan Nayar Foundation decided to move to a visitor-centric approach, they needed someone to drive the process. As R. Madhavan Nayar’s grand-niece, I had spent many days in his office and the museum while it was still a construction site. Maybe this early exposure and connection led me to study art at a postgraduate level. Initially, I took it up because visitorship was a challenging problem I wanted to solve, one that required a more nuanced approach than just counting footfall and carrying capacities.

Armed with only a Masters degree in fine art, the learning curve seemed impossibly steep in those early days. I was completely new to the management side of things. I struggled to find a purpose for the museum’s future—what role would this institution play in the city of Kochi?

In 2017, the Kerala Museum applied to be a part of the Archival & Museums Fellowship enabled by the India Foundation for the Arts and funded by Tata Trusts. We were selected to be one of the museums in the program. I mention this because it was a turning point for us. Through this intervention, the Kerala Museum’s art collection was curated to tell the story of the collector’s process and journey, revealing aspects of storytelling that enabled us to draw links to the social, political and cultural events of the past century. It showed us how the collection could be used to study more than just art for art’s sake.

Photo credit: Aditi Nayar

The same year, I did a walk with a group of Sahapedia walk enthusiasts, the first public tour of the exhibition ‘Collecting the Artist’. The experience blew people’s minds while simultaneously opening mine to the possibilities for educational and interactive experiences at the museum.

Then in 2019, I was selected for the ARThinkSouthAsia Fellowship by the Khoj Foundation and the British Council. This training allowed me to take my on-ground learnings and examine them through the lens of strategic planning, lending a whole new perspective to my plans for the museum.

What parts of the old setup have you kept, and what have you changed?

There are a million new ideas for newborn museums. As is true for many organisations looking to reimagine themselves, re-casting the Kerala Museum was a formidable challenge. We have one critical constraint that is different from other organisations—the economic model of a museum is not typically a revenue-generator. World over, museums make less than 10 percent of their income from ticket fees, and so when we say we need funds for our revitalisation efforts, we have to depend on sponsors, non-profits, corporate and individual donors for support.

Photo credit: Aditi Nayar

The physical form is one aspect. As we work with minimal resources, we have made do with minor modifications. What I have sought to change are the soft aspects of the Kerala Museum. Things like work culture, but most importantly, people’s perception of what a museum is. Often, prior experiences with museums lead us to believe they are government-owned and managed; we don’t expect to receive helpful information, and encounter smiling facilitators and guides.

I believe that the visitor experience can improve their impression of a museum. Of course, making the programming dynamic, and bringing people in for as many reasons as possible have added to our museum’s portfolio, offering richer experiences and more opportunities for interaction.

Why do you think museums continue to be culturally significant? Can you tell us about a museum that inspired you to do things differently?

As times change, visitors at museums have been declining, and people have found other ways to spend their time. “What is a museum?” I often ask people. The most common reply is that it is a collection of antique objects, which is not far from the truth in the western context. Usually, it’s a collection of exotic objects from colonised regions.

Recognising the need to stay relevant and responding to the needs of visitors is crucial to the survival of the museum sector. 

It has witnessed slow change over the years—from the curation and preservation of objects and stories, to the setting up of community museums, private collector museums, and more.

Photo credit: Aditi Nayar

When our museum was set up, the idea of storytelling through the spectacle of diorama, coupled with sound and light, was cutting edge. R. Madhavan Nayar’s intentions were clear: the museum must impact future generations positively. But it was only in the late 2000s that heritage and museum organisations such as the ICOM and UNESCO proposed that museums should become cultural hubs, and work with local governments and communities to drive social change. In this context, the question becomes: Which museums have had a long-lasting positive impact on society?

It’s important to acknowledge that we borrow from other sectors to discover ways to reach our audiences. Sometimes, we take inspiration not from other museums, but the methods and processes of start-ups or established companies in totally different industries. In the museum sector, there are many inspiring examples for various reasons. For example, the Arna Jharna Museum in Rajasthan tells the story of brooms in an uncomplicated way. It proves that we don’t require complex technology, we just need to facilitate dialogue.

The Tropen Museum in Amsterdam has made serious efforts to reach new audiences by reinterpreting objects from the point of view of second-generation migrants from Dutch colonies such as Surinam, and addressing vast, complex and sensitive topics such as cultural appropriation. The Berlin Bunker Museum is another compelling example of an immersive experience in history.

Also interesting are museums like the Leipzig Museum of Ethnology. They are part of a consortium of museums that create interactive temporary exhibitions through which artists respond to the objects in the collection. Many museums are taking this path of social arts practice, using their collections to teach skills, reasoning, and critical thinking.

You've had to reimagine the way people interact with museums. Tell us what you've done to digitise, and make things more interactive?

One of our significant learnings from the Covid-19 pandemic has been that the digital experience cannot replace the in-person physical event. Like a musical evening at the museum, for instance. Still, going digital created an excellent opportunity to inspire and delight a global audience, and illustrate the importance of our collection.

We began working with the Google Arts & Culture project in 2017. The ultra high-resolution digitisation of almost 200 of our artworks using Gigapixel technology has created a resource bank of modern Indian art, the likes of which exists nowhere else. To further expand our reach and make the collection uniquely accessible, we have made it available in English and Malayalam. This is the first collection from Kerala to harness multilingual capabilities of the Google Arts & Culture platform, enabling users and learners, whether on a large screen or a mobile device, to intuitively search and experience art in Malayalam and English.

Ten specially curated virtual exhibitions also explore the practice of Indian artists and artist collectives against the backdrop of the nation’s historical and cultural atmosphere. These successfully replicate a mini walk experience, allowing a user to get familiar with an artist’s body of work, or even a single painting in detail from the comfort of their own device anywhere in the world. The exhibitions tell the story of 20th Century India’s most prominent art movements, notably the Bengal School and Santiniketan, the Bombay Progressives, and the Baroda School.

During the pandemic, we also launched a series of film festivals (Museum Talkies International Film Festival), accepting submissions that harnessed the power of film to bring about change in society, or tell stories of change. One of the special categories worth mentioning is the short documentaries on the intangible heritage of India. We were able to screen films both at the museum and online, connecting with directors and film students from around the world.

You recently organised a basket-weaving workshop with a live demonstration of the kaithola technique, you have hosted film festivals and Wiki Edit-a-Thons to tell the stories of more women artists. What’s your approach to developing programs and events for the museum?

When I took up the role of Director at the museum, I kept asking myself, “What is the role of the Kerala Museum in the city of Kochi?” This meant not being content with the museum’s existing position, but retracing our steps, and rediscovering what our purpose is.

I had estimated that it would take three years to test various formats and configurations, and to get to know our audience. Just over a year into our test run, the pandemic hit. However, in that first year, I had designed 33 different events based on our art and history content, and launched onsite educational offerings like worksheets for children. Regular visitor numbers were up by 10 per cent with organically driven outreach.

In the age of audience segmentation, we want to make the museum universally accessible. But is that really possible? How is one to design something for everyone in a museum setting? For outstation visitors, people from the city, special focus groups, the general public, children, and teenagers. It wasn’t enough to bring in regular museum-goers, we had to reach new audiences. It is important that people with a variety of interests need to feel comfortable with the idea of spending time in a museum.

Photo credit: Aditi Nayar

You put a lot of effort into community events. Why has that been a focus for you?

I keep going back to our founder’s vision and words, “Knowledge of the arts creates better citizens,” and International Council of Museum’s guidelines which state that the museum can be an instrument for social change.

 Both of these point to community involvement, and therein lies the power of museums. We can only become relevant if we mean something to our community. 

So in the past few years, I have focussed on creating reasons for people to connect over experiences. I curated programs that stem from our core areas of heritage, history, art and performing arts, blended with ideas of the archive, technology, and environment. By facilitating interaction and removing the barriers between the stage and the audience, teacher and student, I maintain a peer-to-peer learning approach. For example, walk participants take over from our facilitators to share stories or information, making the experience even more enjoyable. We also interacted with our audiences through structured design thinking workshops to understand people’s expectations of the museum.

In the future, I want to ensure that the founder’s intended beneficiaries are at the top of our list of priorities. We can only bring about social change if we impact future generations. So children will remain the focus of the museum’s work. The hands-on workshops grounded in the museum’s content, or workshops with a local context like the kaithola craft encourage conversations and allow for slower experiences and explorations. These are invaluable learning experiences for children, providing the opportunity to deeply connect with oneself, and know oneself better.

Photo credit: Aditi Nayar

Can you tell us a bit about some of these events you’ve hosted?

I can tell you about a few that are close to my heart. In 2017, we collaborated with seven queer artists to advocate inclusive art spaces through ‘Homomorphism II’, an exhibition on self-acceptance and representations of the self. We extended support to the group by providing space for meetings and planning, curatorial assistance, publicity and promotion of the event, and so on.

In February 2019, we invited 200 children to experience folk drama and mime performances every day. This programme, ‘Aurora Borealis,’ was facilitated by a team of Swedish actors and musicians. They worked with teachers and students after each performance, and created exercises for the teachers to help them engage with their students.

In general for children, we focus on providing a framework that supports free flow, collaboration and imaginative play—things we feel they don’t get enough of in formal school. The museum’s sound and light stories are used as starting points for exploration, exercises, discussions, drawings, and so on. We often ask the accompanying school teachers to allow the children to complete the activity without guidance. This allows for freedom of expression and a rich peer-to-peer learning experience. For instance, through the Kathakali worksheet workshop, a child whose grandfather takes him for Kathakali performances, explained the colours, characters and plotlines while his classmates listened intently.

Photo credit: MN Foundation

We've been focusing on the idea of revival in all shapes and forms. In the context of your work, is there something specific that you've attempted to revive?

I’ve always tried to bring people together to share spaces. I firmly believe that the more we know about each other, the better we understand each other. As we take baby steps out of the pandemic experience, it has become even more critical to have shared communal events in spaces where we spend time appreciating beauty together.

The summer workshops that recently concluded at the Kerala Museum were designed to be deep explorations of natural materials and their conversion to man-made forms. Time slows down when we transform natural materials with our hands. A week is spent learning to roll a lump of clay into a ball. Gaining mastery requires real grit, attention and determination. And then, the children worked on ‘community sculptures’ while debating decision-making protocols to be used while creating work together. Older kids learned to accommodate the needs of younger kids. They understood why it’s vital to take care of the shared space of the museum.

While designing programmes for the future of the Kerala Museum, we want to raise awareness about the importance of that interconnectedness and coexistence.  

Revival, for us, means the co-creation of these values using the framework of the museum. We want to invite new experiences while still treasuring the framework upon which this museum was built. Our focus is to teach people about our heritage and history, but using modern approaches to do it. While we have come a long way from R. Madhavan Nayar’s plans for the museum, we believe that his intentions remain at the core of our work here. We hope that it will be a constant, dynamic and continuous process, which looks to the future, not the past.