Gender Identity in a Museum: A Child’s Perspective of Authorship

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangralaya at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai
Museum in Mumbai

As students of art history, we are constantly besieged with the issue of authorship of artworks that we study, especially when it comes to ancient art, with not a single “signed by” found on any of the sculptures, murals, etc. Within a museum, the question of authorship gets further lost, distorted or taken out of context, as the artifacts are displayed in isolation of their original environment (context). While academics and students of art history have the leisure to speculate about the plausible identity of the artist, the casual museum visitor has no such luxury, training or motivation.

Take the example of a Mughal Miniature in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangralaya, formerly, the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India in the city of Mumbai, India. Plenty of folios from the Mughal Miniature tradition of India are on display within glass cases, with labels such as: “17th century Pahari, King Todar Mal Hunting with his Ministers, Dimensions of the Folio.” Other objects include the one below, a bronze figurine from India, with only the dynastic period and century mentioned as reference.

The Signage Alongside the Object is Hardly Informative or Interesting

In the case of the Miniatures, no where is there a mention or explanation of the background to the painting style, Mughal karkhana (artisan guild, workshop in the Mughal court), the well-known artists of that period, the communities involved in painting a Miniature, and why the artist is unknown. “Artist unknown” seems to suffice for the question for authorship. Such a label cannot be expected to encourage visitors to think about the art work beyond its physical presence in a glass case.

Now, think from a child’s point of view. Children’s trips to museums are generally a two hour event, where, in single file, they riccochet from one display to another, depending on where the guide or teacher takes them. Traditionally, in such visits, the display and its historic context is explored, rather than questions of identity, authorship, representation and context within the museum. Do children think about “the who” of an object, besides the “what, where and how”? Are they able to visualize the communities, artists or artisan responsible for creating the artifacts? This would largely depend on the level of communication and interaction planned by a curator through labels and captions, signage or obvious displays.

This also brings a different paradigm into play. Do children annotate a museum and its objects in terms of gender? Do the kind of objects on display and the manner in which they are displayed, convey any sense of gender or is there a lack of it? This issue is important because an inadequate or neutral representation of an artifact leads to a distorted sense of history, or in perpetuating misconceptions about the role of men and women in the context of art.

For example, how do we educate visitors about the gender neutrality or inclusiveness (depending upon the way you see it) of artifacts such as jewellery, pottery, costumes, etc. They are made by either men and women artisans and craftspersons or both, depending upon the community, region and nature of the craft. It would be interesting to find out, however, if the visitor perceives or assigns any gender identity to such artifacts – considered to be typically the domain of women by those unfamiliar with the history and tradition of Indian craft. When more often than not, the gender identity of an artist is not conveyed, does it lead to the perpetuation of certain misconceptions or stereotypes?

I would like to initiate a survey of children in the age group between 7-14, to understand if the stereotypes associated with gender are extended to works of art, and thereby artifacts in a museum and any cultured-cubified space representing culture. I hope that they wouldn’t just depend on “logic” if I ask them a question like, ‘Who do you think has made this huge stone sculpture?’ and answer ‘Obviously, a man’. Because, I daresay, the same logic can’t be applied if I ask them, “Who has made this delicate china porcelain?’, because the answer is obviously not “woman”!

So, another important point to keep in mind is the kind of artifacts I might choose to base my questions on. Should I choose artifacts that have an ambiguous gender identity or should I choose artifacts that are sure to have obvious gender defined authorship? What will be particularly interesting to note here would be the children’s “reasoning” behind how they decide whether an artifact is created by a man or woman, and how, if at all, that reflects contemporary perceptions of a man and woman’s role and identity. This will also help understand the inherent social conditioning that children receive at home and whether that conditioning needs positive intervention from cultural educationists and museum professionals.

This project is therefore a tiny step in motivating a child to not just see an object, but to perceive it and reflect upon it as a dynamic cog in the schema of his culture. A child sensitized to the experience of viewership in a museum can hope to become much more involved in her/his interaction with the objects on display and learn from them. This is ultimately what a museum’s purpose is. Would it be possible to envisage a time when a fairly sensitive and well-read visitor to the museum would not just ask the following two questions when confronted with an artifact: 1) Subject of the work 2) Object of the work. But rather, go beyond the physicality of the display and interpret the work according to how much it speaks to her/his sensibilities.

For e.g: If a series of figurative paintings have been displayed in a gallery: The questions to consider would be: 1) Male artist or female artist 2) If the subject of depiction are male or female figures/setting. 3) What is the style/composition of a painting if a female artist has painted a woman’s body, similarly, 4) How would a male artist paint a woman as his subject, and conversely, how would his depiction of male characters/figures be different from how a female artist depicts male characters.

My bet says yes! Given recent innovation with touch screen, wayfinding and increased user-friendly navigation tools, the experience of visiting a museum is undergoing a paradigm shift, at least in the US and Europe. I hope it would just be a matter of time before Indian museums can utilize such technologies and move beyond the mere display of art – which actually takes away from its dynamism and interactive potential – and involve visitors and audience in a meaningful dialogue of spectatorship.

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