Abhay Adhikari, The Faces of smARTplaces

What’s your take on cultural heritage and intercultural dialogue?

I feel our cultural heritage is the stories we tell each other to make sense of the world around us – this could be about our streets and neighborhoods, our cities and beyond. And I really mean casual conversations. Not a deliberate act of storytelling. Let me give you an example. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Delhi and met a friend, who is an urban ecologist, in Safdarjung’s Tomb. The tomb is a stunning Mughal style mausoleum built in 1754. As we were roaming the gardens, my friend explained that often trees from Mughal gardens are leased to a contractor who is responsible for it. I had not known this before. As a result, we spent most of our time in the garden, looking at every tree, picking the fallen fruit – jamun, dates, mangoes – and tasting them all afternoon! If we look at intercultural dialogue from this lens, isn’t it the exchange of tacit knowledge and lived experiences?

How do you think we can amplify the relevance of cultural heritage in the everyday life of people (outside the sector)?

When we examine the world from the academic disciplines of cultural heritage and intercultural dialogue, the way we present it back to people can make it seems like the other – something that is removed from our everyday existence, whereas, as I mentioned earlier, that is often not the case. Let’s reframe the question: as cultural practitioners, how do we make our invaluable, necessary work relatable to people? Does the language we use to talk about, say, our built environment, create a metaphorical glass cage around the object, which then people are afraid to engage with? I think we need to go back to being naive once again. Let me explain that: I follow a YouTuber who is travelling the world, visiting countries like – Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Georgia – often couch surfing, with very little money, living in cities, towns and villages. There are so many moments in his videos where he asks questions that used to make me cringe. But then I went from saying – how do you not know that, to how could you know that? That’s the mind shift we need to create when we use our skills and knowledge to present information of the world back to the community.

Which big challenges do you think that cultural institutions have concerning the future?

I see three areas – how do we incorporate the rapid digitization – tools, ways of working –  into our institutions, in a way that doesn’t demand employees to rethink their roles, but respects their tacit knowledge and enables them to grow. For this to happen, we need to address contextual digital literacy that empowers people rather than train them like monkeys to use different platform. The second is, how do we redefine our roles within our immediate communities – why can’t we become a platform for social activism? And finally, how can we wean ourselves away from what feels safe and comfortable – say, the annual blockbuster exhibition, counting on people to come to us – rather than us go to them . There is a lot that needs to be figured out. But there is so much passion and commitment to make this change happen. I propose one little provocation – instead of regarding ‘the community’ as a group of people we are supposed to serve, what if you consider them to be a multi-disciplinary network of individuals who are vital to what we do. Let’s try and create a level playing field. This is what I’ll be exploring both in my talk and the workshop at HIP!

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