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A Letter from Mother Teresa, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Siddharth Sunder. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A checkbook from the Imperial Bank of India, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Saba Qizilbash. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A wristwatch owned by Puran Singh, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by his grandson, Shatakshi Singh. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A 32-caliber Colt pistol owned by Inderjeet Suri, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by his granddaughter, Anviti Suri. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
The “dekchi”—a brass cooking pot used to cook “biryani”—owned by Leela Chander, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by her great-grandson, Vignesh Sivakumar. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
The “bonti,” a kitchen instrument used to peel, chop, shred, slice and dice vegetables and fruits, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Kasturi Mukherjee. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A Letter from Mother Teresa, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Siddharth Sunder. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A checkbook from the Imperial Bank of India, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Saba Qizilbash. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A wristwatch owned by Puran Singh, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by his grandson, Shatakshi Singh. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A 32-caliber Colt pistol owned by Inderjeet Suri, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by his granddaughter, Anviti Suri. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
The “dekchi”—a brass cooking pot used to cook “biryani”—owned by Leela Chander, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by her great-grandson, Vignesh Sivakumar. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
The “bonti,” a kitchen instrument used to peel, chop, shred, slice and dice vegetables and fruits, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Kasturi Mukherjee. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A Letter from Mother Teresa, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Siddharth Sunder. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A checkbook from the Imperial Bank of India, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Saba Qizilbash. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A wristwatch owned by Puran Singh, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by his grandson, Shatakshi Singh. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
A 32-caliber Colt pistol owned by Inderjeet Suri, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by his granddaughter, Anviti Suri. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
The “dekchi”—a brass cooking pot used to cook “biryani”—owned by Leela Chander, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by her great-grandson, Vignesh Sivakumar. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)
The “bonti,” a kitchen instrument used to peel, chop, shred, slice and dice vegetables and fruits, submitted to the Museum of Material Memory by Kasturi Mukherjee. (Courtesy Museum of Material Memory)

A Digital Museum Tells Time-Honored Stories of the Indian Subcontinent Through Everyday Objects and Family Heirlooms

November 9, 2021
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A gold dial Titan quartz wristwatch with a worn-out brown leather strap. A 32-caliber Colt pistol. A dekchi, or brass cooking pot for cooking the traditional rice dish biryani. A signed letter from Mother Teresa. An Imperial Bank of India checkbook. These are but five items in the collection of the Museum of Material Memory, an online repository of objects from across the Indian subcontinent, dating from or before the 1970s, including books, photographs, magazines, maps, jewelry, and family heirlooms.

Co-founded by friends Aanchal Malhotra and Navdha Malhotra (no relation) in 2017, the museum showcases user-submitted physical artifacts, and shares personal anecdotes about them, turning them into evocative—even tactile—digital stories. Think of it as a crowdsourced, upstart, Smithsonian-like archive for the South Asian region comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Blog-style in aesthetic, the simple site is a rare and welcome online environment to behold: It’s thoughtfully curated, well-edited, fascinating in breadth and depth, and full of eye-opening accounts that speak to too often ignored spaces, places, peoples, and histories.

While many of the objects featured might seem mundane on the surface, they are rich in backstory, showcasing the many cross-border (and cross-family) traditions, customs, and conventions of the vast region. Similar to how the British artist, writer, and master potter Edmund de Waal has unpacked stories of his Jewish family’s heritage through objects and materials—most notably in his 2010 book The Hare with Amber Eyes (now an exhibition of the same name, opening next week at New York’s Jewish Museum)—Aanchal and Navdha collect myriad narratives from across the Indian diaspora, resulting in a tapestry of memory, meaning, and understanding. We recently caught up with the enterprising duo to ask them about how and why they built the platform, and their ambitions for it going forward.

What led you to create the museum?

Aanchal Malhotra: I’m an oral historian, and work with objects that were carried across the newly laid border between India and Pakistan. That’s my work: what refugees carried, essentially. I’ve traveled for many years across India, Pakistan, and the U.K., looking at objects, and [contemplating] whether we can understand the notion of belonging to a particular land. The border between the two [South Asian] countries is contentious, and people cannot go back and forth so easily.

The concept [for the museum] took time to take root within people’s minds, because many of the objects [featured] were mundane. They were really banal things, like shoes and books and pens, that I had to invest importance in through conversations [with their owners]. Eventually, people from across the subcontinent started to get in touch with me, asking, “Can you come to see our objects?”

How did you two meet?

Aanchal: Navdha and I have been friends since high school. We have the same [last] name, we have a very similar background, and we care for not just things, but artifacts—and for the preservation of culture that may disappear. In 2017, when I published a book about objects that were carried across India and Pakistan’s borders during partition, I asked Navdha if we should do something about this together. We started small, with things in our own houses.

Navdha Malhotra: Both of us are really passionate about ensuring that [the museum] is democratic. It was founded on the fact that it should be crowdsourced. It’s also about the flexibility of: How do we empower people to tell their own stories?

“Material memory” isn’t such a common phrase, but perhaps it should be. How do you define it?

Aanchal: It’s in the subtitle of my book [Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory]. That’s where we borrowed it from. It has been most frequently used, in my experience, with objects from the Holocaust and objects from the great wars. But for me, the terminology of “material memory” is so linked to oral history. It’s the memory that people embed within materiality based on their experiences, or their engagements, with an object. The encounter with any object is contingent on human intervention. What we put into it is what we receive from it.

Navdha: [The museum project] comes from this need to think about, to analyze, to really look at things around us, and wonder why something was important enough to be saved. At the end of the day, it comes down to emotions. It can’t just be important enough to save something because it’s nostalgic. There’s almost always a deeper story or a learned experience.

Right. That’s apparent in the first-person narrative that accompanies each object you feature. Anyone can submit items via Instagram or a form on the museum’s website. How do you select the pieces for inclusion, and what goes into curating the museum’s “collection,” so to speak?

Navdha: We’re making life a little bit hard for ourselves by trying to maintain very, very high standards. Slowly, the number of submissions has started increasing. For the last year and a half, we haven’t had to reach out and seek them. We’ve now reached a level where the project is organic—people just send us messages. Instagram remains the most popular way to get submissions. It usually takes us a few months to complete a story, based on people’s availability. Our hope and vision is that we can expand with a team and get more people involved, at least in the archiving and documentation process. But we haven’t started that yet. We work very closely with each person who has written to us.

I should add that we almost never say no to a submission. We’re just kind of hanging onto the democratic flag, and believe that [this project] should extend to everybody. Because we don’t take objects away [physically from their owners], though, it’s important to visually showcase each one in the best possible light, which means that we expect really good photographs. We like there to be at least ten to twelve photographs that we can work with—old photographs, new photographs. Since we're not putting these objects in a gallery for people to walk around, we believe they should at least be able to see them online and say, “Oh, wow, this is the size, and this is the color.”

It’s almost like being able to touch it.

Navdha: Absolutely.

What do you hope these objects reveal?

Aanchal: Something about the person who wrote about them, and about the family that the object comes from. The most beautiful process happens when people start to write their story, because they’re [often] compelled to interview a family member. What ends up happening when generations speak with this kind of seriousness is that stories you haven’t heard enough [come out].

South Asia is moving to a modality and a pace that is far faster than in the West. We’re also emulating the West, which means that intergenerational conversation is dissipating quickly. The stories in the museum activate thoughts of family life. When we post a story about an object, it almost always takes on another story. Another story appears from someone else.

We did a story a couple of months ago about this cutting utensil [that’s common] in Bengali kitchens. It was used specifically for fish. When we posted it, we got responses from across not just India, but Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and other parts of the diaspora, saying, “Oh, in our language, it’s called this.” It was incredible. This is what we hope to do: make a web with countries of the subcontinent that cannot join physically. The digital [museum] is a great, democratic way to build connections between ordinary people that don’t have anything to do with political or national allegiance.

It becomes a form of cultural diplomacy.

Navdha: That’s our hidden agenda for all of it. If people who have made the effort of reaching out and writing a piece walk away feeling that they learned something about themselves and their family that they didn’t know previously—

Aanchal: I love it when people feel seen. [The project] is an archive of visibility, because it puts you on a platform, which is respectable. Your family history is visible, and it is important. It’s not just data.

Is there a particular standout object or story that comes to mind?

Aanchal: There was a story where a person [named Shubham Das] found these old Bengali novels. He didn’t know anything about them, and he knew that his father had been married once before. But his father never spoke about his first wife, who had died. The young man found out that these novels had been given to the couple on their wedding day. It prompted a heartwarming, very open conversation between him and his father about the resentment [over] the death of his spouse, and also how to move on in life, and about his remarriage. It was a [moment] of incredible growth in a family, all prompted by the curiosity of a boy who couldn’t let these novels just pass him by.

Do you have any plans of expanding this “material memory” project beyond the borders of the subcontinent, or to find partners in other countries to create extensions of what you’re doing?

Navdha: These countries are so vast, and there’s so much that we’re still learning about them. We come from Northern India [which is where most of our submissions come from]. We’re struggling to get stories from Southern India. I’m constantly reaching out to people [there, and in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan], randomly going, “Listen, give me something.”

I feel like [the region of] Punjab in India gets all the attention, and too much representation. [Aanchal and I] have such a common last name that people immediately know where we’re from, and associate the museum to that Punjabi background. I think that’s a bit unfair. We’re trying to break out of that, and to have as much representation—not just in geographic diversity, but also in caste, class, and ethnicity—as possible.

Do you have any plans of physicalizing the museum?

Navdha: Since day one, we’ve wanted to organize pop-ups. More than anything, to set up a space where people can come, interact, and engage with the objects. We’d like to curate something where people have written the [wall texts], and the owners of the objects can be present. We really want to be a platform for people to share their life stories.

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Cover of “The Seed Detective” (left). Adam Alexander (right). (Courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing)

“Seed Detective” Adam Alexander Imagines a Better World—Through Rare, Endangered, and Unusual Vegetable Varieties

For British author, TV gardening producer, and “seed detective” Adam Alexander, the supermarket serves as perhaps the finest symbol of our modern food systems and their discontents. Of course, there’s undeniable quantitative material abundance, with aisles upon aisles of vegetable varieties—chopped, pickled, canned, and fresh—all that one could imagine within the confines of some idea of a generic palette. But it arrives at a qualitative price, and not just in terms of flavor, but also in context, in our ability to see this food as a part of our own story—as a connection to the land we live on or a cornerstone of the traditions we uphold. Vegetables are more than just so many anonymous pounds on a scale. “This strong connection with the land and what we grow and what we put in our own mouths has been lost, especially in the U.K.,” Alexander says. “To me, it’s really important that we try to reconnect and recognize that these vegetables are part of our human story and, in that way, we can do a lot to serve rare and endangered varieties.”

Courtesy Assouline

Why Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Remains One of the Most Enduring Watches Ever

Designed in 1972, at a time when a luxury watch made of steel was still a radical concept, Audemars Piguet’s nautical-inspired Royal Oak captured the “stealth wealth” style of the moment, mirroring the cutting-edge ethos of the French fashion scene (think: Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin), as well as the era’s groundbreaking architecture, such as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s inside-out postmodernist Pompidou Centre in Paris, completed in 1977. “To me, the Royal Oak is a work of art that happens to be a watch,” says British GQ editor Bill Prince, author of the new book Royal Oak: From Iconoclast to Icon (Assouline), coming out October 12. “It’s one of those works of culture that has managed to cut through time, in the sense that it was born of an era, but it already had the criteria to be bigger than the era.”

Courtesy Olivia Sammons

A New Zine Highlights the Poetry and Beauty of Food

Each of us has our own individual way of following the changing of the seasons, a private choreography in relationship to the calendar. For interior designer and prop stylist Olivia Sammons, the produce available from the farms, orchards, and markets near her family’s Hudson Valley home marks time for her, leading her forward through the year. “I spend so much time thinking about food,” she says. “What I’m going to eat, where I’m going to find it, which orchard has the best blueberries.” This focus led her to create the new zine Is My Favorite Flavor, which just launched its first issue, appropriately titled Summer! Is My Favorite Flavor, at the design-focused Head Hi bookshop and café in Brooklyn.

Photo: John C. Hawthorne. Courtesy Alex Tatarsky.

Alex Tatarsky on Art as a Means to Live Out the Absurd

It’s late August, and I’m walking on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan. It’s one of those summer evenings that’s cooler than expected, a pleasant foreshadowing of fall. I’m on my way to discuss compost with the artist Alex Tatarsky, and as I head east from the subway, I pass through the dense, networked scents of the edge of Chinatown: the briny tang of fish markets, the sweet snatch of a fresh egg waffle from a rolled ice cream shop, the yeasty cloud that floats around the famous bialy shop. Approaching Abrons Art Center, where Tatarsky is doing pick-up rehearsals for an out-of-town run of their show Dirt Trip, this close-packed olfactory landscape opens up into something with more space: a faint vegetal whiff from a small vacant lot, the not unpleasant chemical tang from a passing truck, and beyond these, the smell of a certain rot rolling in from the East River.

Courtesy Blue Note Records

An Album of Cover Songs Honors the Legacy of Leonard Cohen

Though nearly six years have gone by since Leonard Cohen’s passing, the long shadow cast by his legacy as one of the 20th century’s most esteemed and idiosyncratic singer-songwriters shows no signs of lifting from the public’s imagination anytime soon. From the enveloping warmth of “Suzanne,” to the high drama of “Hallelujah,” to the chilling minimalist and gospel juxtaposition of his swansong “You Want it Darker,” Cohen managed to constantly reinvent himself, leaving behind the rare achievement of a musical body of work whose most impressive moments exist across eras.

Courtesy OMA

For a Tiffany & Co. Pop-Up in Paris, OMA Designs a Literal Jewelry Box

Hiring a world-class architecture firm to design a tiny temporary retail space may seem an extravagant choice, but given the high aspirations of Tiffany & Co.—especially now that it’s owned by the French luxury conglomerate LVMH—it makes sense for the American jewelry company’s Paris debut under its new French banner.

The “Urban Sun” installation at the Solar Biennale, designed by Studio Roosegaarde. (Courtesy the Solar Biennale)

An Energy Summit in the Netherlands Imagines a Solar-Powered Future

As changes in weather patterns, economic realities, and public perception have triggered a wave of climate consciousness over the past few years, renewable energy sources have enjoyed a newfound level of attention, no longer relegated to the status of a far-off potentiality, but elevated, at least in the nebulous promises and sloganeering of powerful institutions, to that of an urgent necessity. Included in all of this is the long-sputtering industry of solar power. Factoids like how an hour and half worth of sunlight hitting the earth could provide the world’s total energy consumption in a year have been employed to tease out the industry’s transformative power for decades. Now, with technological advances making solar energy cheaper and more efficient than ever, it seems better poised than ever to take on a greater role in weaning humanity off of its fossil fuel and coal dependencies.

Courtesy Chronicle Books

An Heirloom Masa Supplier Champions the Origins of the Historic Latin American Dough

Many people eat masa—the Spanish word for the maize dough produced from stone-ground corn and used for making corn tortillas, gorditas, tamales, pupusas, and other Latin American staples—with little or no idea that it represents a multibillion-dollar industry, one that relies heavily on environmentally damaging agricultural systems that strip corn of its flavor and health benefits. A game-changing player in the masa world, Jorge Gaviria is the founder and CEO of Masienda, a supplier of heirloom masa, corn, and beans, and the first to create a scalable market for the surplus corn grown by more than 2,000 smallholder subsistence farmers using regenerative practices across more than 30,000 acres throughout Mexico.

Courtesy Acqua di Parma

A New Magnolia-Scented Fragrance Invites the Promise of Springtime Year-Round

A blooming magnolia tree, decked out in its distinctive, cup-shaped flowers, is one of the most welcome and fragrant signs of spring in New York City. In my part of Brooklyn, I have a mental map of where to find magnolias—there are a surprising number of them—and for the few weeks they’re in bloom, I take my dog on longer walks than usual, passing by as many as possible to savor both their blowsy beauty and resplendent scent. Clean, sweet, and creamy, the smell of magnolias seems to carry within it the promise of warmer months ahead.

Courtesy ArtReview

ArtReview’s Podcast Collages Audio Out of Artists’ Life and Work

One episode begins with sputtering phonemes. Another plays back organized cries of dissent from the 2019 Hong Kong protests. In a third, virtuosic jazz guitarist Pat Metheny plays a few bars from a sweet, nylon-string track before the music fades and becomes a soundbed over which Ross Simonini, artist, writer, and host of the podcast, begins an aural investigation into the musician’s lifelong engagement with sound. Episode after episode, Simonini chases a similar depth with a sly and often behind-the-curtain approach, splicing interviews and disparate worlds of sound together to create ArtReview’s formally experimental podcast, Subject, Object, Verb.

Courtesy A Space

This Collection of Hand-Carved, Noguchi-Inspired Bowls Imbues Spaces With an Earthy Essence

In 2020, the Noguchi Museum opened “The Sculptor and the Ashtray”—an intimate, one-room exhibition chronicling the artist’s pursuit to create the perfect ashtray. The negative space employed in Isamu Noguchi’s designs, as well as the show’s culminating statement about design and its power to shape the modern world, inspired designers Anna Aristova and Roza Gazarian, founders of New York–based studio A Space, to make a collection of hand-carved bowls, produced from special material—Lebanese cedar—that has a signature balsamic scent.

Courtesy Slow Factory

A Garment Recycling Program Confronts Global Textile Waste Head-On

In co-founding Slow Factory in 2012—a Brooklyn-based nonprofit dedicated to advocating for slow fashion and advancing climate justice and social equity—Lebanese-Canadian designer, writer, and researcher Céline Semaan—the latest guest on our Time Sensitive podcast—created a platform to further one of her life missions: to replace socially and environmentally harmful and outdated systems with replicable, zero-waste solutions.

Ji Hye Kim. (Courtesy Miss Kim)

An Ann Arbor Restaurant Fuses Korean Tradition with Modern-Day Michigan Ingredients

When Ji Hye Kim first moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, she didn’t find much that resembled the homemade Korean cooking she’d grown up with. In 2016, in an effort to fill this gap, she opened Miss Kim, where her aim is to fuse traditional Korean recipes—like those her mother would cook—with the distinct produce of Michigan and the Midwest. But Kim, who was named one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs of 2021, didn’t always see a culinary career in her future.

Elizabeth Dee. (Courtesy Independent Art Fair)

Elizabeth Dee on Rethinking the Canon of 20th-Century Art

Since 1997, when she founded her eponymous (now shuttered) gallery, Elizabeth Dee has been a fixture of the New York art scene, a doer and seer known for having her finger on the pulse. A multi-hyphenate collector, curator, and writer, her robust resumé includes authoring monographs about artists such as Josephine Meckseper, Ryan Trecartin, and Meredyth Sparks; a stint as director of the John Giorno Foundation, a position from which she’s stepping down this month; and her most high-profile role, as co-founder and CEO of New York’s Independent Art Fair. An elegant, tightly curated event that remains an outlier in its efforts to elevate overlooked, underrepresented, and unsung galleries or artists, and an Independent champions discovery. True to its name, the fair, which Dee created with Matthew Higgs in 2009, stands out from the global art-circuit pack for its intimacy, intricacy, and consistent high quality.