Arts + Design

How to create a museum — wherever you are

Dec 14, 2016 /
Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

How the setting for Slumdog Millionaire became the location for a unique and vibrant pushcart museum.

By 2030, some two billion people — or nearly a quarter of humanity — will be living in informal settlements like Dharavi, the dense and intense home to one million residents in Mumbai, India. As more of the world’s rural poor move to urban centers in search of opportunity, such makeshift neighborhoods will play a major role. But please don’t call them slums, say two Amsterdam-based creative partners: curator Amanda Pinatih and artist Jorge Mañes Rubio, a TED Fellow (TEDxMadrid talk: Souvenirs that reimagine the world around us). “By continuing to call the communities ‘slums,’ these areas and their inhabitants are being cast as a problem to be excluded,” they say, “rather than a group to be supported as part of society’s fabric and future.”

Earlier this year, the pair co-founded a design museum in the heart of Dharavi, which was the setting for the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. Pinatih and Mañes Rubio wanted to overturn, as they put it, “the western idea of a museum, which tends to be associated with gigantic buildings, star architects and a big dose of glamour and sterilized culture.”

Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi
The Design Museum Dharavi became a showcase for local makers’ work, featuring everything from chai cups and bowls (front) to water containers and brooms (rear). Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

By contrast, their museum was a gently lit pushcart that opens up into a mini-gallery filled with colorful objects like chai cups, water filters and cricket bats, all created by makers from the community. “We want to use design as a tool to promote social change and innovation, challenging the negative perception of informal settlements and reimagining the museum of the future,” says Mañes Rubio. Here, he and Pinatih give a step-by-step playbook to building a museum that showcases a neighborhood’s vibrant art (and spirit).

Find the person who knows everyone
When Mañes Rubio first went to Dharavi in 2011, he was impressed by the artistry and entrepreneurial spirit of the residents. “Families who had mastered the same craftsmanship for generations lived next door to those who were using modern manufacturing technologies, like laser-cutting,” he recalls. He met Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, co-founders of urbz, an experimental urban research and action collective based in India and South America. Later, they began talking about creating a museum in the settlement, and in early 2016, Mañes Rubio and Pinatih were introduced to Shyam Kanle, who works part-time for urbz.

Born and raised in Dharavi, Kanle comes from a family who have been masters in the crafts of basketry and broom-making for generations. “When walking through the streets with Shyam, you’d think he was a Bollywood star or a well-known politician, because he shakes hands with everybody!” say the founders. “He knows everyone in Dharavi. He helped us find makers to work with and got them to trust us.” More than 60 of the settlement’s artisans, tradespeople and small-business owners ended up as part of the museum.

Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi
At the museum, Dharavi artisans demonstrate the skill and labor that goes into their pieces. Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

Make your museum mobile
“One of the most important characteristics of the museum is that it’s nomadic, to cope with the ever-shifting use of space in that dense environment,” say the founders. All over Dharavi, people use pushcarts to sell different goods, resulting in a user-generated market that keeps reinventing itself. “This inspired us to create a pushcart-based, nomadic exhibition space that works both as a venue and as a meeting point for cultural exchange and innovation. Moving from place to place lets the museum interact and engage with different neighborhoods and their communities, too,” they explain. In its nine months, the museum occupied three different sites in the three-square-kilometer area of Dharavi.

Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi
Makers were encouraged to rethink their products. One of the results: beautifully hand-carved cricket bats. Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

Coax makers to leave their comfort zones
Pinatih and Mañes Rubio wanted to give the makers — who were largely accustomed to making everyday, functional products — the freedom to experiment with their pieces for the museum: “We pushed ourselves and them to think of brand-new products to make using their traditional techniques, of creating new ways to make objects, or of recasting or reforming their products into impossible shapes.” While Design Museum Dharavi was intended to serve as a community showcase rather than as a shop, one beneficial result of the project is that some of the tradespeople have incorporated their new methods and products into what they sell to the public.

Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi
The museum held a cricket tournament where the bats got a workout. Dharavi tailors made the players’ shirts, which were also embellished by local embroiderers. Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

Encourage aesthetics that reflect local identity
It may not be apparent to visitors quickly passing by, but Dharavi — like most of India — has a vibrant visual culture. “From outside, informal settlements may seem gray and dusty, but inside Dharavi, every corner is decorated in bright colors,” say Mañes Rubio. “This is part of the community’s identity, and we wanted to represent that freedom in the pieces we showed.” For example, water containers are a common household object in Dharavi and are usually red (the color of the clay). So the founders asked the potters to design them as exuberantly as their homes, where doors, courtyards and walls are a riot of hues. “The result were completely new and eye-catching artifacts,” says Mañes Rubio.

Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi
Dharavi is a densely settled neighborhood, with one million people living in three square kilometers. Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

By putting pieces like these in the museum, the founders were hoping to give people a different perspective on the settlement, one they might not get by walking through it. “Sometimes visitors would say: ‘I can’t believe these are made in Dharavi!’” say Pinatih and Mañes Rubio. This, in turn, inspired curiosity — and conversations with the makers about their work. “If objects are carefully made, people will get interested in the stories behind them,” they add.

Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi
Some of the colorful chai cups created for the museum. Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

Think about the bigger picture
The museum closed at the end of October, but the founders are trying to turn it into an ongoing, sustainable institution in Dharavi. They’d also like to launch similar initiatives around the world. Of course, they’d be thrilled if other people are inspired to do the same. (They recently published a limited-edition book documenting the project.) Their advice to would-be curators: “Create a museum where the walls are transparent — a museum that encourages a greater diversity, not only in the pieces exhibited but in the audience that it attracts — and make sure it has a socially relevant role in your community.”

Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi
This handmade book documented the Dharavi project, including a manual of lessons learned. Courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

Above all, people brainstorming the museums of the future should not forget the importance of delight. Puzzled at first by Design Museum Dharavi, the children in the settlement eventually came to describe it as “a magic show without the tricks.” Perhaps someday every neighborhood — large and small — will be home to its very own magic show.