How Design Museum Dharavi hopes to change the narrative about Mumbai's biggest informal settlement

Design Museum Dharavi celebrates locally made crafts from a pushcart that can roll from one street to another. (Design Museum Dharavi)

MUMBAI, India — This city’s newest museum is not set in a monumental building, but rather a simple pushcart that can roll from one street to another.

It’s called Design Museum Dharavi. When it opened last week, it could be found on an unmarked lane in Dharavi, the densely packed shantytown of nearly a million people and one of Asia’s largest slums.

The museum hosts exhibits celebrating the pottery, embroidered garments, wooden carvings and other handicrafts manufactured within Dharavi’s three square kilometers. Over two months, co-founders Amanda Pinatih and Jorge Mañes Rubio will roll the nomadic display through Dharavi’s tightly stitched neighborhoods, co-hosting exhibits, workshops, film screenings and lectures with local residents. Their goal is to showcase the design talent in a stigmatized area that the rest of the city mostly sees as a nuisance and developers mostly view as land for future high rises.

“We look at it in a completely different way,” says Rubio. “Dharavi is full of makers, designers, manufacturers and also entrepreneurs. We just can’t figure out how a place like this is still seen as a problem. We see it as part of a solution to issues of informal settlements not just here but all over the world.”

The museum’s first exhibit displays work from some of Dharavi’s 1,500 potter families. (Design Museum Dharavi)

The Amsterdam-based artists devised the pushcart to be able to traverse Dharavi’s narrow lanes and engage members of the local community near their own neighborhoods, workshop spaces and small squares. Pinatih and Rubio were inspired by the thousands of hand-pushed carts that vegetable sellers and market vendors use in Dharavi to roam door-to-door. They developed the idea along with URBZ, an urban research collective based in Dharavi.

On the museum’s opening night February 18, the colorful displays of funky pottery and fan-like brooms on the brightly lit cart drew locals, journalists, design students, researchers and curious Mumbaikars. For those who might only visit this part of Mumbai to get a knockoff pair of designer jeans made in a garment shop, the message was clear: There’s craftsmanship to celebrate in artisan communities that have been honing it for generations.

There was a message for the locals, too: Some of the goods produced here belong in a museum. They not only have cultural value but also economic value. Dharavi’s informal economy of thousands of micro-businesses create as much as US$500 million worth of goods per year. That’s a different narrative than is usually told about Dharavi’s craftsmen and craftswomen. “So many people come with designs for them to copy” from magazines, says Rubio. “They just see them as cheap labor.”

Engaging local residents of Dharavi is one of the museum’s goals. (Design Museum Dharavi)

But the Amsterdam-based artists see Dharavi’s maker community as co-collaborators. And they believe that if the rest of the city and the global community can recognize this creative potential, it could change the discussion on the future of Dharavi and perhaps other informal settlements across the globe.

The museum’s opening exhibit featured the pottery makers, or the Kumbharwadas, a well-established community that migrated from the neighboring state of Gujarat nearly 100 years ago. Like so many of the migrants in Dharavi from all over India, they brought with them traditional design skills that have been their livelihood for generations. Nearly 1,500 potter families still live together in Dharavi, and half of them still practice the craft to this day. Their area houses kilns, pottery wheels and thousands of stacked clay pots, an artistic ecosystem that risks being uprooted as the city mulls plans to redevelop the area.

Pinatih and Rubio met with Dharavi potters Nathalal and Mitul Chauhan, a father-son team who are carrying on their family business. Rather than bringing a glossy magazine full of ideas to copy, the museum founders came with a design challenge: Can we reinvent everyday objects? The team suggested looking at chai cups and water containers and asked the potters to experiment with cup designs that could reduce spillage and water containers with an entirely new look.

Dharavi potters Nathalal and Mitul Chauhan, a father-son team carrying on their family business, designed pottery for the museum’s first exhibit. (Design Museum Dharavi)

“They were very happy to have the space and time to be creative,” says Rubio, noting that the potters have been getting custom orders for their brightly painted, quirkily shaped products since being featured in the museum. “There’s so much room for improvement and for new business opportunities.”

The opening exhibit also featured designs by Dharavi’s broom makers, who within the community are considered to be on the lower end of a design hierarchy that is also associated with caste. Rubio says he and Pinatih were “so impressed” by the variety of materials and designs of the simple brooms used by shopkeepers and residents. Choosing to put the broom makers’ designs in the museum next to the highly skilled potters was a symbolic gesture to reinforce the museum’s open ideals, Rubio says.

On Saturday, February 27, the museum will open its second exhibit, on cricket — featured items will include new bat and uniform designs made by local carpenters, embroiders, leather workers and tailors. The opening will culminate in a cricket tournament with four teams from the community testing out the new designs.

The museum’s opening drew locals, journalists, design students and researchers. (Design Museum Dharavi)

After the two-month traveling museum winds up, the Dharavi team and its collaborators will meet in Amsterdam to reflect on the experiment and assess new opportunities to advance recognition of Dharavi’s makers and find new markets for their work. They’re particularly keen to find lessons that informal settlements in other cities around the world can take away from the experience.

Martina Spies, an Austrian architect who has been researching Dharavi and attended the opening, has high hopes for the museum experiment. “This link to designers is really needed,” Spies says. These design initiatives could really help Dharavi’s workshops to gain a whole new visibility and relevance in the world.”

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Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change. Full bio

LEARNING FROM MUMBAI

  • A museum on a pushcart is roaming the narrow lanes of the city’s largest slum, celebrating the pottery, embroidered garments, wooden carvings and other handicrafts made there. 
  • The exhibit aims to change the popular narrative about the stigmatized area by highlighting the skills of craftspeople and finding markets for their work. 
  • For locals, the exhibit also sends a message: goods produced here belong in a museum.

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