Itumbaha's living museumIs the Rubin's involvement cultural restitution or invasion?
Itumbaha is one of the 18 Buddhist monastic enclaves of Kathmandu with a rich history shaped by the Shakyas of Lumbini, who fled to Kathmandu.
According to legend, the site was built by Keshchandra, the son of a king in the 11th century. The complex retains most of its original layout with monasteries, courtyards, and votive shrines.
After the 1960s, many of Kathmandu’s sacred objects were stolen and smuggled out to collectors and museums in the West. Itumbaha was not spared.
“It is said that there are many artefacts that have been stolen from here, but we do not have any documentation,” says Pragya Ratna Shakya of the Itumbaha Conservation Society.
In 2022, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York returned two artefacts to Nepal after they were found to have been stolen from religious sites in Kathmandu Valley. The anonymous site Lost Arts of Nepal had located the items at the Rubin following which the citizen-led Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign (NHRC) wrote to the museum for their return.
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One of the artefacts was a 14th-century Flying Gandharva (apsara) from Itumbaha. The Rubin also announced a partnership with the Itumbaha Conservation Society and Lumbini Buddhist University (LBU) to ‘research, preserve, and display the collection of one of the oldest, largest, and most important monasteries in Kathmandu, Nepal’.
“While working on the return of the apsara, the Rubin expressed an interest in helping the community in any which way it could,” recalls Swosti Rajbhandari, a Museology lecturer at LBU who mediated the collaboration.
The Itumbaha Conservation Society wanted to use vacant spaces to display its collection, and the Rubin contributed $20,000 for a three-room display. Rajbhandari and her students cleaned, researched, and catalogued some 500 artefacts.
The Itumbaha Museum was set to be inaugurated on 29 July with nearly 150 of the documented objects on display.
The museum concept has been two decades in making, ever since the vihara was being restored in 2003. To construct the museum, the Itumbaha Conservation Society had previously approached Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) when Bidya Sundar Shakya was the mayor. Although they were promised a budget, the community never got the money.
Pragya Ratna Shakya sees the museum as an attempt to save its heritage. “There is no point keeping the objects hidden in storage,” says Shakya. “If we display them, there is documentation including photographs and that will hinder theft. It will also help in claiming the artefact if it is stolen.”
The Rubin Museum says it is seeking opportunities for meaningful exchange of knowledge, experience, and perspectives across Nepal and the Himalayan region.
In an email interview from New York, Jorrit Britschgi, Executive Director of the Rubin Museum, who is traveling to Nepal for the inauguration, told Nepali Times: “For us, our return of the Garland Bearing Apsara demonstrates our commitment to continual collection, research, and our support of Itumbaha’s vision for these galleries is an example of what a return can lead to.”
Swosti Rajbhandari, who is helping curate the museum, says that this is a positive step and can contribute to the repatriation of stolen artefacts. She says, “Lain Singh Bangdel said that more than 80% of Nepal’s best work is abroad. The reason we have not been able to bring them back is because we don’t have documentation and proof to show that they are ours. This can be a start.”
Yagyaman Pati Bajracharya, intangible heritage conservationist and Buddhist priest, agrees that having a space to showcase the artefacts of the vihara is a positive step. “This will help the younger generation, educators, and researchers from all over the world learn about our culture and heritage,” he says.
But not everyone is happy with the Rubin’s involvement or the idea of a museum in the vihara complex. "Itumbaha itself is a living museum," says Jyoti Ratna Shakya, a local of Itumbaha. "Having a museum there is counterintuitive. Moreover, why take money from the Rubin or anyone else? Itumbaha was built by our ancestors, why involve anyone else? It is a disgrace."
Activists involved in repatriation also say the Rubin could be doing more to ensure stolen Nepal artefacts are returned.
“We are happy that the Rubin Museum has returned the flying apsara once attention was drawn to the fact that it was stolen from Itumbaha,” says Kanak Mani Dixit of the NHRC campaign. “This is a starting point for the Rubin, which considers itself a museum of the Himalaya. It has accountability towards Nepal and other parts of the Himalayan region.”
Dixit says the Rubin should go public with the result of its investigation on the provenance of the apsara that was returned, and the route it took to get to New York.
“The Museum should conduct a systematic review of its holdings to ensure that there are no other stolen artefacts from Nepal and elsewhere, and must be proactive in returning such items to the host communities rather than wait for activists to come in pursuit,” adds Dixit.
A quick search on the Rubin’s website shows 101 artefacts from Nepal, but activists say there may be many more that have not been listed or on display, although not all of them may be stolen or smuggled. In a 2018 documentary by Al Jazeera, art dealer Deepak Shakya had named the Rubin as one of his family’s connections in New York. When the journalist Steve Chou approached the museum, it denied having anything from Shakya in its collection.
Britschgi says provenance research is a critical and ongoing process for the Rubin, and recent returns have made the museum more aware of the continued need to dedicate resources to it.
“The returns have also led us to re-evaluate elements of our acquisition policy,” says Britschgi. “If the Rubin learns, through its own research, or by another party, that objects in its collection are claimed to have been stolen, looted, or illegally excavated, the Rubin immediately addresses these claims carefully and seriously.”
But activists are skeptical of Rubin’s motive and concerned that the museum is using Itumbaha to clean up its international image and blunt criticism that has come its way. By accepting the Rubin’s help and allowing it to host events, some say Nepal is legitimising the museum's past acts.
“This is whitewashing,” says heritage conservationist Rabindra Puri, who chairs the Museum of Stolen Art. “If it is about good faith and goodwill, the museum should investigate its collection and return the Nepali artefacts that are rightfully ours.”
“There could be potential conflict in future repatriation of other sculptures if discovered in the Rubin’s collection. There may also be other museums with stolen artefacts that may approach other communities in Nepal to absolve themselves. This is setting a negative precedent,” Puri adds.
The bahas and bahis of Kathmandu Valley are already living museums, and are sacred spaces that have served as places of learning and worship for centuries. Critics say introducing the western notion of a ‘museum’ devoid of emotional attachment to the visitor is cultural invasion and a form of neocolonialism.
Another activist who wished to remain anonymous said, “There are many examples of collectors and traffickers who have funded scholarly excavations and laundered their reputation by donating or helping museums with collections. The Rubin’s involvement can be viewed in a similar lens.”