by Ms. Deeplakshmi B. Saikia
HeritageForAll Heritage Intern (Call 2018) from Assam, India
“Briefly, the purpose and the only purpose of museums is education in its whole varied aspects from scholarly research to the simple arousing of curiosity. That education, however, must be active, not passive and it must always be intimately connected with the life of the people. (It)…must be thought of as existing for the public and not as processes isolated and self-sufficient unto themselves.” -Theodore Low (1942)
It has been defined by ICOM a museum as “a non-profit making permanent institution, in the service of the society and its development and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, communicates and exhibits, researches for the purpose of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of men and his environment,” in olden times, museum was the temple of Muses which referred to a place of worship. In the Greek schools of philosophy, studying of philosophy was regarded as an offering to the Muses and thus see how there is an element of sacredness in educational institutions and learning. So, the temple of the Muses was a sacred site of learning.
The Indian counterpart of the Muses, goddess Sarawasti, was originally a river. Considering a divine river, she is said to have descended upon Earth from the heavens. During the Vedic era, she came to be identified with Vac, goddess of speech, and this is how the epithet ‘Devi’ came to be attached with Sarawasti because Devi in Hindi means ‘goddess’. Thus, Sarawasti came to be regarded as the goddess of wisdom and eloquence. The earliest temple of Saraswati Devi was built in the 12th century AD by the Paramara king Bhoja. It was called Saraswati Mandir or the temple of learning. Thus, in the Indian context too, education and learning has had a relation with sacredness. Therefore, museums have a revered element attached to it in the subcontinent that to be evident from the fact which even today a few museums in Rajasthan and Gujarat are called Saraswati Mandirs- temples of learning.
Therefore, from the earliest times, even when museums were considered to be little more than cabinets of curiosities, research and learning have been associated with these institutions, even though changes have occurred in accessibility. Earlier, museums and their collections could be accessed only by scholars and members of the elite society but there has been a change in recent times regarding public access to these hallowed institutions, with education being considered as one of the primary functions of museums.
All of the major international organizations deal with museums, including their definition of a museum, the role of education. The educational role of museums is even included indirectly in the ten fundamental duties of the Indian constitution. These obligations of the Indian citizens, which include valuing and preservation of Indian heritage, protection and improvement of the natural environment and development of a scientific temple, humanism and spirit of enquiry and reform, can be achieved with the aid of museums.
But, museum education differs from the formal education most people are familiar with and experience in educational institutions such as schools, colleges and universities. Museums do not actively enforce learning but they provide a situation conducive to learning for visitors. It depends on the people themselves what and how they choose to learn or not learn anything at all. Thus, museums have been said to contain many of the elements of self-directed learning. In self-directed learning, it is the learner who assumes the control of the learning process. Choice of the learner is of foremost importance in such learning but it is the museum which provides the conditions which determine this choice. When there is a choice and the person feels comfortable with that approach and has the required skills, they choose that approach of learning. However, museum visitors experience, a collection of phenomenon and their learning, even in one visit is not limited to learning through one experience.
Some of the ways through which museums conduct their educational activities in a museum are exhibitions, loan services to schools, guided tours, training of teachers, film trips, publications, labels, school class visits, illustrated lectures, secondary collections, replicas, motion pictures, travelling exhibition, etc. Among these, exhibition of collections is the primary way of educating in most museums. All museums have a collection of prized possessions, no matter numerically how big or small. But exhibiting these objects is one of the primary tasks of a museum. Besides clearly stating what these objects are through labels that are short, meaningful and to the point, the main objective of the museum should be accessibility to these objects. Because if people are not even able to experience these objects, then it is of no significance how well they are displayed. It will still resemble a warehouse of goods seldom visited by people.
By accessibility to museum objects here is meant accessibility by differently-abled people who might have different needs and requirements in order to visit museums and experience their collections. This would mean that museums need to adopt and practice a democratic pedagogy- a concept which was conceived and studied by John Dewey. Pedagogy means the method and practice of teaching. Democracy, to go by the simple definition, means something that is of the people, by the people and for the people. Therefore, democratic pedagogy means a method of imparting education which can be accessed by all people regardless of their abilities and/or disabilities. Such kind of education has been called “progressive education” by Dewey. Progressive education is different from “static” education in the sense that the former is needed for a society which is not perfect and needs to progress. Thus progressive education is needed to facilitate social justice and increased democracy. Unlike “static” education, it is not simply passing down of information from generation to generation because the present conditions are not perfect and they need changes.
Thus, progressive education is intimately linked to a democracy in which individual rights are of utmost importance. This can be applied in the case of access to museums by differently-abled people because when they are not able to experience museum collections, they are actually being denied some of their basic fundamental rights. This is a glaring example of one of the various kinds of inequalities rampant in our current society. This gap between people and the status quo cannot be challenged with static education but instead a kind of progressive education is needed.
Fortunately, many museum professionals have not only debated and discussed these kinds of problems being faced by their museums but have also practically applied some of the solutions being suggested by persons experienced in the field of these issues. The Anubhav gallery in the National Museum at New Delhi is an example of this.
Anubhav Gallery: a Tactile Experience
Anubhav is a gallery in the National Museum which caters to the needs of people with disabilities, especially the visually challenged. The gallery was developed with the collaboration of UNESCO; Saksham (an NGO working with blind persons); Open Knowledge Community (OKC); Indian Institute of Tchnology, Delhi (IIT); and the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD). It has been designed completely pro-bono by Mr. Amardeep Labana and his team who is an architect and a volunteer at National Museum. The audio-guide and other interpretations have been developed with assistance from Mr. Siddhant Shah who also works with Museum and access.
The gallery has on display 22 replicas of museum objects from the collection of the National Museum which can be experienced by the visitors through touch. There are Braille labels as well as an audio guide. The objects range from archaeological finds, sculptures, paintings, utilitarian objects, ethnographic objects, and decorative arts. Entry is also free for persons who are differently-abled. Although it is mentioned in the website of the National Museum that tickets for this gallery should be booked at least 3 days in advance, it is seen that people can enter the gallery any time they want to with a usual ticket. It is also mentioned that the maximum number of visitors allowed at a time would be 10 but this is also not strictly adhered to as is seen.
The Anubhav gallery is not only meant for the differently-abled. Some of the replicas displayed there have been magnified to such an extent that upon touching it, the various details of the original object become apparent. For instance, a mid-19th century coin from the Awadh region has been recreated in 23-inch diameter and 2-inch thickness to offer a detailed sensory experience. This is very enlightening even for people who are not visually impaired because even though they can see, they are also usually restricted from touching museum objects.
The National Museum, in their website, states why this gallery was formulated and established. It states:
“National Museum continuously works towards improving its facilities for visitors – children, tourists and cultural enthusiasts. The overall objective is to make the Museum inclusive for all. While a small percentage of the Museum’s visitor base comprises of people with disabilities, in the past one year the Museum has succeeded in increasing its visibility among this section by collaborating with organizations working for people with disabilities and developing programs which are specially designed for visually impaired visitors. Programs, such as storytelling sessions for visually impaired audiences, tactile exhibition displays, workshops/seminars, and touch tour of select museum objects for museum walk-ins are a few tailor-made programs which were developed and implemented in 2014 to increase participation of visitors from all sections of society.
This endeavor is also in line with the initiatives started in the last year. In October 2014, National Museum was invited to a National conference and Exhibition on ICTs for persons with disabilities: Taking Stock and Identifying Opportunities. The conference was organized by UNESCO. At this conference it was decided that National Museum will examine its museum’s accessibility – physical and intellectual. As a follow up, National Museum’s Education department and Outreach department met members from the Cultural Sector of UNESCO, Saksham and National platform for the rights of the disabled (NPRD).”
Touching of artworks and artefacts in museums is strictly prohibited and tactile galleries such as Anubhav may solve this problem to a certain extent. However, there also lie challenges in the formation of such galleries. To give any object such a form that it can be visualized upon touching is a great challenge in itself. For instance, how can a painting with flat colors be given a form that can be experienced by the blind? Although some museums have tried to solve this, such as the Prado museum in Madrid, by giving a three-dimensional form to the paintings, this cannot be an accurate experience of viewing a painting. Therefore, selection of objects of a museum to be given a three-dimensional form is also a challenge in itself.
Evidently, it is through its collection that a museum imparts education to its visitors. Other activities or facilitators are appendages to the objects. However, it is because of these very facilitators themselves that some sections of the population are able to experience a museum’s collection. The name “Anubhav” translate into “experience” in Hindi and it is apt because that is the very goal and function of the gallery. Although the gallery is not without any shortcomings, it is a commendable effort by the National Museum officials and everybody associated with the formulation and functioning of the gallery. It is said that India does not possess a museum culture. If people who are able-bodied and capable of visiting museums are not doing so, then it is not surprising that people with disabilities avoid visiting museums even more. However, in recent times, efforts have been undertaken by many museums and galleries to cater to the different needs of the people and through devising of unconventional methods besides replicas and Braille labels. Museums have to undertake these initiatives if they are to impart information based on their collections and fulfill one of their basic functions- education.
- ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums
- Singh, Prabhas Kumar. “Museum and Education”. Orissa Historical Research Journal, Vol. XLVII, No. 1
- Hein, George E. (Autumn, 2015) A Democratic Theory of Education, Museologica Brunesia
- Veldhuizen, Arja van. (October 2017) Education Toolkit: Methods & Techniques from Museum and Heritage Education. LCM, Erfoedhuis Zuid-Holland, ICOM-CECA.
- Banz, Richard. (2008) Self-Directed Learning: Implications for Museums, The Journal of Museum Education 33 (1), Adult Learning in Museums, 43-54.
- Vallance, Elizabeth (2006) Finding Order: Curriculum Theory and the Qualities of Museum Education, The Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 31, No.2, Expanding Conversations: How Curriculum Theory Can Inform Museum Education Practice, 133-141.