Sharing cultural heritage in India

Medhavi Gandhi with workshop attendees, 2016

Medhavi Gandhi is the founder of The Heritage Lab, a digital media platform for cultural heritage enthusiasts in India, and director of Happy Hands, an organisation reviving traditional arts through growing artisanal skills and access to folk arts.

Today, Medhavi reflects on open access to cultural heritage and shares her aspirations for museums and libraries in India.

Medhavi, The Heritage Lab is ‘powered by curious people & lots of coffee’ – please tell us more.

The Heritage Lab works on the premise that museums and cultural institutions are for everyone. Our content is planned and delivered to either make people curious (so they might visit a museum) or to learn about people’s curiosity (we try to understand what people want to know more about after they’ve visited a museum). The idea to research what we don’t know, encourage the spirit of enquiry and to enable people to engage with museums to expand their learning.

The Heritage Lab is open to working with people from different academic disciplines (not necessarily art or history) — the essential requirement is curiosity and a willingness to learn about things that we don’t know.

Late nights and early mornings are not uncommon; my colleague and I have chatted at 2 a.m because she found something interesting to read. Sometimes we’ve spent the whole day at a museum, so we prefer to work at night too! From time to time, we work on international campaigns and they need a lot of time-zone coordination.

What’s your favourite part of what you do?

This might sound like a cliché but I love how my work makes me learn every day. India’s cultural heritage is vast in scope. I particularly enjoy exploring India’s historical connections with the world through museum objects and art.

Since I work with kids a lot, seeing objects through their eyes is really refreshing — their innocent questions and comments are very inspiring. I often meet museum professionals (online and offline) and it is eye-opening to understand the nature of their work or research. I cherish these interactions a lot.

How does Open GLAM relate to The Heritage Lab and the audiences you work with?

The Heritage Lab’s mission is to make museums accessible to people in terms of knowledge and content. We started with choosing objects and creating freely accessible educational content around them for teachers to use in the classroom. Most of the time we have to seek permission to reproduce these object images on our website.

For teachers, developing independent lesson plans (based on the city they are located in) is quite tough because they have zero access to openly reusable Indian museum resources, and their students cannot reproduce these objects in different formats. So teachers and students end up sourcing Indian material from non-Indian, open access institutions like the New York Public Library, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the British Library and Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library.

On a positive note, every year we host Art+Feminism Edit-a-thons (established in 2017) and we get a lot of support from participants in making museum content (images and text) freely accessible on Wikipedia. We would love to do more in terms of creatively re-using museum artworks, but that’s not possible in the current framework.

What is the state of open access in the Indian cultural heritage sector?

It’s ironic but most museum libraries only give physical access to research scholars. Digital access is an ongoing debate — and there has been a decent start to digitisation. For example, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has made many of its journals and books available, and IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts) has also made a lot of intangible cultural heritage materials available online. Finally, the Manuscripts Mission and museums under the Ministry of Culture have made a selected part of their collection viewable online.

In my personal opinion, the quality of the digitised content leaves a lot to be desired. There is still a lot of research that is not
freely available, but local Wikipedia chapters are working with cultural institutions to enable open access.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges? What can be done to make progress?

Ambiguity around copyright and sharing practices is a huge challenge. We need a forum for leaders from cultural institutions to meet and develop a common framework to enable open access.

The opportunities are huge: from my perspective, working to revolutionise museum-based learning, open access can go a long way in promoting cross-cultural learning and engagement based projects. For example, if a museum has resources (images, videos, art etc) on a globally important theme (migration, the Holocaust, art movements etc.) — educators and institutions could use these to collaborate internationally.

Organisations like Wikimedia and Creative Commons could host sessions with museums to understand their challenges with enabling open access, and to facilitate an understanding of its benefits. Smaller steps might include helping (or funding) museums that are open to digitising but don’t have the means to; these are usually small state-supported museums with limited resources.

I feel that, at this time, museums mustn’t only cater to local audiences — digital access makes it possible to reach audiences of any age across the world. Enabling non-commercial licences (at the very least) would encourage wider circulation of artworks. I say this because I feel that, when people experience art, they appreciate it more and feel that it’s part of their own life.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently preparing to create a toolkit in collaboration with ICOM Deutschland as a research fellow with Museum Forschung. The toolkit is targeted towards museum professionals to aid the creation of digital infrastructure at their institutions.