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Can a Mumbai Museum on Wheels Change Perceptions of Slums?

The team behind Design Museum Dharavi—the first museum to be built inside a slum—says it won’t be just another tourist stop.

A rendering of what the mobile museum will look like. (Design Museum Dharavi)

Come February, a small museum on wheels will be rolling through the streets of Dharavi, a densely packed urban informal settlement tucked inside the heart of India’s financial hub, Mumbai. The Design Museum Dharavi, which will be the size of a small truck, will be the first museum to be built inside a slum.

But don’t call it a “slum museum,” says Jorge Mañes Rubio, an Amsterdam-based artist involved with the project. The mobile museum will make stops throughout Dharavi between February and March, showcasing crafts by local artisans, including textiles, pottery, and various products made with recycled materials. Rubio and his co-founders—Amsterdam-based art historian Amanda Pinatih and the directors of the Mumbai-based Institute of Urbanology (URBZ)—will also host workshops and other events that will bring together Dharavian artisans with designers and professionals from the outside.

(Design Museum Dharavi)

The ultimate goal is to help change the overall negative perception of the so-called slum. “There’s so much creativity [in Dharavi], so many micro-factories that produce so much stuff in really good quality [using] all kinds of materials and by recycling,” Rubio tells CityLab. “Yet we only know it as a slum.”

Indeed, Dharavi is a township teeming with small-scale enterprises—as many as 20,000, according to The Guardian. They range from shops manufacturing leather goods to small tea stalls to toy factories. Dharavi has long held a reputation for being the recycling center of India, taking in and giving new life to as much as 80 percent of Mumbai’s waste. And discarded plastic makes up a large portion of what the town recycles and turns into new products, as described by a National Geographic reporter:

Ruined plastic toys are tossed into massive grinders, chopped into tiny pieces, melted down into multicolored pellets, ready to be refashioned into knockoff Barbie dolls. Here every cardboard box or 55-gallon (208 liters) oil drum has another life, and another one after that.

“[Dharavi] is a slum in the sense that it's extremely dense, extremely difficult to have services and toilets and infrastructure. But it is not in the sense of being violent or full of despair,” says Vinit Mukhija, an urban planning researcher at UCLA who studies Mumbai’s urban slums and who isn’t involved in the museum project. “It's also perhaps a slum in terms of property rights being somewhat being ambivalent, but in many ways, it's more like an open village.”

Workers speak to each other while working in a plastic recycling factory in Dharavi. (Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

The team hopes to present a different exhibit each time they make a stop at a new neighborhood. But it’s not just a matter of putting products on display. Pooling together their own money and funding from a Dutch foundation for arts and design, the team hopes to pay locals so that they can have a “day off” from their daily jobs. “We want to push them a little bit [to explore] that idea they never had time to accomplish, that new material, or maybe a collaboration with one of their colleagues,” Rubio says.

But the museum risks bearing a resemblance to “slum tourism,” sometimes refer to as “poverty voyeurism.” After Danny Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, which used Dharavi as its backdrop, became an Oscar-winning success, the town became a tourist destination—and the center of ethical debates on guided slum tours. Tour companies claim to be showing the positive side of slums, but people like Jockin Arputham, the president of a Mumbai-based community group called Slum Dwellers International, aren’t convinced. He told the Wall Street Journal in 2013 that the tours were derogatory and that locals were being exploited like zoo animals.

Among the crafts that are sold in Dharavi are pottery. (Design Museum Dharavi/URBZ)

Pinatih says she and her team are well aware of these comparisons, but argues that the museum is not meant for gawking tourists, but for the locals themselves. “The other main group [we want to attract] is the professional design group in Mumbai so they actually see what is possible in Dharavi,” she tells CityLab.

The opening of the museum coincides with the annual India Design Forum, a conference that brings together the biggest artists and designers from the country’s largely overlooked design industry. “This year, for the first time, Dharavi is going to be, we think, one of the main locations of this festival,” says Rubio. He hopes to create opportunity for the Dharavian artisans to collaborate with designers throughout Mumbai and beyond.

Overall, Vinit Mukhija at UCLA is optimistic that the endeavor can change not just global perceptions of Dharavi, but, perhaps even more importantly, local ones. Even throughout Mumbai, the community is viewed negatively as an eyesore.

If successful, the change in conversation comes at an important time. Developers in Mumbai have eyed Dharavi, which sits on prime land, for ambitious redevelopment undertakings since 2004, when the Dharavi Redevelopment Project was launched. Earlier this month, the state government relaunched plans to move the the much-delayed project forward by announcing that it will accept bids to redevelop multiple sectors of Dharavi.

The museum could serve as a counterpoint to the argument that Dharavi needs to be completely reinvented: By making the museum mobile, Mukhija says, the team acknowledged the lack of infrastructure and space to build a fixed museum. “I think they acknowledge the need for some public support and intervention to improve the infrastructure, but it doesn't have to be all redevelopment.”

Mukhija also applauds the group for distancing itself from the word “slum,” though he voices concern that the museum is already getting branded as a “slum museum.” He references the sociologist and well-known critic of urban renewal Herbert Gans: “He said, ‘Look, we wouldn’t have all these slum-clearance projects post-World War II if we had called them ‘urban villages’ instead of ‘slums.’”

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