Tuesday, 31 January, 2023

Museums, preservers of past, now worry about future


By Aashish Mishra

Kathmandu, May 22: The Kathmandu Valley boasts of countless ancient monuments, structures, places and artefacts. But, arguably, the most famous of them all are the three palace complexes at Patan, Hanumandhoka (Kathmandu) and Bhaktapur. And lying at the heart of these historical sites are the locations that specifically exist to preserve history i.e. museums.
The Patan Museum at Patan Durbar Square, Hanumandhoka Durbar Museum at Hanumandhoka Durbar Square and National Art Museum at Bhaktapur Durbar Square house many rare and priceless articles, and on average, used to collectively pull more than 2000 visitors every day. But that was before the government decided to ban all international flights from March 20, which stopped the arrival of foreign tourists – the museums’ main visitor base. Then two days later on March 22, the museums themselves had to close when the government asked all non-essential services to shut down. Then came the total lockdown from March 24.
It was one thing after another, said Suresh Man Lakhe, chairperson of International Council of Museums (ICOM) Nepal. “Late-November and December is always the off-season for tourist arrivals in the country,” said Lakhe. “The numbers were slowly going up in January but then, because of the growing threat of the coronavirus, started falling again in the final few days of the month and continued falling in February. Then, in March, Nepal imposed its own restrictions.”
So, like almost every other institution in the country, the museums are currently closed. But unlike other institutions, they have numerous historical, priceless and irreplaceable items to look after. Yet, there are no special provisions in place for the travel of museum employees nor has the government introduced any policy for the upkeep and preservation of the relics stored there.
Then how are the three durbar square museums maintaining their objet d'art? The answer is, with great difficulty and at the bare minimum level. “We are only being able to carry out basic maintenance and cleaning by sending some of our staff members who live nearby,” said Aruna Nakarmi, executive director of Hanumandhoka Museum. This is what is being done in the museums at Patan and Bhaktapur as well.
The museum staff members are aided in the maintenance work by the army stationed at Hanumandhoka Durbar Square and the police stationed near the museum in Bhaktapur. “Having the security personnel nearby all ensures 24-hour security,” expressed Executive Director of National Art Museum Saraswati Singh.
However, this is where the Patan Museum faces a disadvantage. There is a police station in the area but it is some distance away and their presence is not as dedicated to the museum and durbar square as in the other two cities. Hence, it is suffering.
“Bricks are becoming mouldy and weeds have started growing in the courtyards,” said Sandeep Khanal, executive director of Patan Museum, explaining the situation there. “We also face a problem of monkeys who come in groups every day and damage the roofing, mess up the yards and are very aggressive towards the staff and locals.”
In addition to making it difficult to care for the objects inside the museum, the lockdown has also stopped the work being done on the museum themselves, particularly with regard to their renovation. All three museums had been damaged by the 2015 earthquake and were being repaired or reconstructed when the nationwide shutdown was declared. That put a stop to the work.
“We had initially stopped all reconstruction work on the museum when the lockdown was declared but then resumed it when the government announced that construction works would be allowed to go ahead unhindered,” said Nakarmi.
The National Art Museum had also resumed work on its buildings after the government relaxed the restriction but had to stop following the re-tightening of the lockdown in Kathmandu Valley. Singh said, “We had coordinated with the construction workers and the authorities and had begun working, but had to stop again after the lockdown

was tightened. However, we are ready to resume renovation, if allowed.”
But a museum, in its entirety, is, after all, an organisation. And like any organisation, it has operational costs involved; costs which were largely financed from ticket sales. But with the ticket revenue gone, they are facing such huge losses, which, in Nakarmi’s words, may not be replenished for a long time.
This has especially spelt disaster for Patan Museum, which is entirely self-sustained. “The museum operates on its own revenue, meaning that we have to bear the losses on our own too,” Khanal said, adding, “Till now, we have been able to manage on our own but if this lockdown continues for long then we may not be able even to pay our staffs’ salaries and might need to ask the [Lalitpur] Metropolitan City or the government for help.”
But the museums’ woes won’t end even after the lockdown does. “Tourist arrivals won’t go up until COVID-19 fully goes away. So, the museums may not be seeing pre-lockdown level of revenues for quite some time,” said Lakhe, who is also the museum officer of Patan Museum.
Taking this into account, Patan Museum has already started preparing. It is hard at work on developing online ticketing systems and also on an app that will give virtual tours of its galleries and information on its items. “These were projects already in development but have now been expedited given the pandemic and the decline in visitor numbers it can entail,” Khanal said.
Hanumandhoka and National Art museums are also discussing plans on revamping their websites and putting pictures and information about their collections online.
However, ICOM Chair Lakhe had this advice for the museums, “Focus on the local communities!”
Museums are primarily for the societies they are based in, said Lakhe, who believed that now was the time for them to return to their roots. “Museums now need to target local visitors and should hold exhibitions to attract them,” he said, emphasising that Nepalis, not foreigners, are the sources of their future income.