Pocket-Sized Exhibition Shows Museum Experience Is Not One Size Fits All

Dayanita Singh’s ‘Museum Bhavan’ won the coveted Infinity Award this month for offering the public a way to intimately and innovatively interact with art

museum bhavan
Museum Bhavan may look small but it contains 298 pages and 241 images. Museum Bhavan publicity image

Artist Dayanita Singh was fed up with the stiff, sterile environments her photography was being exhibited in. She wanted more interaction; she wanted less barriers between her pieces and the audience.

So she decided to shake up the museum experience. As Bilal Qureshi reports for NPR, Singh, who won one of photography's highest honors this month, the International Center of Photography's Infinity Award, is challenging conventional exhibitional spaces by creating portable, pocket-sized museums. The idea, she tells Qureshi, is to build a gallery experience that feels as intimate and personal as flipping through an old photo album.

The Infinity Award was given to Singh in recognition for her latest "pocket museum," Museum Bhavan. Hindi for “large house," it's a collection of nine of her individual museums as book adaptations. Housed in a handmade box, each of the books fold out accordion-style when opened, allowing people to serve as their own curators when they explore the almost 250 black-and-white photographs contained inside.

Each of the books that encompass Museum Bhavan has a theme — there’s a Little Ladies Museum, a Museum of Men and a Museum of Furniture, which features images of tables, chairs and beds. Together, they span her earliest photography work in 1981 to the present day.

Born in 1961 in New Delhi, India, Singh studied Visual Communication at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and Documentary Photography at the International Center of Photography. She began her career as a photojournalist, but in the 1990s, frustrated with the assignments she was receiving from Western outlets that she felt were only interested in presenting an exoticized view of India, she decided to move her photography into an artistic space. She’s since established herself as an important figure in the field for her photo-architectural work, which pushes the possibilities of the medium.

"Photography is such a magical form but it's gotten a little stunted," Singh tells Qureshi. "The most magical experience of photography is when it's in your hands, because it's here — you're touching it, you can hear it, you can smell it."

As Jordan G. Teicher reported for The New York Times, Museum Bhavan grew out of another project of the same name, an ambitious life-size collection of the museums. The prints are housed in folding wooden architectural structures that incorporate about 100 framed spaces. The photographs can be changed up at any time in the display to tell a different story. The handmade structures themselves are also designed to be remixed to facilitate new interpretations of the work.

While Museum Bhavan is permanently installed at Vasant Vihar in New Delhi, the museum can travel to other spaces. But the pocket-sized version, which was published in 2017, makes the work vastly more accessible to the public.

Since its debut, the portable Museum Bhavan, created with German publishing house Steidl, has received recognition for taking a step toward bridging the gap between publishing and museums. In addition to being honored with the Infinity Award, it was also awarded with the Paris Photo Book of the Year Prize, for giving art enthusiasts around the world the opportunity to experience—and even touch—a museum on their own terms.

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