Recently, the Mumbai based Mahindra group opened its corporate museum, The Museum of Living History. Museums usually give us a look into the past – the past culture, customs, fashion, food art, etc. – of a society. However, the Mahindra’s Museum of Living History is designed to be a continuum to the future. It takes you through not just the group’s past, but it also lets you see its present, and gives you a peek into its future. It is a one-of-a-kind initiative that reflects the Group’s purpose and its people, and one where #PurposeMeetsDesign. “Just as life is not static, The Museum of Living History is a living, breathing entity in the ever-changing world of the Mahindra Group,” says Anand Mahindra, chairman, Mahindra Group. “The museum celebrates the philosophy, the DNA, the core values, and the culture of the Group and is a cornucopia of stories that define us. I am excited to see it evolve with time and tell a brand story like never before,” he adds.
A walk through the museum reconfirms what Mahindra says – that it is a space that defines the Mahindra group. It is also a space that all Mahindra employees, irrespective of where they fit in the group, should be proud of.
“Never before has a large organisation or a brand told its story in such a unique way,” says Elsie Nanji, design consultant and creative director. “The idea of curating stories over the last 75 years of Mahindra Group and converting selected stories into a creative brief to inspire each artist was a challenging task. The spaces were carefully planned to cocoon the viewer, a perfect ambience to absorb the message and details of the art within,” she adds.
Conceptualised by design and creative consultant, Elsie Nanji, and ‘experience’ designer, Harsh Manrao, a walk around the museum shows specially commissioned art pieces that tells the story of the group’s core values and principles, its various businesses, history, and its outlook to the future. It celebrates the Rise philosophy of the Mahindra Group. Stories of strive and triumph, values, ethics, and concern for community have been bought to life within it. What is most important is that it celebrates failure as well. The art is not all works on canvas. In fact it is a lot of interactive multimedia, digital works.
The architectural design of the museum reflects a nautilus, spiral in shape, which is reflective of the company’s growth, expansion, and constant renewal. The interior reflects a futuristic space with delicately balanced textures and light that seem to be in constant motion. It has been conceptualized as a space where people can gather to learn, share, and interact. According to Harsh Manrao, the pluralistic narrative of the Mahindra Museum has been conceptualised to celebrate stories of success. “Each section presents an evocative aesthetic blend of history, design, art and technology. The physical and digital installations have been curated to add depth to the stories and can be updated continually,” he says. Manrao is director at Figments Experience Lab.
It all started when Prochie Mukherji, ex-chief of staff at chairman, Anand Mahindra’s office, shot off a note to Mahindra with her idea. Over the years many people had been sharing various stories related to the Mahindras, and she felt this was an opportunity to showcase what Mahindras is all about, and create a museum that tells its stories.
The plan got underway four years ago. A core team was put together comprising Mukherji, Jay Shah, and designers Nanji and Manrao. The museum is a collaborative project involving diverse teams from the chairman’s office, corporate brand, IT, corporate infrastructure services working in tandem with the external design team along with several artists and execution agencies. Almost 1000+ stories were collected from various people in the group.
Curating the 30 shortlisted artists was a task. According to Nanji, a workshop was held to help the artists understand how they would interpret values as each artist had their own interpretation, and different mediums such as origami, or pottery or digital. All the artists worked through the lockdowns. As there was no way to get out, they didn’t have access to their studios, workmen or material. “They worked with a promise that the museum would happen and they would get paid. Everyone was happy that there was something to do,” says Nanji. Working through the lockdown had its disadvantages, and material and work at different stages was shown to Nanji and Manrao through video calls.
The museum is divided into different spaces which concentrate on various aspects of the group. The Force section shares the group’s Rise stories. An ever expanding banyan tree signifies how the group creates value for its shareholders. Chairman emeritus Keshub Mahindra was passionate about ethics, hence there is the depiction of the importance of ethics for the group. When the artist was told that ethics is the most important value for the group, she used a hook to show that Mahindra is anchored by ethics. The Big Bang section shows how Mahindra and India grew together.
There are surprising tales and charming details – delicately carved chalk figurines by Alijan Shaikh; assemblages by Sara Lovari; a mirrored and sliced Battista installation by Shahrukh Irani; “Dreamcatcher", a kinetic sculpture by Jaideep Mehrotra; the original simulator of the Formula-E race car and among others, animation films created by young illustrators. A mutoscope shows a growing Banyan Tree video on a wall suggesting an ever-expanding Group. There are objects and hype-boxes within the space that move and respond to touch. A laser beam of light, like a ticking clock invites you to experience the present and walk into the future. According to Manrao, the space is curated in such a way that a visitor can chart their own course through the museum. “There are no sections that say this is the beginning or the end. You can walk through whichever way and yet see the whole space,” he says.
For the artists, each object had a different brief, depending on which section of the museum it came under. All briefs were in the form of stories or anecdotes about the history of the company. According to artist Rekha Goyal, when Elsie and Harsh briefed her about their vision for the Mahindra Museum, they spoke about their approach to the museum design, and how art was integral to the experience they imagined. They had worked on themes and were seeking an artistic impression of the idea. The theme Goyal was asked to articulate through her work was centred on the narratives, forces and ideas that come together to build a nation. “While exploring an idea as powerful, yet humbling as this, my attempt was to get to the kernel of the idea that captures both the intent and the emotion. For this particular artwork, the individual parts were just as important as the whole; small was as significant as the large; each story was unique, but also part of a larger narrative. That's when the idea of "Building Blocks", the eventual title of the artwork, took shape for me and that's what I set out to create,” says Goyal.
It took Goyal a year to work on "Building Blocks" through two lockdowns and a pandemic. “Getting to the core of the idea was an explorative process,” she says. “Once the thought was clear, giving it a physical form was the next challenge. Creating something with honesty will test an artist’s perseverance; everything else is skill and patience. "Building Blocks" of a nation can be expressed in a zillion different ways and I am happy that my expression finds a place in the Mahindra Museum,” she says.
For artist and art consultant Natasha Jeyasingh, the brief for this project was quite abstract. “It was translating company values and ideas into physical forms which was challenging,” she says. “I was struggling with the thought of having to convert a concept, an abstraction, into something physical that reflected these learnings and lessons. I had this sense of wanting to go back to the idea of ‘play’ or making it interactive, and I was drawn to this childhood memory of visiting a science museum and learning about theories in math and physics though these interactive models that explained such deep concepts to a child. That really clicked for me and I chose to use that approach to make the objects,” explains Jeyasingh.
Apart from this, the pandemic definitely affected much of the experience. “Apart from timelines, it also made the process interesting because I had to find new ways of working on things remotely. In fact, till today, I haven’t actually met three of the four people who executed these objects for me, nor had I physically seen the objects until they were installed. Everything was done remotely,” says Jeyasingh.
There are a few corporate museums in India. There is the Godrej museum, the Tata museum, Amrapali museum. Each museum talks about what is important for that company. At Mahindra’s Living History Museum, they decided to talk about their values and inspirations. How do the employees feel about the Living History Museum? In fact this is now the space where the group hosts the induction of new employees. And as everyone doesn’t not know all the stories, they are learnt through the museum.
The museum, though open to the public, is not ticketed. You can either book your visit through the Mahindra Museum app, or you can write in to [email protected]. Having walked through the Living History Museum, I really don’t know if I should appreciate it as a corporate museum or a work of art. As Manrao rightly says, “A timeless piece of experience-centred design, the museum is the pulsating heart of brand Mahindra.” It is surely one of the more interesting museums to visit.