Bengaluru | The Museum of Art and Photography is breaking the white cube
The Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) is a curious case study of India’s changing relationship with art. Industrialist Abhishek Poddar’s philanthropic initiative to make his formidable collection of art, photography and textiles available to the public took off as a digital platform in 2016. Since then, the museum has launched a series of educational ventures in collaboration with notable international museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as well as tech giants like Accenture and Microsoft.
Now, in a reversal of the usual offline-to-digital transition that most museums are forced to make, MAP will take physical form in the heart of Bengaluru at a stunning five-storey museum, set to open to the public in mid February 2023. It will include four large galleries, an extensive library, a multimedia gallery, a 130-seat auditorium, a technology centre, a sculpture courtyard, a research and conservation laboratory, a learning centre, a gift store, a café, and a fine-dining restaurant on the terrace. “MAP’s mission is to take art into the heart of the community,” says museum director Kamini Sawhney. “We’re looking at democratising art, and changing the whole museum-going experience for the country.”
AI and helpful holograms
The digital life of MAP will continue to stay alive and well even in the physical museum space: for one, an AI-powered hologram of MF Husain, created by MAP Labs in collaboration with Accenture, will greet visitors and answer all manner of questions from, “Why did you like horses?” to “Why did you go barefoot?”
Moreover, a multimedia gallery is fitted with multiple digital screens that allow audiences to pull up any of the nearly 60,000 digitised artworks that MAP is custodian to. This means the entirety of MAP’s collection remains accessible, even when it is not physically on display. “I see the virtual and the physical as two parts of a whole,” admits Sawhney, “I don’t see MAP as being just a physical space… [or] just being a digital platform; we are learning how to combine the two. The idea is to enhance the experience of your audience.”
Bengaluru-based architecture firm Mathew & Ghosh, that designed the museum building, translated the “outward focus” of MAP’s intention into a 44,000 sq.ft. structure that appears to expand outwards — with the footprint expanding on the higher levels. Soumitro Ghosh made a specific reference to colonial-era water containers. “It is a metaphor for how art tends to break boundaries and put pressure on society to question itself and its norms,” he says. “That was kind of translated into this idea of the building itself having an outward pressure.”
The architects have also worked with Diversity and Equal Opportunity Centre to build accessibility into the fabric of the museum. “Besides ramps, we also looked at the positioning of door handles, wheelchair friendly ticket counters, and quiet rooms for people who get over-simulated and need some time to calm down,” explains Sawhney.
Growing a cultural hub
The MAP collection is loosely divided into six categories: Pre-modern; Modern and Contemporary; Textiles, Craft and Design; Living Traditions (which is typically understood to include folk and tribal art); Photography; and Popular Culture. “Popular culture is Bollywood posters, calendar art, advertisements, and the like,” explains Sawhney. “All these things, which represent mass culture, are important hooks to draw people in. When they enter the museum, they feel that this is a space that reflects part of their life.”
To showcase the breadth of their collection, MAP will open with three inaugural showcases: they will emphasise their holding of photography through a rare exhibition of works by modernist printmaker, painter and photographer Jyoti Bhatt that will draw from 1,000 prints and 60,000 negatives; Karnataka-based artist L.N. Tallur, who works between India and South Korea, will respond to MAP’s collection of sacred objects like kinnaras (celestial musicians that are part human, part bird) and deepalakshmis (a representation of goddess Lakshmi holding a lamp) through an Artificial Intelligence-powered project Chirag-e-AI that will create intersections between AI and ritualistic belief systems; and finally, Visible/Invisible, curated by Sawhney, will explore the visual representation of women in art (from the 10th century to the present) through a three-year exhibition of 130 works from MAP’s permanent collection.
The exhibitions will be accompanied by educational initiatives through the year, including a conference of women’s issues which is slated for March 2023. “We want MAP to be a cultural hub, a space for ideas and conversations,” says Sawhney. “Our collection becomes the starting point, but we want a more interactive relationship with our audiences — we don’t want to be the dominant voice.”
Ghosh, for his part, imagines that MAP’s many initiatives will quickly expand beyond the trappings of its physical space and go from being a single location into a network of interconnected spaces in the urban landscape. “I don’t see this as an end in itself; it’s just a beginning,” he admits. “We have tried to make all provisions — whether it is for power access or data security — but I am sure the curators and the artists are going to challenge those boundaries every time they set up a new show. It’s going to be continuously evolving. That’s part of the game.”
The freelance writer and playwright is based in Mumbai.