Meet the Curator Series – Interview with Rama Lakshmi
What does cultural access imply and how can a museum curate a community’s fight for justice? Nilofar Ansher of Accessibility in Museums interviews museum curator Rama Lakshmi, who has worked with the Smithsonian Institution and the Missouri History Museum. Rama is involved with setting up the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors’ traveling exhibition and museum, a first-of- its-kind memorial project in independent India where “a community co-curates the story of its ongoing struggle for justice.”
Note: The Bhopal gas tragedy was a gas leak incident in India and is considered one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. It occurred on the night of 2–3 December 1984 at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh (central India). Over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals, leading to the death of thousands of residents and permanently disabling scores of them, including pregnant women. (Source: Wikipedia). Read more about it.
Image: Rama Lakshmi is involved in co-curating the traveling exhibition and museum of Bhopal gas tragedy survivors, which aims to highlight the transformation of the survivors “from victims to warriors” over the last 28 years.
Nilofar: Take us through your background as a museum professional and the projects you have been involved in.
Rama: My introduction to museum work in the United States was in the area of social movements and social history. At the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, I did curatorial research on the Disability Rights Movement in Missouri, and also conducted a series of oral histories with disability rights activists who had taken part in and were inspired by the Independent Living Movement. This was part of the preparatory work for an exhibition on the movement.
The three people’s movements that I have studied in-depth are – the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the American disability rights movement and the Canadian feminist movement. Social movements interest me and I am particularly focused on their curatorial potential and portrayal strategies.
Nilofar: How did you come to be involved with the Bhopal gas tragedy exhibit?
Rama: During one of my visits to Bhopal (capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh), I learnt that the gas survivors and activists were opposed to the Madhya Pradesh government’s plan to build a grand memorial at the site of the Union Carbide factory. Their position was that the government does not have the moral right to memorialize the events because it was complicit in the injustice meted out over the years. Survivors said only they have the moral right to build it.
For a museologist, the question of the moral right to memory and commemoration is very interesting. That’s how the discussions began about working with the community of survivors to build a museum to the Bhopal story… The exhibition will chronicle their journey from being victims to warriors. So, portraying the tragedy is as important as depicting the struggle for justice.
We formed The Remember Bhopal Trust in 2011 with the goal of keeping the history of the struggle alive in public memory and launch a series of commemorative projects. The work began in January 2011 and we have collected artifacts, oral histories, photographs, protest songs, posters, and slogans that form an integral part of the collective memory of the movement. Families have given to the museum project objects that are their last tangible link to those who died. Many others have recounted their harrowing tales of survival and fierce struggle. We have collected artifacts that are not just limited to trauma memory, but also protest-related objects. The museum’s narrative will be shaped by these stories and objects. The exhibition will chronicle their journey from being victims to warriors. So, portraying the tragedy is as important as depicting the struggle for justice.
We are trying to raise funds for the museum now. In its first phase, it will be a traveling exhibition that will travel across India to other sites of environmental struggles for a year (See end of post for details on how to contribute).
Nilofar: How do you go about representing something as abstract as injustice and suffering?
Rama: My personal belief is that memorials are sites of homage and quiet reflection. Sometimes they are sites of pilgrimage too. But museums are story-telling institutions, they force you to enter the personal stories of struggle and engage with issues. Justice is not an abstract notion to portray if you look at it through the stories and symbols of discrimination and pain. This is why I use oral history as a central core of all my museum projects. The Bhopal survivors view the museum to be a tool in their continuing struggle, and not just a memorial that freezes their story in history. It will be an active and dynamic site for remembering, reminding and also mobilizing.
Nilofar: What about the people who were injured and disabled due to the chemical leak – can their corporeal realities find a space in the exhibit?
Rama: In Bhopal, there is already such an exhibition in the medical college – with a row of aborted fetuses in jars exhibited as medical specimens. But our portrayal and context will be different; the physical disability caused by the gas exposure and the toxic water contamination belongs to the story of the ongoing struggle for medical compensation, environmental remediation and corporate accountability.
Nilofar: From a historical standpoint, we don’t see representation of disability across any cultural, social or public institutions. It feels as if disability as a social continuum is ignored. What does that say about our sense of self, of our idea of being human and selective representation in institutional settings?
Rama: People with disability are seen as the “other”, the discourse for disability rights, access and independence is absent from our cultural and educational institutions. I have worked in museum projects where every time I mention the word “access”, the standard response has been, “But the disabled don’t come to our museum in any significant numbers, why make the investment for such small numbers?” I tell them that people living with disabilities do not come because their museums are inaccessible and shut them out. The other response of museums is to take children with disabilities on an annual school-sponsored guided tour of their galleries, under their “special ed” and “inclusion” projects. On such days, ramps are installed, galleries are cleared, wheelchairs are kept on stand-by, and touchable replica objects are displayed. Such programs further stigmatize and segregate the community and re-emphasize their “otherness”. Instead, what we need to pursue is the inclusive, barrier-free principle of “Universal Design” – which is an idea where stigma and segregation dissolve.
Nilofar: In India, accessibility and inclusion to cultural spaces receive the least attention in the ‘hierarchy of needs’ benchmarked for citizens – food, clothing and shelter are a given, followed by education and employment, but where does entertainment, leisure or culture fit in? In this scenario, how do we include accessible measures?
Rama: Cultural spaces must not be viewed just as leisure and entertainment. Museums must go beyond just installing ramps and building elevators. Accessibility must be central to exhibit design, display strategy, labeling, placing of artifacts, lighting, public programming, docent-tours, educational material and so on. But most importantly, inclusion is achieved when stories and experiences that have been left out are brought in through the museum doors. That is what our Missouri project was: we went out to curate an exhibition about the disability rights movement and contextualized it as a civil rights movement.
For me, access obviously goes beyond physical barriers, even though those are the most fundamental ways of defining it. In museums, a field that I know well and work in, access and inclusion are two sides of the same goal or challenge. Am I able to enter the museum and navigate the space and galleries without barriers (if I am on a wheelchair), is one basic question. Then I ask, once I am inside, am I able to view the objects, read the labels? How are the lighting? What is the height of the exhibits and labels? What is the font size of the signage? Do they have labels and text panels in Braille? Do they have audio guides? How are the exhibits laid out? Does it give me enough space to maneuver between artifacts? Are the text labels written in dense, inaccessible format and language? Are the docent trained to give story-telling tours for older people, people with disability, pregnant women, children, foreigners, children with disabilities, under-served communities, unlettered and unschooled people, and so on? What are the cognitive barriers that the museum erects?
Nilofar: How do we understand the concept of ‘access’ – does it only comprise spatial navigation or is there a political dimension to this? Would you say that access to culture has other, more nuanced readings to it?
Rama: There are many ways of approaching the idea of access, and this is reflected not only in physical settings, but also in the institutional policies and the people running the show. Are the museum staff/gallery guard friendly and welcoming or are they looking down upon the visitor? Are they elitist? There are non-verbal barriers too – it is hidden in the quiet, cold demeanor and attitude of the staff. I think this is what you refer to in your question on “art galleries and museums as highbrow spaces”. Sure, museums are considered by many as elitist institutions – even if the ticket is just Rs 10 (0.18 US$). Movies are not considered elitist even though the ticket costs ten to twenty times more , in the metros! Perhaps this is a simplistic example, but worth considering. Is entertainment regarded as more inclusive than culture and cultural education? And why is that? What about melas (fairs)? They too are dispensers of culture, but not at all regarded inaccessible. The answer is quite obvious.
Having said that, a predominant share of museum visitors in India have always been and continue to be rural visitors who come to cities on the annual darshans (tourist tours). So, I am not sure I agree with you about museums per se being elitist institutions. It is much more nuanced than thick, black-white impenetrable categories. Quite obviously, the word ‘access’ cannot be applied or understood in a narrow sense.
Now coming to the concept of inclusion. For me, as a museologist, the word also applies to whose stories get told in our museums – not merely what kind of visitors are allowed in. A simple example, in a gallery which displays ancient pottery, how about a museum educator including stories about potters, present-day potters community, their struggles? After all, the potters were the first literate communities of the world. Why not turn the prism differently so that the visitors can walk away with a well-rounded understanding of the subject?
In the Apartheid struggle, there was a campaign slogan that I keep harking back to; it said, “Nothing About Us Without Us”. This campaign slogan was borrowed by the disability rights activists during their struggle in the United States. I borrow that slogan and apply it to my work in museums and in the oral history space. Whose stories are told? Who has the right over the story-telling? Whose versions are portrayed in our museums? What is the curatorial ideology about sharing the space with disparate and differing voices? How do I restore curatorial voice to those whose stories have been usurped by academic historians and grand meta-narratives about nationhood?
For me, this slogan goes into the heart of museum profession, and for that matter, to the heart of my Bhopal museum work.
Rama Lakshmi is a museum studies graduate; she has worked with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Missouri History Museum. In New Delhi; she has consulted with the National Museum and the National Rail Museum in New Delhi; and has conducted oral histories in the United States and India. Currently, she is working with the Bhopal survivor groups to build a community-curated museum. She tweets as @RamaNewDelhi
To donate to the Bhopal gas tragedy survivors’ traveling exhibition and museum, you can direct deposit or wire transfer your donations to:
Name of The Account Holder: Remember Bhopal Trust | Account Number: 3227002100047912 | Bank: Punjab National Bank
Hamidia Road, Bhopal – 462001, India
Branch: Bhopal, Hamidia Road
Contact Phone and Name: 0755-2740126,0439 / K L Luhana
IFSC Code: PUNB0122200
MICR Code: 462024006
You can also post your cheque for “Remember Bhopal Trust’ to:
Remember Bhopal Trust
44, Sant Kanwar Ram Nagar,
Berasia Road, Bhopal 462 001,
Madhya Pradesh, India
This is the first interview in the ‘Meet the Curator’ series that focuses on museum professionals who have engaged with accessibility and inclusion in their work. Follow us on Twitter @a11yInMuseums