Design goes SlumThe first nomadic design slum museum opens its doors
In February, the first nomadic design museum in the Dharavi slum in Mumbai has open its doors to honour local craftsmanship. Read More
Have you ever heard of Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums at the centre of Mumbai? No?
Actually you have, though you probably don’t recognize the name.
Most of the scenes from eight-Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” were set in Dharavi. In the film, the slum looks like you would expect a slum to look: messy, dirty, poor. But is this a realistic image?
In truth, the movie never claimed to be a portrait of Dharavi, though some of the most spectacular scenes were shot there. The imagery represents what most middle-class residents of Mumbai (and now all over the world) imagine Dharavi to be. The urban legend of its squalor has taken root because few Mumbaikars have ever been there.
Jorge Mañes Rubio, Amanda Pinatih, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava were fascinated by the creativity that pervades Dharavi. They came up with the idea of a nomadic design museum (the first design museum ever in Dahravi too, by the way) to honour local craftsmanship.
In their eyes, Dharavi’s depiction as a slum does little justice to the reality of the actual living conditions there: the area is perhaps safer than most American cities, and its extreme population density doesn’t translate into oppressiveness. The crowd is efficiently absorbed by the thousands of tiny streets branching off bustling commercial arteries. You won’t be chased by beggars or see hopeless people loitering either — Dharavi is probably the most active and lively part of an incredibly industrious city. People have learned to respond to the indifference of the state in creative ways — including setting up a highly functional recycling industry that serves the whole city.
Dharavi is probably the most active and lively part of an incredibly industrious city.
The museum will tour for two months starting in February 2016. We talked to the initiators about their plans.
On your homepage you note: “Dharavi is an economic success story that the world must pay attention to during these times of global depression.” Could you give us some examples of what makes it such a success story?
According to well-circulated statistics, 60% of Mumbaikars live in “slums” that occupy 6% of the city’s land. What is less known is that many of these so-called slums have little to do with the kind of apocalyptic imagery sold to the world in blockbuster movies, best-selling books and tabloids. A majority of homes in areas classified as “slums” by the government were built of bricks, steel and cement by experienced teams of contractors, masons, plumbers, electricians and carpenters. Around 1 million people live in Dharavi, and despite the tough conditions they live in, they are capable of creating, designing, manufacturing and commercialising all kinds of goods. Their ability to reinvent themselves and their surroundings is exceptional, mastering the creation of what we call “user-generated neighbourhoods”.
How did you come up with the idea of running a museum in a slum?
We believe that objects made in Dharavi are as valuable as those collected by design museums around the world. We want to give these objects a platform to be viewed and appreciated by makers and locals from Dharavi and the city of Mumbai. By creating a design museum - a place for contemplation - we make this city within a city more liveable. Our main intentions are to acknowledge the citizenship of these people, to recognize their equal rights with the rest of the city, and promote a greater exchange between formal and informal economies.
Why did you choose Dharavi?
Because Jorge Mañes Rubio had travelled there before, where he met Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava. Matias and Rahul have worked in Dharavi for many years and know how this informal settlement works. When Jorge went to Dharavi in 2011, he encountered a place full of energy; inspiration and creativity could be found virtually everywhere, to the extent that it sometimes seemed to arise in a purely accidental, almost effortless way. Families who have mastered the same craft for generations live right next to those who are using modern manufacturing technologies such as laser cutting.
What's your main goal in operating this museum?
The main mission of Design Museum Dharavi is to promote social change and innovation and to challenge our perception of ‘slums, favelas, barriadas, ghettos’ on a global scale.
You don't like to refer Dharavi as slum – why?
Dharavi is all about amazing resourcefulness. Over 60 years ago, it started off as a small village in the marshlands and grew, with no government support, to become a million-dollar economic miracle providing food to Mumbai and exporting crafts and manufactured goods to places as far away as Sweden. No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the prosperity of Dharavi. It was built entirely by successive waves of immigrants fleeing rural poverty, political oppression, and natural disasters. They have created a place that is far from perfect, but has proven to be amazingly resilient and able to upgrade itself.
Defining such a place by simply stamping it with the generic term “slum” ignores its complexity and dynamism. Dharavi’s messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work. Most homes double as work spaces. When morning comes, mattresses are folded, and tens of thousands of units form a decentralized production network rivalling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency. Mixed-use habitats have often shaped urban histories. Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise, high-density mixed-use cityscape and intricate street network have emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference is that people’s involvement in local development in Tokyo was seen as legitimate.
Why are you guys so fond of museums?
Because museums are the new cathedrals of the XXI Century, not just cultural venues, but also tourist attractions, public squares and symbols of power and wealth for Western cities. They provide visitors with an opportunity to be part of an experience that goes beyond the works exhibited. The Victoria & Albert Museum was a pioneer when it established the design object as a museological discipline in 1852. During the 20th century, more and more modern and contemporary art museums started collecting design or applied arts, a term used more often by museums. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has been collecting design since 1934. The decorative arts, graphic and industrial design collection now holds around 70,000 objects (more than three-quarters of the complete Stedelijk collection).
But why a mobile one? That’s quite unusual…
Despite what we might think about informal settlements, building new constructions is extremely difficult in these areas, and Dharavi is no exception. Due to the high density of the population and the informal nature of its economy, the urban organisation is changing constantly. This ‘user generated neighbourhood’ reinvents itself on a daily basis, which constitutes one of its many peculiarities. Local neighbours know that if they want to build or modify any existing construction, it cannot look new, and it must be carried out with the greatest discretion (generally during the night).
So this unique environment demands a unique solution, which inspired us to create a nomadic museum. This specific approach aims to interact with the local population in a new way that constitutes a melting pot of crafts, skills, traditions, creativity and technology. This way the museum won’t just be an exhibition venue; it will also be a flexible meeting point where individuals can showcase their skills, find potential clients, teach workshops to the rest of the community, and take their own activities one step further. Every two weeks for two months, the museum will relocate somewhere else, following its nomadic nature, bringing its activities to a different part of Dharavi. As part of these activities, the established design and art circuits of the city of Mumbai will be invited to participate and learn more about this informal settlement and the people who live in it.
What are you going to showcase in your exhibitions?
In Dharavi you can find families who have mastered a specific kind of craftsmanship for several generations or have developed cutting edge manufacturing technologies. We want to display both different approaches along with everything in between. From pottery to block printing, textile weaving and dying, recycling (aluminium, plastics), embroidery (handmade, CNC), laser cutting, food design, along with objects that are culturally relevant in Dharavi, from kites to cricket bats.
Are you planning similar projects in slum areas in other parts of the world? In favelas for example?
To be honest it's too early to say, but on a meta level, our idea is to create a model that could be implemented in other similar locations around the world in future. With an ever-growing world population, informal settlements will play a major role in the expanding megacities of tomorrow, so this initial experience will serve as a measure of the actual impact that our proposal may have on a global scale, and how it could change our perceptions and responses to these locations.