Nature is the ideal model of diversity. To best understand this, we need to look into a garden that grows on its own, wildly. Contrarily, when cash crops were introduced in India for higher productivity and material returns, most Indian fields lost their natural fertility. As a result, fertilizers were introduced to improve productivity. In reality, if we had allowed the various plants and weeds to keep on growing in the same piece of land, it would have been naturally fertile: the strength of one would have supported the weakness of the other and vice-versa. We often enter the diversity and inclusion discourse like a ‘fertilizer’. In the natural world, diversity and inclusion are not two opposing fields, they are synonymous. We must learn from that.
One of the key reasons cited by scientists around the spread of the pandemic has been human neglect of natural diversity. Dangerous viruses that survive quietly within the biodiversity of lush rainforests have been ushered into urbanity through practices of greed, scale and extraction. Globalisation has led to an unwanted, unwarranted uniformity in practices and thought processes on a huge scale which has almost dissolved away the benefits of diversity. This is reflective in our food habits, choice of work and livelihoods, social practices and survival methods.
Museums have quietly been facing the lack of diversity for a while now. In India, museums have only just transitioned from being deeply hierarchical institutions of knowledge to socially relevant experiences. This transition has taught us a lot, and now the pandemic will sharply draw into focus how important it is for us to allow diversity to remain. But we must understand diversity in the context of museums a little differently – museums are storehouses of objects, yes, but more importantly they are a sediment of ideas that have accumulated through decades of research, reinterpretation and debate. If ideas are the rock-bed of the museum’s existence, they should provide it with nutrients at all times – even in times of crisis.
Take for example our museum in Mumbai – the CSMVS has a large collection of objects representing Indian and world art. Each of these artefacts brings with them ideas that are not static; that change with every human interaction (through viewership, exhibitions, publications, programming and experiments). To freeze an object with one idea will be akin to killing its diversity.
Ideas and interpretations can come from anywhere, and this would mean that museums have to stop canonizing and standardizing knowledge and information. This would mean we will soon be ushering a wide range of people into our museums to work alongside each other. There will be fewer hierarchies, more time taken to understand each other, and slow results. In world parlance, we will not just need people of colour in our cultural institutions, we will need people of colour to bring with them their own knowledge systems.
The focus will shift towards processes, and grand ideas of scale and spectacle may die a natural death. The arts will become more intimate, people may become quieter, and we will enter a world of introspection, granularity and introversion – all essential ingredients for survival.
In arts institutions, it is one of our duties to shape the future of the world. We are hives of imagination and creativity – faculties that help humans survive through unknown circumstances, such as the one facing us now. In my opinion, museums of the future will embrace flexibility, playfulness and rejoice in diverse wisdoms to show the world a natural path to remedy and resilience.