Mumbai Industrial Museum Collaboration

Machinery in Kohinoor Mills no.1-2, Dadar (East), 2002
Machinery in Kohinoor Mills no.1-2, Dadar (East), 2002

This is an edited and shortened version of a proposal for an Industrial Museum in the Mill Lands of Mumbai, which was initially supported by an arts collaboration seed grant from the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) in 2004-2005.

Meena Menon, activist and writer, Neera Adarkar, arcnitect, Anirudh Paul of the Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA) Design Cell and film-maker Paromita Vohra helped to conceive the collaboration.

Rajesh Vora’s photography was later published in Darryl D’Monte, ed., Mills for Sale: The Way Ahead (Mumbai: MARG, 2006). Ashok G. Bapat of the National Textile Corporation (NTC) and Professor Raj Chandavarkar of Cambridge University expired in 2006, and architect Arvind Adarkar in 2013.

1. Introduction

The Mumbai Industrial Museum Collaboration seeks to address the crisis of civic imagination driven by two dramatic transformations in our contemporary urban landscapes — the deindustrialisation of manufacturing and production, and the dematerialisation of culture and information.

These parallel transformations have replaced large-scale factories and organised urban working classes with dispersed networks of subcontracted and informal production in slums and hinterlands on the one hand; and on the other hand, they have replaced the space of the traditional museum, library and archive with virtual networks of communications, entertainment and commerce.

While these historic industrial and technological changes are common to cities across the world, in Mumbai their articulation in the public sphere remains deeply contested and poorly understand. The new politics of space and work in post-industrial Mumbai has yet to be comprehensively documented, much less re-imagined, and the importance of inter-disciplinary and collaborative urbanism to this task is obvious.

In this proposal for the Industrial Museum Collaboration, we outline a project to develop a Public Museum, Archive and Library which can bring together various individual practitioners and groups into dialogue and action on these questions, in relation to the textile mill districts of the inner-city, also known as the Mumbai Mill Lands or Girangaon.

2. Mumbai’s Industrial Heritage

In Mumbai, public awareness of urban arts and heritage has experienced a significant revival, in the same historical moment as manufacturing industries and factory workers have fled the Island City and Suburbs of Greater Mumbai. However, heritage discourse and conservation practice has only implicitly acknowledged this important fact. Urban heritage has been almost exclusively about the colonial city — protecting its built fabric and rendering visible its monumental signs — reinvigorating civic pride through historical nostalgia.

Heritage has been about the colonial or modernist city, not about the industrial city. As heritage has increased in public consciousness and visibility — through legislation and protection, the organisation of new city and neighbourhood festivals, and an outpouring of romantic cultural representations — industry and manufacturing have been obscured from public view and memory.

In the twenty years since the Bombay Textile Strike inaugurated a post-industrial era of social and spatial restructuring — in which nearly a million factory workers lost their jobs in various industries — political and cultural responses to urban change are divided. They range from the celebratory rhetoric of the utopia of finance and services, styled on Singapore or Hong Kong, to the passionate protests of activists and community groups against the destruction of livelihoods and homes, in factory closures and slum demolitions.

Vast complexes of production and entire working-class communities across the city have been decimated and extinguished, in a prolonged social and spatial restructuring of the city’s economy since the Bombay Textile Strike thirty years ago — in the textile mills of central Mumbai, the chemical and engineering factories and industrial estates in suburban Greater Mumbai, and in the old docks of the Bombay Port Trust.

Through the Industrial Museum Collaboration, we hope to chart a shift in the focus of urban conservationists, arts and heritage enthusiasts, and the public from the monuments and signs of the colonial or modernist periods to illuminating this hidden Other of the picture postcards and coffee-table representations — the people, machines and places that produced the twentieth-century industrial metropolis of Mumbai.

The Collaboration is premised on rendering visible the history of the industrial city which has been extinguished by factory closures and the flight of manufacturing, as well as the new “global city” which is developing around economies of services, information and culture. Our proposed Collaboration seeks to recover the active presence of work and technology in our everyday lives, challenging the commonly-accepted vision of manufacturing inevitably giving way to services.

3. Re-imagining the Museum

In the era of globalisation, mega-cities like Mumbai have emerged as the primary site for the articulation of new social, economic and cultural imaginations, and the various technological means to realise these visions. The Industrial Museum Collaboration seeks to find a new cultural-institutional form to narrate these histories, and invite the urban public to tell its own stories of work, aspiration and movement that produced the thriving mega-city we know today as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

The idea of a museum today departs radically from the concept of the modern museum as we know it. The form of knowledge represented by the traditional idea of the museum is often alienating — representing the abstraction of knowledge from its living contexts. However today museums can accommodate multiple narratives about objects, artefacts and their relationships to people, living relations which can be animated and narrated, rather than simply exhibited.

The idea of objects or artefacts taken out of their living contexts and self-evidently standing for themselves has no place in our conception of the museum, which seeks to explore how deeply enmeshed are objects — especially technological objects — with human activity and social formation.

What makes traditional museums so alienating is that while they exhibit artefacts and objects, the knowledge about them is produced somewhere else — by experts, scientists, and bureaucratic authorities. The sense of wonder and amazement which traditional museums generate is of knowledge as static object, of individual perception removed from personal meaning and social context. A similar alienation around knowledge is mirrored in many modern institutions — from the school and university to the central library and state archive — whose power and forms of knowledge we are only now beginning to question.

Recent advances in communications, information and media technologies have provided the conditions for this questioning, by blurring boundaries of time and space, of the actual and virtual dimensions of perception. Television and visual media have radically altered our perception of the written word, and the Internet has subverted traditional means of organising knowledge in libraries. This dematerialisation of perception through mass media presents an opportunity to re-orient our relationship to knowledge and its representations in public culture and space, thereby reconceptualising the museum as institution.

Unlike many institutions which tend to isolate themselves from their the surrounding community, the museum as a space is explicitly organised to admit a constant stream of visitors into its boundaries. However, despite recognising its character as a public space, we ignore the agency of the public which frequents museums, bringing their own ways of seeing and constructing subjective meaning from narratives, objects and artefacts.

Going to a museum can be an experience in understanding the complex relationships of perception and imagination that we have with objects, artefacts, and technology. Museums are spaces which allow for a more tactile understanding of knowledge, and how it is produced. Seen in this way, they are also the hub of vibrant cultural communities publicly interacting in a shared space of reflection and pedagogy.

Our conception of the Industrial Museum builds on the recognition of these possibilities, and seeks to take them further by engaging with the politics of museumisation, the tourism and culture industries, and practices of urban heritage and conservation. The Industrial Museum Collaboration will enter these debates by articulating a new kind of cultural institution, challenging the colonial and nationalist tradition of the modern museum, and revising their identity as public spaces.

Critics of colonialism have charged that museums in the colonial world represented the objectification of living cultures, and their classification and exhibition as a sets of lifeless artefacts and exotic objects is part of the domination of colonial science and racist ideology over native knowledge systems.

Another view of museums sees them as preserves of the past, of the lost history of communities or peoples, with no contemporary relevance except as cultural or historical memorials, or as tourist sites. Yet another critique views museums, like art galleries and other cultural spaces, as narrowly fixated on aesthetics or symbolism, reflecting increasing consumerism and the emptying of meaning in public culture.

While practitioners such as historians, architects, activists and artists each have their own powerful ways of imagining the city, it is only recently that their isolation from each others’ ways of seeing and understanding has been loosened. Wider economic and technological changes are breaking the sway of a generation of institutions which established the postcolonial nation-state as the dominant form of cultural and political imagination.

The breakdown of these forms — so far experienced largely as crisis and decline — presents an opportunity to reimagine the relations between knowledges on which nationalist institutions had imposed an estrangement, in the name of disciplinarity and expertise. Amongst these alienated forms are the traditional museum and archive, whose present crisis holds out the possibility of forging new forms of inter-disciplinary knowledge which arise from the deep disjunctures between different practices when they address the city as an object.

Indeed it is in only in cities and urban contexts that practices are compelled to recognise their complex interdependence when confronting crises of public spaces such as institutions, environments, and markets. The highly polarised and contested nature of the debate on Mumbai’s Mill Lands demands such a recognition of the collaborative nature of urbanism.

4. Industrial Museum Library & Archive

In the context of the proposed project, our idea of collaboration is centred around the possibility of creating new imaginations of civic community by engaging with the themes of dematerialisation/museumisation and deindustrialisation both within and between disciplinary practices in the city.

In the past ten years, the debate on the Mumbai Mill Lands and Girangaon has yielded a rich fund of documentation, critical literature and creative expression on the phenomenon of urban deindustrialisation — from academic monographs and books, to activist fact-finding reports, to urban design studies and planning documents, to photographic and video documentation of mill workers’ struggles, to artistic representations of the city’s post-industrial landscapes. Collaborators have been involved in these efforts at documenting, understanding and imagining these epochal social and spatial transformations, through their own work as film-makers, activists, architects, photographers, historians and curators.

Our proposed Industrial Museum Archive & Library will comprehensively index, collate, and compile into a online, public-access digital database these valuable resources and materials, many of which are at present inaccessible, out of circulation, or unknown to the public. The Archive & Library is intended to foreground the people’s struggles and resistances to urban deindustrialisation since the Bombay Textile Strike in the early eighties — a watershed event which, twenty years earlier, inaugurated new practices of fact-finding, investigation and documentation for a generation of young urban activists.

The Archive & Library aims at both empowering the people’s struggles through a recognition of their place in history, as well as encouraging new research and documentation on local and community histories of the urban working classes, the shifting social and spatial dynamics of land, labour and technology in the post-industrial city, the aesthetics and politics of industrial landscapes in art and cinema, and other concerns. The Industrial Museum Archive will be initially developed as a comprehensive index of resources, people, and materials presently known to the Collaborators.

These include historical photography of the strikes and working class movement in the neighbourhood; oral histories of poets, activists, and workers; development plans and policy documents relating to land-use, planning, and the redevelopment of the mill districts; maps and urban designs of the mill districts done in previous studies; architectural documentation and lists of structures for heritage conservation; bibliographies of Marathi theatre, poetry and literature specifically concerned with the mill workers movement; video footage of the neighbourhood and the community’s struggle over the past twenty years; and directories of individuals in the community and city concerned with all of the above. The Collaborators’ Workshops will generate more materials for the Archive, which we see a key medium of exchange — linking the specific disciplinary concerns of the Workshops with the wider inter-disciplinary agenda of the Collaboration.

As an outcome of the proposed project, this public digital archive will be operationalised through a web portal run on free/open-source software, published on a copyleft license which will protect the original rights of the authors and contributors, while encouraging reproduction and dissemination in new forms for education, research and advocacy.

The Archive will base itself on an overall map of Girangaon and Central Mumbai — listing both tangible structures and spaces and intangible memories, narratives, and images — providing a framework for indexing and archiving existing materials, and developing new inquiries about specific local institutions, neighbourhoods, or mill districts in a spatial context. This Archive will comprise the virtual resource base for a curated exhibition organised by Coordinators and Collaborators at the end of the grant cycle. The Exhibition will feature installations, documentation, material and artefacts which could provide the basis for a future museum or cultural institution, which the Central and State Government have already proposed establishing in the Mumbai Mill Lands, with the support of the National Textile Corporation (NTC).

Apart from those cited above, some of the many institutional sources of material for the Industrial Museum Archive we have identified are:

Study Group on the Cotton Textile Mill Lands of Mumbai (Correa Committee Report), Girangaon Bachao Andolan, Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti and Maharashtra Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, Lokshahi Hakk Sanghatana, Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR), Congress of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Girni Kamgar Union, Maniben Kara Institute, Trade Union Solidarity Committee (TUSC), Bombay Mill-Owners’ Association (BMOA), Indian Cotton Mills Federation, Indian Textile Journal, Maharashtra State Archives, Office of the Textile Commissioner, East India Cotton Merchants Association, Asiatic Society of Bombay Special Collections, National Textile Corporation (NTC), Union Research Group, BUILD Documentation Centre, Centre for Education & Documentation (CED), Bombay Textile Research Association (BTRA), and the libraries of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and the Indian Merchants Chamber.

We hope that, through additional funding from other sources, the Archive will subsequently develop into a resource base for researchers, activists, and cultural practitioners seeking a broader understanding of industrial and technological change in contemporary Mumbai.

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