There can be little doubt that Covid-19 is leaving in its wake a world with heightened inequities, monumental poverty, and drastically reduced access to opportunities. How does a museum deal with such a world, and sustain its efforts to remain an inclusive space? It’s an immense challenge for us in the Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH), the most-visited (and one of the most-loved, according to Tripadvisor) museum in India, the world’s largest democracy.
In ‘normal’ circumstances, we try to keep the VMH sensitive to the needs of people with various requirements. This involves curating special programmes for people, including children with special needs, single parents, residents of senior homes, and those who are gender-nonconforming, among others. Since the campus stretches across 57 acres and is car-free, we provide battery-operated golf-carts from the main gate for elderly persons and people with physical challenges. We always try to bring more underrepresented groups and underprivileged children to the museum, and curate programmes and activities tailored to them. And over the past year we have introduced a mother-and-child room for breastfeeding mothers and free sanitary products in the public toilets. The aim is to move towards becoming a more caring institution; one that actively listens to the voices of the underrepresented.
In a post-Covid world, we have no choice but to become increasingly digital, but this cannot be taken as a panacea in a world where connectivity and bandwidth define the new fault lines of privilege and entitlement. So how can we undertake our mission to reach the ‘unreached’?
Can we redefine ‘digital’ to democratise it; to bring it closer to the ground? Can we use the airwaves and the radio for talk shows, or public television for programmes that engage without the dazzle and the glitz? Also, can we bring back the focus on serving local communities – maybe programmes and shows that are not that grand or ambitious, but those that connect or resonate with the local patrons, and provide a sense of connection people will surely be craving after this prolonged period of social isolation? How can we put social media to use? We definitely need to go digital – there is scarcely any other choice – but that move will need to embrace the low-tech and the local.
We are therefore trying to rethink the question of ‘accessibility’ all over again, and kicking off a series of online programmes with our own International Museum Day event,‘#VMHcomesHome with Inclusive Museum Learning,’ for which we have partnered with the Mumbai-based organization Access for All to craft thought-provoking exercises for children, inspired by our collection. The aim is to not only offer some fun-filled activities to children, but also to train parents, caretakers and teachers to use museum objects as educational tools for all, including those with special needs. In our own little way we are trying to redefine ‘digital’; to democratise it; to bring it closer to the ground. To do it with care and sensitivity defines the roadmap ahead.