Responses by Markus Strümpel, designer.
Background: The Tibet Museum in Dharamshala, India, is dedicated to the rich culture of Tibet, its long history and its peoples’ experiences in exile. Objects, films, photographs and personal testimonies witness the distinctive culture and communicate memories of life in Tibet before the Chinese occupation, as well as the hopes and fears of Tibetans for the future of their country. It’s a place where Tibetan people are able to tell their story in their own words to their fellow Tibetans in exile and an audience around the world.
Design thinking: From the beginning, it was clear that we wanted to create a people’s museum where “ordinary” Tibetans could tell their personal stories. For example, we have one story of the Dalai Lama’s tailor where he recounts the task of creating new robes for the monks in India due to the heat unknown in Tibet. The museum’s objects, texts and installations are directly connected to personal stories: The first thing you see upon entering the museum are portraits of Tibetans and a video installation at the entrance showing Tibetans worldwide. They all say one sentence in their languages: “I am Tibetan, and this is my story.”
Challenges: COVID-19 was a big problem. Before the pandemic, we were able to go to India several times to visit the new building, produce and check the first samples and prototypes of the design, and build up the project team. Fortunately, with New Delhi–based production company designhabit, we found a great partner; when the pandemic started, we could only follow the museum’s production and installation remotely, which, of course, was very disappointing and worrying for us. We had regular online meetings, and the museum team sent photos of each and every detail. Everybody did a very good job, and everything came out really well.
Favorite details: First, the space itself came out quite well. It was a complicated process because the building was initially constructed to host offices, not a museum. We had to handle low ceilings and a massive air conditioning system, and we solved that by giving the interior walls and ceilings a dark color. This way, the actual space becomes almost invisible. We also decided to combine the air conditioning system with vitrines, so now the space looks like it was specifically built for that purpose. With the consistent design and the high quality of lighting and finishing, we think we could set a high standard for Indian museum design with what we achieved.
New lessons: We already built the initial Tibet Museum, which was inaugurated in 2000 and contained a permanent exhibition mainly of photography and text. With the new museum, we wanted to include participative installations; visitors should be physically involved in the exhibition, take part and leave comments. So, we thought a lot about how to accomplish that. One example is an installation called 108 Questions to the Dalai Lama, in which we solve this problem with 108 turnable cubes that include questions and answers on four sides.
Visual influences: Everything Tibetan, even if we did not want to create a folkloristic museum. Talking about typefaces, all fonts in the museum are custom-made, mainly because we had to deal with text in both Tibetan and English. All Tibetan fonts are, so far, very calligraphic; we decided it would be better to have a Tibetan font that is more “constructed”—a Tibetan sans serif, so to speak—which would be easier to combine with a Latin font shape. We also thought of this as a statement to claim that the Tibetan script and language are not “from the past” but still alive today. The yellow color, which we used as the key color for the museum’s identity, comes not only from the traditional Buddhist saffron but also because it’s the color of the Identity Certificate, a primary document that delimits the identity of Tibetans in India as foreigners by the Indian government.