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A People’s Museum

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Museums are inherently elite spaces. This is not a good thing. They usually cost money to enter. They may not actually require specific knowledge to enjoy them, but like drinking wine, one is expected to have some language to talk about what they are seeing and can be made to feel stupid if they don’t have it. They are usually far from where poor people live. They collect materials often made by the poor and center it in a space for the rich, usually far removed from their actual usage. They are often awfully didactic and seek to teach the uneducated through large amounts of text. But what if the person doesn’t read well or they are an immigrant to the nation where they live?

All of things contribute to the elite nature of museums. So it’s good to see some curators seek to fight against these problems in an active way.

The cart is the centrepiece of the “nomadic museum”, billed as the first of its kind in an informal settlement. In pride of place at the centre of the cart are three brightly painted water pots that resemble children’s stacking toys. Shiny handled brooms with bristles of varying shapes are displayed on two outstretched orange doors on either side. In front, terracotta cups and saucers are arrayed on small white wooden blocks.

The mobile museum is the brainchild of an Amsterdam-based curator-artist couple, Amanda Pinatih and Jorge Mañes Rubio, in partnership with URBZ, a Mumbai-based urban research collective. “Museums are the cathedrals of the 21st century,” says Pinatih. “When you have a museum, you count.

By giving Dharavi a quirky little cathedral of its own, they hope to help Mumbai’s best-known informal settlement gain a more positive identity. Instead of the voyeuristic “slum tours” and shit-swimming cinematic spectacles it’s synonymous with, they’d like to draw attention to the thriving community of talented artisans who have long made it their home.

Dharavi, a 500-acre settlement in the heart of Mumbai, is sandwiched between the city’s two main suburban railway lines. Waves of demolitions and relocations since the 1950s have made it one of the world’s most densely populated informal settlements. According to unofficial estimates, it is home to between 750,000 and a million residents living in houses often without running water or toilets, set close together on narrow lanes edged by open sewers.

“People [in Mumbai] tend to see them [in Dharavi] as cheap manual labour,” says Rubio. “We wanted to show that they’re skilled, creative makers. We wanted to really dig into that identity.” To develop the museum, the pair spoke with a range of local craftsmen – potters, carpenters, broom-makers, and a cart maker – over two weeks.

I know this article still comes across as the good white people saving the poor Indians and it’s hard for museums to get around that, but in this case, it allowed everyday artisans to take broad suggestions for their work and create whatever they wanted. Then it is shown to the local community, not elites in leafy neighborhoods. This is a positive thing.

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