A few weeks ago, the British artist Clare Twomey converted one section of London’s Tate Modern into a functional ceramics factory. The space was equipped with all the appurtenances of industrial production, including a 30-metre-long assembly line operated by some 20 volunteers playing the role of professional workers. Guests were invited to treat this either as a field visit to a ceramics plant, or to actively engage in the production process by doing odd jobs.
I don’t find anything extraordinary about this art project as such. The shock tactic of recontextualisation—this interchange of what belongs outside the gallery with what’s inside—has long been a concern of most modern and contemporary artists. What interests me about Twomey’s project, however, is the way it highlights the malleable and makeshift nature of its setting, the Tate Modern—a facility which was once as far from being a museum as one could imagine.
The Bankside Power Station, south of the River Thames in London, was due to be shut and demolished sometime around 1992, when a couple of Swiss architects—Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron—submitted their design pitch for the Tate Modern. They suggested restoring and repurposing the old power station as a public gallery, and to install the new museum inside this derelict structure. The proposal was accepted, executed and successfully finished in 2000, when the erstwhile power station was inaugurated as a museum of modern arts. The massive turbine hall at the Tate Modern, still among the major attractions here, is a relic from the olden days—reminding visitors that creating something new isn’t necessarily a function of erasing or demolishing what existed before.
The Tate Modern isn’t the only such facility in the world. Far from it. There are precedents scattered across Europe and America—museums that present specific narratives of their own personal history alongside the story they are supposed to narrate through their exhibits. German culture has proved particularly sensitive to this sort of approach, with its commitment to, as it were, the architecture of remembrance.
In Berlin alone, there are plenty of old buildings that have now been repurposed as museums and art galleries. I remember once coming across a defunct slaughterhouse in the eastern part of the city that now serves as an open-door workspace for artists. I also visited a disused water-treatment plant, now a popular museum, near the Müggelsee Lake in Berlin. But the most prominent of them all is perhaps the Hamburgerbahnof Museum in city centre, a 19th-century train station now used as a large exhibition gallery for modern and contemporary arts, one of the biggest in the world.
How are museums to be built? What are the social, historical, economic, and yes, ethical factors to be considered before commissioning such projects? These are important questions that different artists and curators have answered in different ways. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, for instance, built his own model museum in Istanbul—a parallel universe where many of the objects mentioned in Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence have really come to life. Pamuk has strong views on the role of museums in the life of a culture, and on how cultural institutions are often exploited to serve political and national agendas.
In “A Modest Manifesto for Museums”, Pamuk writes of the need for museums everywhere to become “smaller, more individualistic, cheaper”. “This,” he writes, “is the only way that they will ever tell stories on a human scale. Big museums with their wide doors call upon us to forget our humanity and embrace the state and its human masses. This is why millions outside the Western world are afraid of going to museums.”
How about making museums that look like real, everyday places, situated firmly in their locale, rooted to the specifics of their past, and responsive to their immediate present? Berlin did that with a train station, and London with a power plant. Now could a museum-starved city like Delhi follow suit?
Pamuk’s manifesto ends with the line: “The future of museums is inside our homes.” While on the surface it reads like an appeal to scale down the museum business worldwide—and to dismantle the state’s monopoly over cultural matters—Pamuk’s prescription also points towards another reality: the reality that you can sense in the dead, antiseptic air of any great museum.
Part of the problem is how museums across the world are projected and perceived—as bubbles floating in a cultural vacuum. A public museum, if it is well-constructed and well-funded, is of necessity an artificial, impersonal setting: a place that has broken all contact with the world outside. It persuades you to forget the here and now, inviting you to fully participate in the illusion that we’re really elsewhere and in another time (the illusion that every work of art also creates).
I tend to feel very disconcerted in art galleries that don’t have accessible windows. Discovering a window in such enclosed spaces has been a greater source of delight for me than encountering many a great work of art. Because the view outside—even if the weather is dismal, even if what I see is just another drab stretch of some wall—the merest sight of the real world remains an effective antidote to whatever it is that suffocates you inside the vitrine confines of great museums.
Of course, as Pamuk suggests, one of the solutions is to make museums more personal and private and congenial, like people’s homes. But there’s another way to address this problem. How about making museums that look like real, everyday places, situated firmly in their locale, rooted to the specifics of their past, and responsive to their immediate present? Berlin did that with a train station, and London with a power plant. Now could a museum-starved city like Delhi follow suit?
I am sure there are enough disused factories, warehouses, power stations and waterworks plants in and around Delhi that can be utilised as excellent venues for exhibitions and other cultural activities. Even if only a handful of these are repurposed as museums, it would add great value to the city’s future, besides helping mend Delhi’s reputation as a culturally bankrupt vulgaropolis. But who is going to take the initiative? Culture comes last, if at all, on our policymakers’ list of priorities. Throw into this sorry mix the land sharks always desperate to gobble up every piece of real estate that bares itself on the cityscape. Perhaps it would be best if artists and curators could themselves generate some kind of organised push to identify, acquire and restore such facilities. Until that happens, Delhi’s own Tate Modern will remain a pipe dream.