Chila Kumari Burman and the ‘museum aesthetic’

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Even today, museums remain integral to preserving a city’s culture. They immerse visitors in the past by showcasing the history of a country, from its revolutionary scientific discoveries to its breathtaking artwork. They have become a sanctuary for curious tourists, locals seeking to enrich their knowledge, and herds of complaining children on mandatory school trips. 

They invite people from far and wide to gaze at their displays, many for the price of nothing. They have become the epicentre of the family day trip. The go-to option on a rainy day. The place one can momentarily escape the chaos of the present and immerse themselves in a city’s past. 

[Museums] have become the epicentre of the family day trip

Yet recently, the digital world has begun to invade every aspect of our lives, so much so, people feel they must document their whereabouts every second of the day. It is therefore no surprise a new social group has begun to swarm museums — the eager Instagrammers, on the hunt for the perfect picture. The candid shot that will be their profile picture for the next month. The video that will make for an edgy YouTube montage. 

In reality, museums are no longer explored through the naked eye, but the camera lens. Pictures are snapped every second, capturing everything and anything that fits into the ‘museum aesthetic’. It is devaluing the significance of these cultural monuments, reducing them to a mere commodity, ready to be exploited for the sake of Instagram likes and Pinterest pins. These buildings are not appreciated for their immersive exhibitions and beautiful infrastructure, but have become a site where you are expected to flood your phone with another hundred images of yourself. 

In reality, museums are no longer explored through the naked eye, but the camera lens

Take Chila Kumari Burman’s mesmerising installation at the Tate Modern from 2020. Beaming neon lights were shaped into everything from Indian queens and warriors to snowflakes and ice-cream vans, all lighting up the Tate Modern to mark the festival of Diwali. It was an installation that stopped people in their tracks. Combining Hindu and Bollywood mythology, colonial history, and Burman’s personal memories, the bold sentence, ‘Remembering a Brave New World’, placed in the centre of the artwork, both celebrated and mourned the past.

Yet, when searching for the installation online, prepare to be bombarded with pictures of people in their best outfits, flaunting poses practised to perfection. Its enriching symbolism is not the focal point, but a blinding backdrop. Shameful to say, I wanted to visit Burman’s exhibition just because I had seen it plastered all over my Instagram feed — the cultural symbol had been turned into a photo aesthetic.

Yet, with its neon lights becoming the star of the show, this boils down to the question of where we draw the line between appreciating art and appropriating it. Does using Burman’s exhibition as an Instagram backdrop entail appreciating its creative beauty or ignoring its symbolism? Although it may seem that aestheticising art is mere exploitation, where an artist’s installations are used and abused for a good picture, the digital world has merely changed the way we appreciate displays. 

Appreciation is subjective. Some people appreciate installations by sharing it with others through a picture, whilst others would rather keep their experiences personal. Some people talk about their inspiring trips, whilst others choose to keep it to themselves. The former does not undermine the value of museums when intentions remain the same — an admiration of culture, history, and art. The same way one takes pictures of things they find beautiful, from a field of flourishing flowers to a mesmerising sunset on a summer’s evening, this doesn’t constitute an exploitation of nature when it celebrates its beauty. 

So, next time we see a group of eager Instagrammers desperate for a picture in front of a picturesque museum, we shouldn’t roll our eyes, but should respect the way they appreciate installations. At the end of the day, judging the way people appreciate exhibitions won’t get you anywhere.

Image: Dave Pearce via Flickr
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