THE CHAIWALA-T0- PM!By Rama Lakshmi

There are no immersive experiences in the Modi gallery at the PM Museum

By Rama Lakshmi

Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya’s new Modi gallery is an assemblage of vertical LED kiosks. It has the look of a fancy airport terminal, not a museum.

Avisit to the newly opened Modi gallery in the Prime Ministers’ Museum in New Delhi is a lesson in what could have been a grand curatorial coup.
Let’s just take the most moving image from PM Narendra Modi’s life—that he grew up as a chaiwala at a railway station in Vadnagar, Gujarat. His life story offers a powerful, narrative arc that museum curators and designers around the world would salivate over. But the curators here at the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya have made zero effort to recreate that story and the image.
The chaiwala story alone could have been turned into one of the most powerful museum exhibits: either as an old-school diorama or an immersive experiential space by recreating a railway station tea shop.
The chaiwala-to-PM arc is similar to the log-cabin mythology that surrounds the life of one of the most beloved American presidents, Abraham Lincoln. As soon as you enter the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, you will see a recreation of the now-storied log cabin where young Abraham grew up. You see the little boy sitting in it, lost in deep thought. This is such a powerful exhibit that visitors and schoolchildren from around the United States take photographs in front of it. Narrative arcs and rags-to-power journeys can resonate in deeply inspirational ways. Lincoln and Modi weren’t born with a silver spoon.
The Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky has an experiential exhibit area—you hear the sound of a racist man admonishing you as soon as you enter the space. The exhibit reinforces the racially segregated America that Ali grew up in.
Why would the Indian curators let go of a golden opportunity like the chaiwala story and not tap it to create an enduring installation? It was a sitter of an opportunity to create a ‘chacha Nehru’ effect for Modi. It would have become an instant selfie-hit in India.
Instead, what you have in its place is a kind of helix-shaped screen surrounding a tree—a photograph of a school-going age Modi and a line that says he used to sell tea.

Airport terminal, not museum
When the Nehru memorial site at Teen Murti Bhawan was overhauled, there was the usual brouhaha over how the Modi government would turn it into a self-aggrandising monument. Two years ago, when the museum opened, it contained galleries for all the previous Prime Ministers, except Modi. It had tech instead of content, gizmos instead of artefacts and Wiki entries instead of storytelling. I assumed at that time that perhaps they were saving the best for the Modi gallery, so that he would tower above others. I had thought that his exhibit would be bigger and grander than the others. I had assumed incorrectly.
The same lack of creativity now pervades it too. The new Modi gallery is also an assemblage of vertical LED kiosks with moving images. It has the look of a fancy airport terminal, not a museum.
There are recordings of his official speeches in individual booths—from hundreds of Mann Ki Baat episodes to Pariksha Pe Charcha. As a visitor, you get to pick the speech you want to listen to. Every PM has some select iconic, era-defining speeches. But only a team that doesn’t know how to (or doesn’t dare to) identify the best will dump the entire list of speeches onto a museum visitor.
Another display involves a series of images showing projects inaugurated by Modi. Next to them are images of projects completed. The point is that he isn’t just a ribbon-cutter politician but that he actually delivers at record speed. But the wall is so dry with inauguration photographs and date details that it could be the reception area of a PSU headquarters. Again, not the stuff great storytelling museums are made of.
An alcove has images of all the important international summits and policy announcements. Another makes the visitor look into a microscope to see the story of the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccine. Similarly for Chandrayaan.
It is not a museum, by any stretch of imagination. Instead, it is just a sarkari brochure of achievements. The exhibitry is as devoid of aesthetics and narratives as trade fair exhibits at Pragati Maidan used to be.
What it shows is that with even impressive names like Prasoon Joshi, MJ Akbar and Vinay Sahasrabuddhe as part of the curatorial content committee, the gallery has turned out to be a staggering display of a lack of creative imagination at the heart of the Modi machine.
I can understand if you struggle to tell the story of former PM Manmohan Singh in a gallery—apart from his story of walking to school in Pakistan and the audacious economic reforms, there isn’t much that yields itself to moving museum visitors. But that is not the case with Modi. He is rich material for museum storytelling.
There are many avatars of Modi—tea-seller Modi to yoga Modi, soldier Modi to Vishwaguru Modi, priest Modi to Sikh Modi to tech start-up Modi. There is a lot to play with here for an imaginative mind. For that, you have to think beyond listing government achievements.

More three-dimensional stories
A museum’s work is not just to give information that is available at the click of a button online. A museum brings immersive visuality in a three-dimensional state—with artefacts, voices, photographers, and experiential design. The Modi gallery does not display personal objects—except what he wore during his Tejas flight. That’s it. Even Lal Bahadur Shastri and Charan Singh’s galleries have more personal artefacts.
It’s a pity because Modi’s fawning fans are all over the gallery. I saw them taking pictures in front of his photographs, bowing down in a Namaste pose, or striking the open-armed Shahrukh Khan pose. With that kind of readymade relatability, the museum curators and designers should have given better three-dimensional stories.
Interestingly, the gallery urges you to take a national pledge from a list of options: a pledge for Amrit Kaal, to remove colonial mindset by preferring to speak in your mother tongue, to take pride in your roots, to work toward developed India, duty and unity and so on.
It’s a list of asks. Modi loves to give tasks to citizens.
If you click more, the screen asks you for your email address to send you a signed copy of your pledge on the PM Museum letterhead. That’s when I stopped clicking.

Reimagine, redo
Museums are where enduring legacies are created and sustained, not books and films. And Modi knows it. That’s why he is such a relentless museum builder—from Sardar Patel to Bhimrao Ambedkar.
The Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya has now become a must-stop in the itinerary of many foreign dignitaries and visitors. Unfortunately, the museum is unable to communicate the big picture—about Indian democracy and about Modi.
It’s best to reimagine and redo this gallery.
Rama Lakshmi, a museologist and oral historian, is ThePrint’s Opinion and Ground Reports Editor. After working with the Smithsonian Institution and the Missouri History Museum, she set up the ‘Remember Bhopal Museum’ commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy. She did her graduate program in museum studies and African American civil rights movement at University of Missouri, St Louis. Views are personal.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

Courtesy: The Print

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