Nepal museums reopen after 8 months

Narayanhiti Palace Museum reopens after eight month long closure during the Covid-19 crisis. Photos: BIKRAM RAI

Since March, Nepal’s museum curators have been in deep despair due to the extended Covid-19 lockdown, and the ban on public gatherings.

But finally, some museums opened their doors from Sunday after the Cabinet decision to allow visitors into the facilities. Especially benefiting from this will be children who have also not been able to go to physical classes for most of 2020.

Patan Museum, Nepal’s world-renowned establishment and a premier repository of Hindu-Buddhist devotional art, is set to reopen later this week.

“We are really excited about reopening, without visitors, a museum is dead,” says Suresh Lakhe of Patan Museum, who is working on a temporary photographic exhibition in collaboration with the Kartik Nach Preservation Committee that will also be open to the public this week.

The closure of museums like Patan, Chhauni, or the International Mountaineering Museum in Pokhara has also meant a loss of revenue, and financial strain in the upkeep of the facilities. All museums have adopted health protocols with limits on the number of visitors in the display areas, open windows, as well as mandatory masks.

Since the government gave the green signal, the Nepal National Museum in Chhauni opened to the public on 20 November, but there were not too many visitors since most did not know about it.

On Sunday, the Narayanhiti Palace Museum also reopened with vistors allowed into Shree Sadan, the private residence of King Birendra, for the first time in 20 years.

There is a lot of anticipation about the opening of the new wing where King Birendra lived with Queen Aishwarya and Prince Nirajan and Princess Shruti. All four were killed in the 2001 palace massacre.

The rooms have been kept intact, just as they were on 1 June 2001. Prince Nirajan’s room still has his college class timetable stuck to the wall, the alcove bar has a bottle of the king’s favourite brandy, and the cot where Birendra’s favourite dog slept is exactly where it was 20 years ago.

Museum chief Bhesh Narayan Dahal and his team have worked right through the lockdown to make Shree Sadan ready for public viewing. There were up to 150 people waiting in queue even before the museum opened its doors on Sunday morning at 10am.

Said Dahal: “Public response so far has been phenomenal, and there are more people interested in Shree Sadan than the main Narayanhiti Museum.”

Although the government has also allowed art galleries and exhibitions to restart, some are not taking any chances yet because of the sustained surge in coronavirus cases in Kathmandu Valley.

At Taragaon Museum, Roshan Mishra’s hands are full. He is busy with the archives, documentation, and renovation of the museum that is run by the Saraf Foundation. He says he is in no rush to reopen the exhibition space, keeping in mind the risk it might bring to the visitors as well as employees.

“If we open the museum now, we’ll just have about three to four people walking in every day and it’s not really feasible, so our focus is more on documentation and archives until we reopen possibly in January,” says Mishra.

The lockdown has actually been a blessing in disguise to curators like Mishra who would otherwise be too busy for research, and design new shows.

Even though the museums were locked up for eight months, staff there also worked on renovation and maintenance. The National Museum in Chhauni has finally finished reconstruction of a wing that was damaged in the 2015 earthquake.

“It’s time we get back to operations, this is the new normal, and for how long can we stay idle?” asks Jayaram Shrestha of the Chhauni museum. “The Cabinet decision was good, better late than never.”

Keeping in mind the Covid crisis, mandatory precautions will be put in place such as wearing masks, hand washing and sanitisation. The museums are required to be decontaminated every morning and evening. Visitors are also required to maintain physical distance, and at Shree Sadan, for example, only 10 people will be allowed to enter certain sections of the museums at one time.

In Pokhara, International Mountain Museum has been receiving 10 to 20 queries every day about when it will reopen. Shankar Bahadur Gautam at the museum says, “This is such a huge relief, museums are for gaining knowledge and have an educational function. So, if we strictly follow the Covid protocols, there is no harm to re-open.”

Siddhartha Art Gallery at Baber Mahal Revisited has been shut since March, and did not opt for online exhibitions like other galleries. Siddhartha’s Sangeeta Thapa explains: “Collective viewing and physical presence is important for the visual arts and the difference between government museums and private art galleries is that museums are bigger and can ensure physical distancing. We do not have that kind of space, and we cannot compromise on the safety of the artists, our gallery staff, and the visitors.”

The gallery is planning to open its doors by mid-January with an exhibition of artists Jagadish Moktan and Priyanka Singh Maharjan. Thapa is also gearing up for the mammoth Kathmandu Triennale that was to begin next month, but has been postponed to 26 October-26 November 2021.

Thapa adds: "Since the festival is for both locals and the international community, we cannot take the risk now. Which is why it has been postponed till next year.”