Design Museum Dharavi: World’s first quirky slum museum is here

  • Reuters
  • Updated: Feb 19, 2016 18:42 IST
The Dharavi Design Museum aims to explore the possibilities of developing the first ever design museum inside the informal urban settlement of Dharavi in Mumbai, commonly known as one of the biggest ‘slums’ in Asia. (

A mobile museum in Mumbai’s Dharavi is highlighting the skills and creativity of residents of one of Asia’s largest slums, in an attempt to dispel the negative image of urban slum dwellers.

The Design Museum Dharavi, which will travel through the area with different exhibits for about two months, was conceived by Amsterdam-based artist Jorge Mañes Rubio with art historian Amanda Pinatih. They were aided by local artists and designers.

The museum reflects the nomadic nature and disparate skills of the more than 1 million people who live in Dharavi and are largely migrants from across India.

By creating a Design Museum -a place for contemplation- it aims to make this city within a city more liveable. (

Items on display - arranged on and around a colourful handcart - include clay tea cups and saucers, terracotta water filters, reed brooms, painted wooden objects and textiles, all made with local or recycled materials.

“They live in a crowded space, in tough conditions, yet they are constantly creating, designing, manufacturing and commercialising all kinds of goods,” said Rubio, who was impressed with Dharavi when he first visited four years ago.

“There is so much creativity here, and they are constantly reinventing themselves. Yet we insist on having a biased perspective about slums and the people in them,” he said.

The Dharavi Design Museum will be a mobile structure, easy to tow by a small car or a bike. With an extremely flexible and modular construction, it will host workshops, lectures, meetings, screenings, exhibitions and all kinds of cultural events, travelling from place to place throughout the informal settlement of Dharavi. (

The sprawling slum in the heart of Mumbai is a lively amalgam of flimsy tarpaulin-covered shacks, one-room brick tenements with tin roofs and multi-storied buildings, as well as schools, temples and mosques and scores of small businesses, ranging from auto repair shops to textile units.

Attempts to develop the 240-hectare (590 acre) area in the past decade have run into opposition from residents and activists, and there are now plans for a public-private partnership to build permanent homes and better amenities.

“What’s so unique about Dharavi is that it’s right in the middle of this big city, and there are businesses and craftsmen, some running their family businesses for four generations,” said Pinatih. “Yet it’s looked on as an eyesore, something not desirable. We want to change that perspective.”

Dharavi keeps on escaping simple definitions. First it was marked as a slum (the “largest in Asia”, if you recall the headlines from the 1980s onwards). Slowly researchers, the media and parts of the public started to question if Dharavi could really be called a slum. After all, it was composed of a diverse fabric including villages, municipal chawls, high-rises, self-standing houses built by rich merchants, transit camps as well as self-helped and incrementally developed structures. (

Mumbai, India’s financial hub, has long been a magnet for migrants seeking better economic opportunities. But its high rents mean that about half the city’s 22 million inhabitants live in slums, their shacks and open drains sitting cheek by jowl with gleaming high-rise apartments and luxury cars.

Dharavi has featured in several Bollywood movies, as well as the Academy award-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2009), which triggered a wave of slum tours and criticism of slum voyeurism.

The museum will seek to dispel some of the negative notions and encourage a greater respect for urban slums, Rubio said.

Around 1 million people live in Dharavi, and despite the tough conditions they live in, they are capable of creating, designing, manufacturing and commercialising all kinds of goods. Their ability to reinvent themselves and their surroundings is exceptional. (

“Our main mission is to challenge our perception of slums, favelas, ghettos and other informal settlements around the world, and to acknowledge the citizenship and creativity of these people,” he said. “They have so much to contribute.”

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