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This Duo is Breaking from the White Cube Model with Design Museum Dharavi


This Duo is Breaking from the White Cube Model with Design Museum Dharavi
Design Museum Dharavi (Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi)


Early last year, a colourful cart appeared in the middle of Dharavi, a 3sqkm settlement located in the heart of Mumbai. On display were colourful pots and cups made by the inhabitants of what has been called one of the biggest 'slums' in Asia. These objects are a testament to the ability of these craftsmen to design and create despite the harsh environments they live in, and exactly what co-founders of Design Museum Dharavi - Amanda Pinatih and Jorge Mañes Rubio - sought to showcase. We speak to Ms Pinatih and Mr Rubio about the story behind Design Museum Dharavi and the possibility of having a museum that goes against the grain of the white cube space.


Amanda Pinatih & Jorge Mañes Rubio, Founders of Design Museum Dharavi 
Image courtesy of Crafts Council NL and Bret Hartman


First, could you tell us a bit about Design Museum Dharavi? How did the idea for the museum come about and how did you select Dharavi to be the centre of this project?

Museums are the new cathedrals of the XXI Century, not just cultural venues but also tourist attractions, public squares and symbols of power and wealth for western cities. They provide the visitors with the possibility of being part of an experience that goes beyond the works exhibited. The Victoria & Albert Museum was a pioneer when it established the design object as a museological discipline in 1852. From the 20th century more and more modern and contemporary art museums started collecting design or, a term more often used by museums, applied arts. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has been collecting design since 1934. The decorative arts, graphic and industrial design collection now holds around 70.000 objects (more than three-quarters of the complete Stedelijk collection).

Some of the cups created in collaboration with local artisans
Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

The Dharavi Design Museum aims to explore the possibilities of developing the first ever design museum inside the informal urban settlement of Dharavi in Mumbai, commonly known as one of the biggest ‘slums’ in Asia. By creating a Design Museum -a place for contemplation- we make this city within a city more liveable. Our main intentions are to acknowledge the citizenship of these people, to recognize their equal rights compared to the rest of the city, and promoting a greater exchange between formal and informal economies. After a visit to Mumbai we came up with the idea of creating the first design museum in Dharavi and since then we’ve been planning and developing this idea that finally materialized into the Design Museum Dharavi.

Why Dharavi? Because Jorge Mañes Rubio travelled there before and met Matias Echanove & Rahul Srivastava there. Matias and Rahul have worked in Dharavi for many years and know how this informal settlement works. When Jorge went to Dharavi in 2011 he encountered a place full of energy; inspiration and creativity could be found virtually everywhere, to the extent that sometimes it seemed to arise in a purely accidental, almost effortless way. Families who have mastered the same craftsmanship for generations live right next to those who are using modern manufacturing technologies such as laser cutting or CNC.


An aerial view of Design Museum Dharavi nestled amongst the homes in Dharavi
Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi


Can you tell us a bit about each of your roles within the museum? What do your responsibilities entail?

Jorge is an artist, Amanda an art historian and curator, and together we came up with this idea. So we are the creative force behind the project but also worked for 1 month in Dharavi to get the project running.

Some of the items that were produced by the local community for Design Museum Dharavi

Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi


To some extent there is a social historical element to the objects featured in the museum. Can you tell us a bit about some of the items you showcased in the exhibition and how they relate to the communities that produce them?

The water filters we created are a good example, used in many houses in Dharavi to filter and store fresh water. We set ourselves the challenge of redesign them, since they always come in the same shape. We didn’t aim to look too far. When hanging out at the Chauhans shop, we were surprised by the way pieces were stored, specially those stacked on top of each other, since there’s not much space. We wondered if we could somehow keep stacking different pieces on top of each other, coming up with new shapes in between. That’s how these four water containers were created, using shapes already existing in the Chauhan’s workshop, but put together and decorated with bright plain colours. The reactions were interesting to say the least; people couldn’t really believe these were ‘made in Dharavi’. But again, the inspiration for this decoration came from within Dharavi’s own urban landscape. From outside these kind of neighbourhoods might seem grey and dusty, but once inside, every house, every corner, is decorated in bright colours, breaking free of the greyness of the city. These objects are vehicles to represent Dharavi’s identity and ever changing nature.


Local craftsmen showcasing their skills and techniques at Design Museum Dharavi
Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi


One of the main missions of Design Museum Dharavi is to “employ design as a tool to promote social change and innovation” as well as to “challenge the negative perception of informal settlements around the world”. To what extent do you think you have managed to achieve this? What sort of challenges have you faced in dealing with this kind of negative stereotype?

Now that our mission in Dharavi comes to an end the question we’ve been asking ourselves more often is how to measure the impact that the museum had in Dharavi, and globally through the media coverage. The communities and individuals we worked with have certainly touched us, but can they also say the same? Can you base the impact of the project only on a symbolic level? What other parameters can you use then?

Our relationship with the makers we were able to work with was different, and so the impact. While with some makers the collaboration was a one-off thing, with others it became a more complex process, and we are aware that the experience has changed their activity on some level. The confidence gained through the collaboration encouraged them to create new objects that now can be seen in their shops. Nevertheless, how can such dynamics continue in the future and pass this excitement on to other makers?

During our exhibitions we got plenty of visitors. Locals from the community were proud to host the events, explaining other curious visitors what the museum was or the stories behind the products exhibited.

Design Museum Dharavi
Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi

We also got visitors from all over Mumbai, some of them came to Dharavi for the very first time, eager to see what they had discovered in the local paper the day before. Attending an exhibition in Dharavi was something unexpected and adventurous for them, and we are convinced it changed their view of this neighbourhood. That could have not been possible without the coverage that the project had, from local papers to online features on national and international media. Some media sent journalists to interview the local people involved in the project, while others decided to make easy headlines using terms such as ‘slum museum’.

These are some quotes from the potters we’ve worked with on a CNN interview:

“This museum is keeping our skills alive,” Nathalal Chauhan says. “It’s promoting them so that pottery can carry on for one or two generations more.”

“This museum is keeping our skills alive,” Nathalal Chauhan says. “It’s promoting them so that pottery can carry on for one or two generations more.”

For Nathalal and hundreds of other residents, the city of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, offers endless economic opportunities. But it is the informal city of Dharavi that offers them a home, and now with the Dharavi Design Museum, there is a chance to showcase their art to the world. “There are so many rich people in Bombay. They showcase skilled labour sometimes in big malls. But Amanda and Jorge came all the way from Amsterdam to show our craft right here in Dharavi,” said a beaming Chauhan. “And so very nicely.”

Overall, the reception of the project was overwhelmingly positive, putting Dharavi in the news for cultural reasons, highlighting its identity and creativity, reaching thousands of readers in India and around the world. But can good press only justify the project and its impact?


Amanda and Jorge working with local artisans
Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi


For the artisans and craftsmen that you engaged with, thinking of objects and products as more than just utilitarian and functional must have been quite a new experience for them. How did they react to your ideas and were there any issues that arose during the process of production?

During this collaboration we pushed ourselves and the makers ten big steps forward: thinking of new products using traditional techniques, new ways of creating objects and impossible shapes for existing products. This experimentation was new for the makers that normally don’t have the time or resources to do so. That experimentation was obviously some sort of a luxury. So, to come to an actual product you take ten steps ahead and then five steps back. Which means you find a middle ground for innovation where everyone feels comfortable.


Design Museum Dharavi showcasing cricket bats
Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi


Design Museum Dharavi seems like a reaction against the idea of the white cube space, which has often been criticized as being elitist and detached. It has integrated the community directly through cricket tournaments and of course, working directly with artisans. Do you think this is something that could be a model for future museums? How far would you say design and the needs of such a community can be reconciled?

Absolutely. A museum can be defined not only by architectural glamour or by a famous collection. We envision a museum where walls are dissolvable, a museum that will encourage a greater diversity, a museum that will play a way more relevant social role in our cities. That’s the museum of the future.


Expanding further on the previous question, Design Museum Dharavi deals with issues relating to art, design, commerce, as well as social issues – all of which have been traditionally seen to be disparate realms. How do you think the integration of all these aspects influence design in particular?

Addressing social issues through art and design is currently a trend that we build upon. Design is becoming more global, with more non-western countries playing an important role.


Some of the design pieces at Design Museum Dharavi
Image courtesy of Design Museum Dharavi


Due to the fact that Design Museum Dharavi exists as a nomadic exhibition space, how do you envision the future iterations of the museum? Do you have any upcoming plans?

The museum was a temporary project and is no longer operating in Dharavi. The structure was donated to the community, and we closed up the project with the publication of our book, that aims to inspire and activate similar projects in other parts of the world.




Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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