Museum Display and Its Role in an ‘Immersive’ Experience

by Ms. Deeplakshmi B. Saikia

HeritageForAll Heritage Intern (Call 2018) from Assam, India

According to the ICOM definition, a museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. Therefore, one of the chief functions of a museum is the exhibition of its invaluable collections. Display is an integral part of museum exhibitions. However, this display is not a random showcasing of museum objects. A lot of thought goes behind this presentation of objects of cultural, historical, social and political importance. It is an organized presentation of a selection of items from among a vast number. As a matter of fact, exhibitions can occur not only in the space of a museum but also in art galleries, libraries, fairs, parks, etc. But the display of objects of importance is usually a long process which involves asking and answering a lot of questions, which will involve guidelines regarding the project management, the audience development plan, the interpretation plan, legal requirements, provision of maximum access, etc.

The most important people to consider when displaying museum objects are the stakeholders of the display. This will include not only people of the museum or people who are going to financially invest in the display, but also the local connections to the objects and the audience to whom the exhibition is targeted. They will have to be a part of the development process and it is often found that consulting people from these backgrounds will present a wealth of knowledge which should be utilized when developing an exhibition. An exhibition proposal usually aids in clearly communicating the ideas and objectives to the people involved in museum display. The organizers also have to think beyond the immediate display, and consider other options which may make the exhibition more attractive and accessible to people from different backgrounds, and also aid in interpretation. It is usually the objectives and the target audience that assist in the selection of the objects that are going to be displayed. And if the objects that are to be displayed have to be borrowed from other institutions, it will involve another lengthy process of insurance, security requirements, contract regarding the duration of borrowing, etc. Objects that are stable, not deteriorating and not physically poisonous to the audience will be displayed. They need to convey the intended message or story. Assistance may also be sought from other objects. This may include graphic panels (text and images); object labels; audio; video; immersive effects such as sequenced presentations with audio, film and lighting; lighting effects; low-tech interactive such as incorporation of text, film, flipbooks and audio; computerized and programmed high-tech interactives; hand boards which will incorporate text and images; events such as workshops; printed text such as leaflets, trails and education packs; live interpretation which will involve actors in role-play; models like scale models, props, dioramas, and reconstructions; images and illustrations like photographs, maps, drawings and diagrams; etc. Designing the layout will have to consider the requirements of the objects as well as the requirements of the exhibition.

Passage to Asylum: The Journey of a Million Refugees is an exhibition going on the India International Centre in New Delhi. It is an immersive art experience presented by the Migration and Asylum Project, and it marks the various stages of a refugee’s life. The artist of the installation is Kalyani Nedungadi, who drew inspiration for the exhibition from both the accounts of real refugees, as well as a number of artists who deal with the subject of chaos, upheaval, and art as a space. The exhibition designer is Maya Gupta. Passage to Asylum is a series of six contiguous installations or “rooms” that symbolically depict the various stages of a refugee’s journey- home, conflict, transit, alien country, asylum tribunal, and if they are lucky, asylum. If they are not, the deportation corridor signifies the continuing limbo and turmoil of their lives. The rooms are designed to be viewed in the accompaniment of a audio guide. However, viewers are warned that audio clips may be disturbing and thus they are advised caution. At the start of the exhibition, viewers are asked to choose a coloured card with a refugee profile. The card of the same colour has to be picked up at the beginning of each room.

House 808 or Room 1 represents all that was left behind due to conflict: personal belongings, memories, a life, a home. It speaks of a time before conflict, when refugees were just like ordinary people, having an identity, a job, children, neighbours, a preferred tea shop, a favourite shop from which to watch television when the day is done.

Room 1 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia)

Room 2 depicted an exploded room with objects, furnishings, photograph, toys, etc. hanging mid-air symbolizing an explosion. Just as home disintegrates into conflict, room 1 disintegrates into room 2. Although not all asylum-seekers are running from active war zones, the guiding pamphlet makes it clear that all refugees are fleeing violence. The suspended objects in room2 are symbolic of the great upheaval that wrenches their lives apart, forcing them to brave the terrible unknown in search of safety.

Room 2 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia)

Room 3 is titled Transit. The road to refuge is filled with a million wrong turns. Passports confiscated, money stolen, belongings left, lives lost. The maze of room3 is a symbolic representation of the long, dangerous road taken in hope of reaching safe haven. Debris from the previous section marks the beginning of this difficult crossing, slowly transforming into the claustrophobic spaces that asylum-seekers squeeze themselves into as they cross borders alongside cattle and cargo, with only the dregs of the life they left behind.

Room 3 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia)

Room 4 is titled Alien Country. With the aid of lighting and audio, the room, even though empty seems like it is filled with the hubbub of unknown people. A thousand alien voices and bodies surround the asylum seeker who manages to make it to a foreign land. Here is a hostile world. Here, it is nearly impossible to understand, to be understood, to seek shelter, to find food, to ask for aid. Here, it seems impossible to belong. In this installation, one can work their way through the crowd and still be alone.

Room 4 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia)

Room 5 called the Asylum Tribunal is where an asylum-seeker’s fate is decided. Will they gain refugee status? Will they be rejected? Will they be detained? Will they be deported back to the turbulence they only just escaped? If the visitor chose to pick up their refugee profile cards along the way, they will now find out whether their profile was accepted or rejected. In this room, there are also boards busting myths regarding migration and providing facts.

Room 5 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia)

Room 6 will either be asylum or deportation. If one’ card profile was rejected, they enter the deportation corridor which is the same as room 4 or Alien Country. One’s place in the exhibition reflects the fate of many asylum-seekers- in limbo, i.e., between asylum and conflict. They may be able to appeal their case may be detained, may have been deported back to their home country. On the other hand, if one’s card profile is accepted, one has now gained asylum. The room depicts the hope of a fresh start, but with the knowledge that this life is not the same as the one left behind. It is hard to get a job, it is hard to find a school, it is difficult to find prospects. This room juxtaposes the hardship and bleakness of the present with an eternal hope for the future.

Room 6 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia)

Room 6 (© Deeplakshmi Saikia)

Immigration is an issue which is very relevant in today’s times in almost all countries. Different people, belonging to different spheres of life, have tried to tackle it differently. Many artists have also utilized this theme as a part of their artwork, installations, or to spread awareness and raise questions about immigration. The subject of the movement of people is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is to be discussed how display has contributed to make the exhibition an immersive experience, as it has claimed to be.

The objects chosen to be displayed as a part of the rooms are indicative of stages of life of a refugee. Therefore, with the help of a few objects and assisting audio, one stage has been symbolized. In the first room, a bed, a sofa, a television, cutlery, portraits on the wall, a small table, a few books on a shelf, etc. are indicative of a fairly normal life. The same things, which if blown up, are shown in shatters and suspended mid-air in the next room. The third room shows a make-shift room, and certain kinds of objects, which people may pick up when leaving their home indefinitely and in a hurry. Attention is drawn to a family photograph stuck on the wall. The fourth room which symbolizes an alien country is actually menacing. With the help of lighting effects which cast shadows of people around the visitor, and the audio guide playing the noise of several people conversing incoherently at once, one is made to feel lonely and amongst strangers. The fifth room which determines whether we have been granted asylum or deported also has a staff member who provides us with details about the entire process of asylum-seeking and is ready for any discussion. The sixth room, if we have been granted asylum, is a sparsely but properly-decorated room, indicating a new life.

Mention here can be also made about how colour symbolism has been used in the display of the stages in the life of a refugee. The stages which are relatively peaceful, such as the room signifying home, and the room signifying asylum, are painted white. They are tidy, and also feature cheerful colours. There is even a trunk in the middle of the ‘Asylum’ room, which has certain objects and string lights, exuding positive vibes. On the other hand, it may also be assumed that the featuring of these lights in the ‘Asylum’ room are indicative of forced positivity. This was absent in the ‘Home’ room. In that stage, there was no need of any extra appendages to impart or indicate happiness. The people were at peace in their ordinary everyday life.

In contrast, the harsh stages such as ‘Conflict’ and ‘Transit’ feature gloomy darker tones, such as brown. Everything is in ruins and the refugees have only been able to save a few items from their previous life. Even the room indicating and ‘Alien Country’ is terrifying because of its apparent lack of colours, constantly moving shadows, and netted curtains which may imply a confusing maze.

In addition to viewing, touching objects can also contribute to having a truly immersive experience. Security is an issue which mainly arises when the things are displayed as a part of the exhibition are valuable because they are one of kind. They have to be protected from human interaction because they are antique or expensive and may be damaged or stolen. But in the case of an exhibition like Passage to Asylum, the objects displayed are in no danger of being touched or stolen. Actually, the instinct to touch and feel the objects does not arise in an exhibition like this because like the presentation claims, it is an immersive experience. The objects surround the people so that they feel like they are completely involved in the main issue- immigration. This is also a challenge because the objects have to feel authentic to the audience. They have to impart the intended message not only visually but also through touch.

Therefore, as is apparent, display does not only consist of merely putting up certain objects to be viewed by audience. The proposal of the exhibition which includes selection of the people that will be involved, selection of objects, budget, etc. is only the preliminary stage of an exhibition. Also, it can never be ascertained what kind of response will be elicited by the display of certain objects. The exhibitioners can work towards imparting a certain message but the audiences also, when they visit these displays, come with their own unique baggage, which will affect their interpretation.

However, the important thing to remember here is the fact that even seemingly ordinary everyday objects can be displayed to signify something else entirely. It is not only the display of antiquities which can be used to impart socially relevant information. Commonplace objects, when combined with the proper context and sometimes with the help of technology, can elicit the intended response from the audience.


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