Five artists and their mu­se­ums and what it means for their artis­tic en­ter­prise


Five artists and their mu­se­ums and what it means for their artis­tic en­ter­prise

WHEN IT OPENED IN April 2012 in a 19th-cen­tury house in the Cukur­cuma neigh­bour­hood of Is­tan­bul, Turk­ish au­thor Orhan Pa­muk’s Ma­sumiyet Muzesi, based on his 2008 novel The Mu­seum of In­no­cence, had a few dozen ce­ramic dogs, a tri­cy­cle, old clocks, soda bot­tles, clips of films, lot­tery tick­ets, a sin­gle ear­ring and 4,213 cig­a­rette butts. The last had been touched by nos­tal­gia and melan­choly, as well as by Fusun, the ob­ject of the book’s wealthy pro­tag­o­nist Ke­mal’s ob­ses­sive de­sire.

Pa­muk’s grand ode to love and mem­ory was ac­tu­ally a call for “small and eco­nom­i­cal mu­se­ums that ad­dress our hu­man­ity”, as he had said at the time. And so if Mithu Sen’s (Sex­u­alised) Mu­seum of Un­be­long­ing is a sin­gle vit­rine of what the Queens Mu­seum in New York de­scribed as “toy-like ab­surd ob­jects from her per­sonal archive”, artist Su­bodh Gupta’s stu­dio is an in­dus­trial shed where he welds metal and en­tire

uni­verses. “Ev­ery artist has a mu­seum,” he says. “I col­lect mu­se­ums.” Pho­tog­ra­pher Dayanita Singh be­lieves “large mu­se­ums need to open doors to smaller ones”, and has built mu­se­ums within mu­se­ums. Car­natic vo­cal­ist T.M. Kr­ishna treats an en­tire fish­ing ham­let as his liv­ing mu­seum, min­ing arte­facts that he can show­case, such as a for­got­ten drum­beat or a lost way of life. As Eric Miller, di­rec­tor, World Sto­ry­telling In­sti­tute, de­scribes it, “A ‘liv­ing mu­seum’ is that in which the ob­jects on dis­play are still in ev­ery­day use, and the mu­seum guides in­clude mem­bers of the com­mu­nity.” It’s a mu­seum with­out walls, where ev­ery­thing—cel­e­bra­tion, mourn­ing, wor­ship, song and dance—show­cases a liv­ing her­itage.

The Mu­seum of Par­ti­tion is more than a tra­di­tional mu­seum. As Kish­war De­sai, Chair of The Arts and Cul­tural Her­itage Trust that man­ages it, says, it’s a place for cathar­sis, a “space to heal”.

The fu­ture of mu­se­ums, Pa­muk be­lieves, should be­gin at home, sit­u­at­ing ob­jects in their con­text in­stead of up­root­ing them, telling sto­ries of the ev­ery­day rather than a grand nar­ra­tive, doc­u­ment­ing per­sonal, not of­fi­cial his­tory, en­com­pass­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of hu­mans, not em­pires.

No longer then does a mu­seum have to be a grave­yard of his­tory, show­cas­ing a past way of life through ob­jects frozen in time and space, and viewed through a lens of moder­nity. Sen’s mu­seum is a dare to per­ma­nence. It morphs, shifts and chal­lenges the no­tion of mu­seum as mau­soleum. Long ago, when her par­ents were pack­ing up to leave yet another city on yet another trans­fer, she had felt the pain in her be­ing. When her fa­ther asked her if ev­ery­thing had been packed, she had screamed ‘no’, be­cause the empty rooms held so much. She had then run to a plant in the back­yard and whis­pered to it. In this life, we shall never meet again. That’s how un­be­longed she had felt leav­ing empty rooms and liv­ing trees be­hind. She treats the ob­jects in her mu­seum as “chil­dren” from her af­fairs with trav­el­ling, un­fet­tered by bor­ders, eth­nic­i­ties, sex­u­al­ity or form.

Mu­se­ums in them­selves have no po­lit­i­cal power, yet the very process of ar­chiv­ing can be turned into a po­lit­i­cal pro­ject. It is this tyranny of form and struc­ture that the five artists pro­filed here seek to lib­er­ate their mu­se­ums from.

Pho­to­graphs by Ban­deep Singh

Mithu Sen

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