Media artist Professor Sarah Kenderdine remembers being shown around all of London’s museums by her mother when she was growing up.
“So it was natural to become a museums person,” the now UNSW Adjunct Professor in UNSW Art & Design says.
Professor Kenderdine studied archaeology and phenomenology of religion, two degrees which she says have helped her in her career, particularly in India where she has set up many museum projects.
“The ability to tell extraordinary stories in a situated space for the public is one of the great luxuries that museums have,” the researcher at the forefront of interactive and immersive experiences for museums and galleries says.
“They are corralling forces, they bring together things that normally wouldn’t be brought together and they have an ethos and care of the material world and a material world that’s actually heavily invested in the psychic level by all of us.
“We build things, we make things, and they choose to take care of those things. They are very celebratory places. And that’s what I find essential.”
Professor Kenderdine worked as a maritime archaeologist, before moving into digital and cultural heritage at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where her interest in the new media art practice was enhanced.
The professor was invited to India to set up Place-Hampi for France-India Year in 2006 together with artist Jeffrey Shaw.
The acclaimed theatre experience was photographed at Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage site in South India which was the centre of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire capital in the 13th-15th century.
Place-Hampi encourages visitors to participate in the drama of the site and its Hindu mythology, in “a 3D interactive panoramic journey through the many wonderful locations of Hampi, where the user takes everyone else on a journey”.
“It’s a 360-degree screen with a motorised platform in the middle and you’re rotating the field of view inside the stereographic panoramas and driving yourself through it,” she says.
The exhibition toured France, Singapore, Germany, China, Australia, Hong Kong, and Canada and is now part of the permanent PLACE-Hampi Museum which opened in 2012 at Vijayanagar, 25km from Hampi.
The permanent museum was an initiative called Kaladham by Indian philanthropist Sangita Jindal and the JSW Foundation.
The museum was conceived and curated by Professor Kenderdine.
She says Jindal is now interested in expanding the PLACE-Hampi museum format, and to work on a new complex in Kolkata with Professor Kenderdine.
The Kolkata museum is in the early stages of development.
“I work a lot with intangible heritage now and given that (West) Bengal is so rich with extraordinary festivals, dance, and things like that, this could be a really celebratory museum based on that material but using high fidelity digital technologies,” Professor Kenderdine says.
“There’s a great deal of interest in India on this convergence of intangible heritage and the digital.”
Look up Mumbai (2015) was another installation which Professor Kenderdine conceived and curated, for the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly named the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India.
Visitors to the Mumbai museum were invited to lie down and look up into a dome, to view images of ceilings of many of the most spectacular buildings in Mumbai, including temples, churches, government buildings, private homes, and contemporary buildings.
“In a way, it was bringing together all of these buildings that you don’t otherwise have access to,” she says.
“Mumbai has the highest concentration of art deco buildings in the world, and a highly significant number of Indo-Saracenic and Neo-Gothic architecture.”
Look up Mumbai used DomeLab, which was designed by Professor Kenderdine at UNSW in 2015 as the highest resolution touring full-dome projection system in the world.
“It’s conceived of as a future cinematic artwork that uses a computer algorithm to create a unique transition from one image to another, so you are on a never-ending journey of discovery in the celestial imaginary of Mumbai.”
The Eye of Nagaur is an [SK1] installation that was commissioned on behalf of His Highness Maharaja Gajsingh II of Marwar-Jodhpur for his Fort of the Hooded Cobra at Nagaur, Rajasthan in 2008.
This work takes advantage of gigapixel imaging and allows the viewer to enter inside a very high resolution spherical image, rotate and zoom.
The resolution allows visitors to explore the fine details of exceptional mural paintings as well as the architectural, spiritual and hydraulic features of the Fort precincts.
Professor Kenderdine says her work at Nagaur was important as it made those parts of the site not normally available to visitors, accessible.
“The launch of that work coincided with the inaugural Sufi (music) Festival that they now hold at the site every year,” she says.
“The Festival brings a number of international and local people to Nagaur.”
“Nagaur Fort was the subject of major conservation work and the installation was to celebrate the end of that conservation work.”
In November, the Lausanne-based Kenderdine, now professor at the elite engineering school École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), will be back in India doing fieldwork for the forthcoming Atlas of Maritime Buddhism.
The Atlas is focused on the spread of Buddhism from South India through South-East Asia countries, to China and across to Korea and Japan.
It tells the largely untold story of the Maritime Silk Road, a counter-balancing narrative to well-known overland Silk Road stories.
“It’s really important and puts India at the crucible of expansion of trade in the region from the second century BC,” she says.
“Today we see the Bay of Bengal is an area of huge research by archaeologists.”
Professor Kenderdine works with Buddhist scholars, art historians and archaeologists across the region to document relevant sites for the Atlas, which is destined to become a world touring exhibition.
“One of the things that struck me when I was doing research for the Atlas was that many of the great objects of Buddhism originating in India that are no longer there, they are dislocated somewhere overseas,” she says.
“Some of these originating places could once again be the custodians of their cultural treasures.
“Issues of repatriation are essential to negotiate in a post-colonial past. The digital has a role to play.”
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum in Mumbai is one of her favourite museums, “but of course there are exceptional collections and museum initiatives throughout India”.
She says while Indian museums are “seizing the moment, there’s so much work to do there in terms of basic digitisation and digital research methods”.
“Indian research entities such as DST (Department of Science & Technology) have initiated seminal programs, such as the Indian Digital Heritage project, and these programs are leading the way”.