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In Conversation With: Jahnavi Phalkey, Founding Director, Science Gallery Bengaluru

Reimagining cultural spaces for a digital future is a challenge that many museum professionals have been wrestling with in the recent past. Ahead of her presentation at December’s MuseumNext Digital Exhibitions Summit, Jahnavi Phalkey shares her experience at the Science Gallery Bengaluru and identifies why the digital model will always now have a place in the institution’s exhibition season.

Science Gallery Bengaluru is still a relatively new institution, having been led since 2018 by Founding Director, Jahnavi Phalkey. Over a 20-year career in academia and museums, Jahnavi has worked and studied all over the world. From the University of Bombay where she read civics and politics to the School of Oriental and African studies in London, Jahnavi then moved on to the Georgia Institute of Technology to gain a doctoral degree in the history of science and technology.

It was during her time at Georgia Tech that she realised she “had come home”, intellectually speaking. Covering a broad and varied mix of disciplines amidst a cohort of economists, biologists, lawyers, engineers and more, she really gained the bug for investigating the convergence of science and culture.

From there, her career has included time as the Scholar-in-Residence at the Deutsches Museum in Munich and more recently as the external curator to the Science Museum London – whilst also holding a tenured faculty position at King’s College London.

“And then they asked me if I wanted to set up the Science Gallery Bengaluru,” she says. “As I quickly found, establishing an institution like ours unfortunately isn’t just about coming in and leading programming. It involves everything from learning company law to architectural design, audits and governance to a million other things.

“I have to say that taking on this kind of challenge is something of a rollercoaster. But I am proud of what we have been able to achieve in the four years since I first took the job.

The Science Gallery Network

As Jahnavi explains, the Science Gallery Network is by now a very robust and well-established model, offering the world’s only university network dedicated to public engagement with science and art. For her, the prospect of establishing a gallery in India meant tackling a number of key questions based on what might work; what would not work and where the institution should aspire to be in 15 years time – both for the Gallery Network and for India.

She says, “I was very conscious that we weren’t just creating something that would be inward looking and focused on working for India alone. We are perceived to be in a habit of following up, in this country, on ideas that have been developed elsewhere. I felt that it was important that we instead looked to lead on ideas that institutions in other countries would want to follow. To do this, I knew our goal must be to cultivate  collaborations here in India – something that’s not easy to do in a higher education system known for working in silos.

“Institutions here are often dedicated to one discipline and there is not a lot of cross-pollination between subjects – as might be the case in British or American universities, for example. That’s why the Science Gallery Bangaluru is really justified because we are trying to encourage that sensibility for collaboration.

“We treat every exhibition like a research festival. Our exhibits lie at the core and then we unpack it in a number of ways: bringing in different perspectives and lenses through which to explore themes. We always look to give interpretive capabilities to the audience.”

Contagion

Nowhere is Science Gallery Bengaluru’s approach better exemplified than through its latest exhibition, Contagion. Physicians, clinicians, vaccine makers, vaccine activists, teachers, sociologists, historians, physicists and more were all welcomed to bring insight and add value to the subject of a global pandemic.

“Experts who had something to say from their deep scholarly or artistic perspective were drawn in to participate in a public lecture series. These lectures were also supported by smaller workshops and tutorials to create a more intimate dialogue and explore themes through conversation. Alongside the lecture series, we’ve also run a film festival, performances and masterclasses.”

What is different about this particular exhibition (and its predecessor, PHYTOPIA) was that it was delivered almost entirely online – a fully digital exhibition season. Jahnavi continues,

“While there were a number of challenges we faced in terms of delivery of our ‘living exhibition,’ working digitally provided us with some low hanging fruit, too. From a participatory perspective, the online space enabled us to collect, collate and showcase our viewer’s own ideas and views through their essays, poems and photographs.

“We also created social rooms where people could find joy and respite. These rooms included a games arcade, reading room and audio room where people could enjoy playlists and podcasts

“In conjunction with this, we created an activity handbook that people could complete at home – because, this time, we obviously couldn’t have them on-site during our periods of closure.”

As Jahnavi goes on to explain, generating interest in the subject matter and getting people involved in the exhibition meant “not only offering a number of ‘doors’ through which people could find the exhibition; but making it easy for people to push on the door they were most comfortable with. That is really the key to accessibility and engagement.

“Once people have entered our digital cultural space, we interlink these different rooms and areas so that people can explore at their own pace and follow their own interests. The important thing is that whatever the starting point, we can make people intrigued and comfortable. Ultimately, they can then find their way to a point where they see why we’ve made this exhibition.”

Having learnt much from their first fully-digital exhibition, PHYTOPIA – an exploration of the hidden depths of plant life – the launch of Contagion in April 2021 built on functions such as mediator-led sessions.

“One of the things that was most surprising about PHYTOPIA was that over 70% of our mediator-led sessions were carried out in Indian languages. We had assumed that our audience would be largely urban, English speaking and university-going; the reality was that this wasn’t the case and many, many visitors were coming from outside of Bangalore.

“That wouldn’t have been something we’d usually expect but it’s something we have taken into account when planning Contagion. It’s also encouraging to know that we are building a broader appeal, both demographically and in terms of location. It’s particularly exciting to see that we have attracted an international audience – people who must have stayed up through the night in diverse locations like the United States and Nigeria, for example, to join our sessions.”

Jahnavi also explains that it is this focus on keeping the barriers to entry low that has led them to resist utilising technologies such as AR or VR to date: “While it would showcase what we are able to do and might look cool, it’s not necessarily the best way to engage audiences that might not have the required devices or bandwidth for those technologies.”

Another key point Jahnavi points out is that a lot of work went into the training of the mediators of sessions to ensure that strong opinions could be managed effectively and that discussion remained a safe space where finding more information and considering a range of viewpoints was always encouraged.

“Our mediators actually underwent more than a month’s training before Contagion launched. That meant they worked closely with almost all the scholars, curators and exhibitors to understand the subject matter and learn where to find valuable information. In addition, we helped them to develop their communication skills and gave a grounding in the standpoint of the institution.

“That’s critical, particularly when discussing a hot topic like vaccines. Irrespective of their own viewpoint, they understood that they were mediating in a professional capacity and we had to focus on encouraging the opening of discussions rather than closing them down.”

A digital future

Asked about how Science Gallery Bengaluru’s experience of implementing Digital Exhibitions has given food for future thought, Jahnavi says,

“The lesson we’ve learned here really is that we are not going to let this format go. Digital exhibitions have served some very different, very important functions. We knew from the outset that we didn’t want to offer digital exhibitions as substitutes for their physical counterparts. We wanted to offer what the digital medium could offer.

“That has been helpful because it shapes what we are doing in this space. And it doesn’t mean that we are trying to force something into the digital space that isn’t meant to be there.

“And, of course, it gives us greater reach and engagement – either with people a long way away, or perhaps people who are just introverts; people who would happily interact online but wouldn’t engage in conversation in person.”

Asked in conclusion what she hopes to share about her own recent experience of pivoting to online exhibitions, Jahnavi says,

“In my presentation I’ll go deeper into what it meant to us to go digital with our exhibitions and what we have learned. What it comes down to is that our work is cultural work, and if we are able to use this medium to help achieve our goals then it would be remiss of us not to explore what digital can do for our audiences.”

Hear more from Jahnavi and an exceptional range of other museum professionals at December’s Digital Exhibitions Summit running 6th – 8th December 2021. Find out more about the conference here.

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