Archive for the ‘Museum’ category

Outreach in Itanagar!

3 April 2012

I was lucky enough to get to go to Arunachal Pradesh. One of my friends, Nearly headless Nick, could not go to the Northeast Regional Institute of Science and Technology (NERIST) so he recommended me instead. The NERIST wanted a speaker on Wikipedia and he recommended me for which I am deeply grateful. They sent me an air ticket and off I went.

At Guwahati, I met up with User:Planemad (Arun Ganesh), a young expert on Geographical Information Systems and OpenStreetMap and we travelled all evening in an Innova reaching late at night at Itanagar. NERIST is a 25 year old institute with very good reputation. The institution has been the bedrock of technical education in the Northeast.

NERIST Academic block, Nirjuli.
(Image credit:Renzut)

We had two days of sessions at NERIST. On Day One, we had the Wikipedia session where we met the local students who were quite interested in what we had to say. Arun Ganesh helped me & vice versa. The Wikipedia session went off very well. We introduced the students to Wikipedia, how to edit, the Five Pillars, etc. The power kept going so we had problems with the presentations. Finally, we chucked the ppts/odps and moved to Wikipedia proper on the internet. A very strong argument can be made for quitting presentations altogether and relying only on the internet. A number of students created their accounts.

The students lapped up knowledge like a sponge! (Image credit:Planemad)

We found that the Wikipedia article on NERIST was quite okay because a student’s from last year’s session – User:Renzut (358 edits) – had built it up. We added a few facts, references and an image. We also created a stub on Ita Fort by moving some material out from Itanagar article. One of my Pune friends, User:Wasimmogal2007, moved to Itanagar very recently. He came over to the workshop and met some students. Hopefully Itanagar Wikipedians will get together now!

The next day’s session was on things geographical. Arun Ganesh dazzled the audience with OpenStreetMap and Quantum GIS. Though the stuff was a bit difficult to cotton on to, the students did really well. At least six sets of students got the Java OpenStreetMap editor going, (quite a feat)  and added road after road, building after building. To see the effects visit NERIST at Nirjuli on OpenStreetMap, just 20 kilometers east of Itanagar. The kids pretty much mapped up their whole campus that day. It was amazing to see the student’s lap up the tech stuff. Reminds us how much their inquisitive minds are deprived of genuine stimulation. They were truly awesome.

Planemad weaves his OpenStreetMagic

After our two days of sessions, we went on the third day sightseeing to Itanagar. Two of the NERIST students were very kind to guide us around. There we saw the Ita (brick) fort – a very few but good looking walls of brick. We took images to add to Commons everywhere we went. We had a rickshaw driver who spoke in Nyishi and whose message we recorded for posterity.

Southern gate of Ita Fort. Very few artefacts remain.

We also visited a very beautiful Museum – the Jawaharlal Nehru Museum which outside is not impressive but inside has fabulous dioramas, modern lighting and display systems. I spent an hour photographing the objects for Commons.The Museum is on two storeys and despite the scarcity of informative charts (there were a few but just not enough), the getup is quite good. The Victoria Memorial, Kolkata has been collaborating jointly with them to improve the Museum’s exhibits and the results are very evident.

Entrance to Jawaharlal Nehru Museum.

A diorama of the Tangsa tribe at the Jawaharlal Nehru Museum. There is a display for each of the tribes.

A display of handicrafts in the Nehru Museum.

Later we went to the Government Emporium where lots of beautiful necklaces, shawls and other artefacts were available but at prices suited for generous pockets than mine, though I bought my daughter a beautiful necklace worn by young girls of the Nyishi tribe. We returned to NERIST that day in time to experience a rainstorm – Northeast style!

Hornbill sculpture at the Government Emporium. The Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) is the state symbol for Arunachal Pradesh!

The next day was also supposed to be sight-seeing but we instead were asked by a new institution – NIT Arunachal Pradesh, in its temporary campaign at Yupia – to come and speak there. We went there in a Scorpio which travelled at breakneck speed through the country mud tracks, across the Dikrong river, through mud patches and a large deep pool to reach it – a real roller coaster of a ride. See this adventurous cross-country route marked as a dashed line in Open Street Map between the red coloured Nirjuli-Doimukh road and the peach-coloured Yupia road (mapped By Arun Ganesh with his Datalogger).

The temporary location of NIT Arunachal Pradesh at Yupia.

NIT Arunachal Pradesh is very new and operating from a temporary campus at Yupia. The students go forth bravely despite many infrastructural problems including water and electricity. The students were very interested in what we had to tell. We got a very hospitable and friendly reception from both the teachers and the staff. The students really wanted to do more but in a couple of hours each, we were only able to showcase the most basics.

Editing Wikipedia at NIT Arunachal. (Image credit:Planemad).

The Wikipedia article on NIT Arunachal Pradesh was already existing and we showed the students how their article was targetted for deletion by a P*@#%$&&i editor and then saved by the intervention of a non-Indian editor of WikiProject India – an example of how globalisation had already begun to affect their lives though they did not know it. We then improved the article, added the first image, cleaned it up and added a reference. After our sessions, we were taken specially to meet the Director NIT, Dr CT Bhuniya, who presented each of us with a book.

Prof CT Bhuniya, Director NIT AP, presented books to the participants. (Image credit:Unknown but with my camera.)

We returned to Guwahati on 28th by the same Scorpio who averaged 80 and often 100 kmph and did a 400 km journey in six hours! We stayed at Guwahati that night and flew out the next day. All in all, it had been an awesome experience for us, and we like to think, for the students of the two institutions also.

I am grateful to the organisers of NERIST Techfest, specially Biswajit Saha, for inviting me and Dr Rattan Chowdhary for inviting us to NIT Arunachal Pradesh. Thanks are also due to User:Sir Nicholas de-Mimsy Porpington for recommending me to NERIST, User:Planemad for great company and opening new horizons of learning to me, and to User:Nitika.t of India Programs for sending me her latest copy of outreach presentation for use in Itanagar.

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Museums – not quite the old Magic Shop!

17 January 2012

I remember visiting a museum as a child. An avid reader, I longed to enjoy the magic others experienced when they visited museums and such-like wond’rous places . Not only did I want to visit them, but wanted them very much to be like The Magic Shop!

From "Vor dem Weihnachtsladen" by Heinrich Zille (1875)

I got my wish when I went on a school trip to the museum in Pune. I do not recall its name now. It had lots of dusty bare rooms with glass panels containing objects, dull, and uninteresting, with short captions which told nothing of their stories. There was a tall, bald, curator – he spoke an alien language. Very soon, I wanted to go back home but had to endure the endless tour. If you entered from one end, you could leave only after going through a winding path through all the rooms.

It was a GREAT LETDOWN to a child.

Dusty glass shelves of objects which had no tales to tell...(Image:Édouard Riou, 1868)

So what went wrong? There was a great disconnect between the three of the entities involved, me , the objects and the museum staff. I had come expecting to get a taste of Wellsian magic, but I would not have minded if I had heard the objects tell me a more prosaic story. But they would not speak to me.

To me the objects looked like caged animals in a zoo; pathetic, listless copies of the original which lived enchanted lives somewhere far away. The objects could not speak to me. Plucked out of context from their surroundings where they would have been not just meaningful but magical.

Like a smoking cannon on the walls of a besieged fortress, or a quill on the table in Newton’s study in his house where it seemed that the great man himself would enter any moment to make won’drous new discoveries in science and maths, or the bones and tools of prehistoric cavemen unearthed from a cave where one could see the same vista they did hundreds of thousands of years ago. There was nothing to tell me their stories, and the museum people did not bother.

Cabinet of curiousities in the Boston Museum of Science. Note that there was no prohibition against photography in the museum. (Image:Daderot)

I’m sure, they thought me a nuisance. They objected to my dropping the wrapper of the sticky sweet on the floor, unmindful of the fact that that they had not provided me a waste basket anywhere. They grudgingly sent a beadle to show me the way to the public convenience. They cared not that I was thirsty after many hours of a hot summer day. They were only interested in shooing me past the sword that fascinated me, rudely interrupting my dream where I stood warding off a host of pirates intent on taking over my ship; indeed shooing me past everything else. We heard more instructions abut the need not to touch, or shout or run; we learnt nothing more than they were a particularly unpleasant form of adult. I resolved that I would be different.

...rudely interrupting my dream where I stood warding off a host of pirates intent on taking over my ship. (Image:Capture of Blackbeard, by JLG Ferris (1863–1930)).

As a young captain, I was shown a few books by a Colonel about a magic art that the Americans had developed called Interpretation, but alas he would not lend those sacred books to me. No matter, from what I could read in them in a few moments they were in my hands, I gathered that in America, educated, informed and most of all interesting people take the people around historical places, preserved great homes, archives, museums and made these places accessible to the visitors.

The Interpreters had studied the culture, literature, history and geography of the place – they had learnt all that and more. And when people came to see these objects, they found that there was a knowledgeable friendly person who told the stories and recreated the magic. An interpreter was not someone who prattled unendingly but aroused your curiousity, but was interested in you as a person and cared that you got to know about your heritage. The interpreter aimed, not at sating you, but tantalisingly to whet your appetite with free pamphlets to take along, signposts and charts to help his story at just the right places and links to online knowledge where you could learn to find more.

The objects in such places lay in familiar surroundings , each along-with the others in a nostalgic panorama of the past, where it was easy to visualise the story and where a hint of imagination would allow you to transport yourself to the past.

Such a museum is then a place where the objects, encouraged gently by the interpreters tell the stories and answer your queries. A fun place to learn. A veritable time machine. And there was no disconnect in such places.

Recommended Reading

This post arose due to a chain of posts initiated by various authors in the recent past. In part, it is a complement to Pradeep Mohandas’s blogpost listed below. It is likely that there will be more on this blog from me on this topic :