Bollywood Superstars: Building an Immersive Experience

Presented from 24 January to 4 June 2023 at Louvre Abu Dhabi, the exhibition “Bollywood Superstars: A Short Story of Indian Cinema” is jointly organised by France Muséums, the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and Louvre Abu Dhabi.  This exhibition opens the doors to Indian cinema in all its diversity, from its beginnings in 1896 to the present day.

Designed as a content-oriented immersive experience, “Bollywood Superstars” curated by Julien Rousseau, Curator, Head of the Asian Collections, Musée du quai Branly and Hélène Kessous, PhD in Social Anthropology and Ethnology, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, brings together over 80 artworks and some thirty excerpts from films plunging the visitor into the rich history of Indian visual culture.

Cultural immersion

“Bollywood Superstars” has been designed as an immersive experience with rich content giving visitors all the keys to understanding this many facetted culture. It highlights how the diversity of Indian cinema is the source of a special culture and a set of frames of reference that contribute to the unity of the Indian subcontinent and its influence in the international arena.

The project could not have come about without the multi-talented France Muséums team: Olivia Davidson, Exhibitions and Publications Director; Francesca Crudo, Project Manager; Pauline Vernières, Temporary Exhibition Officer; Mihai Voicu, Operations and Museography Project Manager; Chloé Guillaume, Artwork Registrar; and Orlane Lefeuvre, Mediation and Programming Officer, and their project partners. The team was in charge of helping to design the scientific approach and the scenography, of managing the production of the exhibition and the interpretive tools that go with it, and of publishing the catalogue, managing loans, and shipping and installing the exhibits. We would like to thank all Louvre Abu Dhabi teams, especially Dr. Souraya Noujaim, Director of Scientific, Curatorial and Collections Management at Louvre Abu Dhabi; Alice Querin, Acting Temporary Exhibition Unit Head; Jeanne Rethacker, Senior Curatorial Assistant; and Aisha AlAhmadi, Curatorial Assistant for the management of this exhibition.

Dealing as it does with a subject from the world of cinema, “Bollywood Superstars” addresses a theme that is innovative in terms of the way it is exhibited. The rich film excerpts presented offer visitors a fun, interactive sensory journey and transcribe the monumental effect characteristic of Indian cinema. The exhibition makes it possible to take a fresh look at Indian film by going back to its earliest artistic and narrative roots. The aim is to offer a better understanding of how this art form has shaped Indian society and how the  country has become the world’s leading producer of films. The dialogue between different arts is very strong in India, and runs through the exhibition. Powerful connections between music, dance, sculpture and painting are found in Indian film. We wanted to decentralise the approach to the subject and encourage a new way of looking at the world in order to improve understanding of this culture and highlight it in the most effective way possible. Creating the exhibition has involved several researchers and Indian institutions in an exclusive scientific partnership. France Muséums was at the helm, creating a unique scientific network around the project in order to combine different approaches and create links between cultures in order to highlight their rich treasures. The scientific approach thus developed resonates with the DNA of Louvre Abu Dhabi, which stands at the intersection of arts, eras and generations and relies on this constant connection between heritage and contemporary cultures.  It also echoes the strong long-standing ties connecting the United Arab Emirates to India. Today, in addition to important economic ties, dynamic cultural exchanges are flourishing between the two nations. The Indian diaspora is one of the largest in the UAE with several million expatriates, and the local Indian population represents a large proportion of visitors to Louvre Abu Dhabi. The exhibition “Bollywood Superstars” resonates with its host city, whose inhabitants have been familiar with this unique cinematographic culture since childhood.

The exhibition is an innovation in terms of the way it is organised as it makes so much room for the visitor experience. France Muséums was eager to transform the traditional way of designing the visitor experience by incorporating it from the beginning of the project. To support this rich multimedia collection and tell the story of this culture rather than just presenting it as a spectacle, France Muséums has designed a visitor journey combining high tech and low tech in order to strike just the right balance between an immersive experience and close contact with the works and objects on show.

Memorable immersive storytelling

The interpretive aspects of this exhibition could not be designed in the traditional way.  “Bollywood Superstars” offers a visitor journey punctuated by a range of different experiences. The graphic design, the hands-on exhibits, the film excerpts, the immersive screenings and the sets work together to create a world of sight, sound and touch that sparks emotion and results in a dramatic and memorable show. The visitor journey has been designed to that all the exhibits resonate with one another, and the scenography immerses visitors in a carefully crafted environment.  France Muséums has worked with the Maciej Fiszer scenography studio to develop the storytelling with special attention paid to eco-design stakes, with 80% of the scenography of one of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s previous exhibitions being reused for this show.

To create a fascinating immersive experience, visitors are given the opportunity to handle certain exhibits. One of the intentions of this project is to demystify the exhibits and present how they were, and still are, used. Cinema in India is not just about pictures: it brings together a range of artistic practices including song, theatre and dance, helping to construct a unique cultural identity. The challenge for the project teams has been to show Indian cinema in its totality, including all the practices it involves.

This is illustrated in the first part of the exhibition devoted to tales, dance and pre-cinema. Here we present two hand-on exhibits that still exist today. A bioscope acquired in India for the exhibition and a magic lantern, the ancestor of cinema, enhanced with a contemporary artwork that visitors are allowed to touch and handle. “Bollywood Superstars” is strong on storytelling and invites visitors not only to look but also to take part. It’s a lively exhibition that uses each visitor’s own story to help them experience Indian cinema. Via excerpts from videos and several immersive installations including a special effects studio, a cinema auditorium and kaleidoscopic projections of dance scenes, the visitor plays an active part in the storytelling.

Young visitors have not been forgotten: a special visitor journey is provided just for them. A range of educational resources have been used to support young visitors at every stage. The idea of “remembering” has been explored by the France Muséums and Louvre Abu Dhabi mediation teams in partnership with Kiblind Agency. A series of themed posters has been produced, allowing kids to discover books in large format accompanied by accessible content and an activity to be carried out at the museum or at home. A rich cultural programme has also been developed by Louvre Abu Dhabi teams, going beyond the exhibition itself and occupying other areas in the museum.

By combining these educational, sensory and fun experiences, “Bollywood Superstars” aims to be accessible to a wide audience. Accessibility is a central concern for the France Muséums teams, who have worked to ensure that the different sections of the visitor journey all have their own special visual and sound characteristics while avoiding information overload and providing a comfortable experience for all. Expert skills have been used and the France Muséums team worked with international professionals to meet the technical and structural requirements of the exhibition, while catering for the needs of visitors who are sensitive to aural and visual environments.

The challenge facing any museum is to avoid making people think it is just there to present a collection: its exhibits serve a much broader aim. Through an experience designed to appeal to the senses, it tells multiple stories that are presented in visual form. This the challenge France Muséums sets itself in each of its projects. The new exhibition “Bollywood Superstars: a short story of Indian cinema” testifies to this as it combines immersive experience, a robust scientific message and aesthetic emotion to create an unforgettable event for visitors.

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