Lauded as a designer of experiences, Amardeep Behl has designed for museums in Pune, Benaras, Delhi and the much admired Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex, Virasat-e-Khalsa at Anandpur Sahib near Chandigarh. Museums by definition have the stoic purpose “to collect, preserve, interpret, and display items of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for the education of the public.” Contrarily, ‘muse’ which is the root of museum means a source of inspiration. Amardeep’s creative philosophy combines reason and intuition to elicit perceptive engagement at museums versus curating displays of collections. Chronology and information become source material rather than determinants of how collections should be segregated. A unique conceptual thread ties the narrative structure, specific to the purpose of each exhibition. The extraordinary sensorial experiences he orchestrates, transform rather than just inform, opening us to the wonders of our lives. Amardeep Behl talks to Lopez Design about the future of museums and his journey in creating integrated narrative experiences with a profoundly emotive approach.

LD: We understand the Virasat-e-Khalsa building was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie imagining there would be artifacts. And of course, there were none. How difficult was it for you to create an authentic museum experience without any collections?

AB: The architect Moshe Safdie was asked to design a spectacular building and that was what he did. When we came in, we realized we had to build the narrative without any collection to show. I have always tried to integrate, right from the Gandhi project as in others that followed. In Virasat-e-Khalsa, we had to evoke 15th century onward. There were no objects or artifacts, and no photographs. Our method became to use crafts and painting styles contemporary to a certain time period, for instance Jain miniature painting for one phase and Moghul for another. The use of painting, craft and sculpture with woven textiles and ample use of color made it a very tactile experience, contemporary for every time period we showed.

LD: Can you talk about the traditional idea of museums? How is this changing or being re-interpreted?

AB: Museums as we know them traditionally were spaces where artifacts were displayed. Civilizations and culture were understood by seeing these artifacts. The British model, one also followed by the French and Portuguese, was to set up museums as collections of things they had gathered, ‘trophies’ picked up from all over the world – these were treated like treasures to keep secure. They went into hermetically sealed boxes for display. Curators and art historians were brought in and these were arranged according to specialization and very often, type of materials – bronze, stone, clay.

In India, we are a layered civilization with a 5000 year-old story. Just in the Gupta period (4th to 6th century CE), we would find enough data to bring together an integrated story. Yet, what we have is textiles, gold and art all put into separate categories. At the National Museum for instance you find categories as Miniatures and Coins. This however, does not give a holistic or a true picture of those times. The understanding of the context is not deep enough. A museum should evoke the times of that period. If it did that, it would be breathtaking and it would tell immersive stories.

The Museum as a place for immersive storytelling: Story of Banda Bahadur at Virasat-e-Khalsa, Phase 2.

LD: How do you see Museums in the future and how has your own philosophy been imperative in shaping this journey?

AB: The future of museums is in bringing together collections for storytelling. It would examine origins – looking at a stone urn – where did it come from? Not put all the Buddhas together in one gallery! Even if you go to the Louvre, you see Mesopotamia in one wing, Europe in another. Collections are shown one after the other. For an art historian it makes sense but as a visitor, my eyes get tired. We are constantly separating things – education, color, race, gender or physics, chemistry and math – this is why we are in so much trouble. I have been fighting this battle – that storytelling and collections need to come together, not as collections being segregated for display. We have done 7 to 10 fairly large museums and they have all been what I call ‘narrative museums’. The language we use is equally valid in collection-based museums, the thought being to evoke the context behind a collection.

Creating integrated narratives for The Journey, Corporate Museum at DS Group : Section showing dramatic enactment of how a small trading enterprise became a large manufacturing concern

LD: Can you give any examples of other museums you have seen that display this kind of storytelling and integrated experience?

AB: Not too many. I recall the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (the Museum of Natural History) in Paris, where they have exhibits around plants and animals. They have sequenced it nicely; it is not compartmentalized and the displays are more evocative. Even in the V & A though they have tried to create context from a scholarly and creative point of view; the language still has to turn around. The Holocaust Museum tells a clear story of the times. War Museums as well have galleries that show how the war unfolded and related stories. But I have not seen museums in general tell stories comprehensively.

LD: How do you see the modernization of museums?

AB: Museums here are so very boring. Of course, the purpose is informative. They are great repositories of civilizations, of times we have been through. And they should inform us of what we have been through. Families should be going there and that is the change that has to happen. If museums have to be modernized they have to show their collections as a repository of those times. The Museum at Sanchi should tell the story of that place by how it was constructed, through the objects by projecting the greater civilization of that time. Museum displays should leverage the objects to inform you about the art of sculpture. For instance, when I go into the V & A and see a magnificent throne from China or a painting from Rome, I come out with the feeling of wow. But a museum can do so much more than that. Museums have to become spatial experiences. There is the opportunity to take the audience so much further.

LD: What can you say about the collective experience that a Museum generates? We are experiencing something individually but also together.

AB: Comparing to cinema as it is the most profound and the best system we have evolved so far where the audience have agreed to sit in a captive space to have an experience of time and space: this creates an emotional impact. If we look at the Museum space, the audience is captive in a certain volume of space but here they have to walk around to go through the journey. If I can work the volume to create an immersive experience of light and sound, then I can make the audience have a strong emotional experience. I see the Museum as a great opportunity to create an emotional experience. That has been my journey and I have tried to do it efficiently, purposefully and impact-fully.

LD: The Khalsa Heritage Complex is so prolific in expression, a celebration of all kinds of craft and expression. Since Sikhism is in its essence about formlessness, did you ever think about doing something very minimalistic?

AB: I went to the Golden Temple and it is the most decorative, highly ornate and lavishly rich space– there is every color from golden embroidery to minute details. It was an amazing experience. I went and sat there and it was divinely spiritual and I felt – no wonder they call it Guru ka darbar. It can happen everywhere – take a walk into the forest and you see the most amazing world filled with trees, birds, animals – all kinds of forms. There is lots of everything but there is also quietude. One has to build this up. You need sound to achieve silence. I have tried to create that in the Khalsa Heritage Centre – there are many lavish experiences but there are also spaces that have an intense quiet, which feel infinite. These are places of reflection where time takes over. People go away deeply touched.

LD: Can you talk about your process to create such a space with an example?

AB: The third gallery of the Virasat-e-Khalsa is a circular space like a well: the exit and entrance are at different levels. This space had to have extreme quietude as it was to explain the fundamentals of Sikhism. After research, examining constraints and studying the space, I spent many weeks thinking about it. The one thing I realized is that design does not happen through the mind and logic. Design happens if you let it. The answer came like a flash in the middle of the night in the form of a little sketch.

AB: The third gallery of the Virasat-e-Khalsa is a circular space like a well: the exit and entrance are at different levels. This space had to have extreme quietude as it was to explain the fundamentals of Sikhism. After research, examining constraints and studying the space, I spent many weeks thinking about it. The one thing I realized is that design does not happen through the mind and logic. Design happens if you let it. The answer came like a flash in the middle of the night in the form of a little sketch.

Gallery 3  Virasat-e-Khalsa Phase 1: The designers aimed to create a sense of no-place, beyond definitions of dimensions, circular or square. Many thin strands of fibre optic transmit light: the end or the whole strand could glow. Each fibre optic has a crystal attached to it and the light comes down, reaches the crystal and glows. Together, they form the symbol of Ek Onkar (oneness of life). Walking up the ramp, you are surrounded by a sense of the infinite with stars against the dark.

LD: When you reflect on your journey, how do you think you have evolved with this idea of museums and exhibitions?

AB:Practically, the life cycle of these projects is really long. They can take two to three years and it becomes hard to nurture the project for so long. One has to sustain the interest of the design team on the project; typically people want to finish and move on so it is a difficult journey. I am someone trying to make sense of all the layers, like an orchestrator working with others who specialize in sound and music, writing stories, lighting effects and creating sets. To me, my language is a unison of all this. There are failures, many trials and many levels of success. My purpose has been to emotionally move the audience and therefore transform people. Unless you are truly moved there can be no transformation. This has been the challenge and my journey.

Darshan, Sadhu Vaswani Mission, Pune: The Museum as a space of emotive experience leading to transformation.

LD: How do you think museums could shape culture? Must the idea of museum be confined to grandiose buildings which contain ‘all the stories’ or could they be spread across a city?

AB: We need to keep reinventing the paradigm of museum to go beyond the exhibit as places where communities gather. They are great platforms to assimilate, interact and engage with culture. They could have elements to heal people. They could be places of engagement that run all over the city, where families come, children come. Museums in the future should be program-driven and activity-oriented not just display of artifacts.

Images of Museums courtesy: Design Habit 

Sujatha Shankar Kumar