Of mountains and of people
When we utter the word ‘mountain’, many things come to mind, as does the imagination of a collective identity of a people whose lives are punctuated with hardships of the difficult terrain they call ‘home’.
The International Mountain Museum is just that-- a space that represents an identity that is local, brought to the visitors through a carefully curated collection of images and objects.
Established and managed by the Nepal Mountaineering association, the museum building is housed within a 100-ropani land at Rata Pahiro in Pokhara. The 18-year-old museum building has a striking skyline roof, and the distinct honour of being the only mountain museum in the world from which three 8000m mountains are in sight-- Annapurna I, Manaslu, and Dhaulagiri.
From the gates of the museum to its main building, visitors will be treated by a short garden walk, punctuated by a memorial for pioneers in Nepali mountaineering.
The museum is divided into two floors, and the building itself is airy and expansive, with lots of natural light, and the multi-coloured steel beams holding the roof giving the room an impression of added height. To the left lies the Lakhang room—a Buddhist gumba—immediately indicative of how Buddhist faith is interwoven with Nepal’s mountain communities.
The exhibits begin from the basement and are divided into three main sections, the first of which is the ‘Hall of Mountain people’. The first three exhibits show mountain communities around the world, the flora and fauna in the mountains of Taiwan, Japan and Slovenia. All exhibits are accompanied by mannequins dressed in the traditional garb of the region.
The hall opens up to Nepali mountain communities, starting from the Sherpa people, and making way for the Kirat, Limbu, Sunuwar, Pun, Gurung, and Chhantyal communities. Entire lifestyles are showcased in floor-to-ceiling glass cases and shelves, from cooking utensils, farming tools, and weapons to musical instruments and even their bedding. The pensive mannequins in ethnic attire look on.
Photographs from decades ago of mountain people across Nepal, as well as the Alps in Europe, document life on the highlands. A series of photos of children, huddling in conference or just playing with dolls, are particularly striking.
In one black-and-white image, a young European girl stands cheek to cheek with a black cat, while her Nepali counterpart holds a black puppy. It is a reminder that as different as our cultures and rituals are, the human instinct transcends boundaries.
Further along, the basement opens up to the ‘Hall of Mountains’, which begins with posters of the 14 peaks above 8000m, displayed according to height. The posters, the kind one would perhaps find hung on a travel agent’s office, are offset by the personal accounts and excerpts from mountaineers that accompany the photos.
‘On the narrow range, we held hands and exultation, then the surface beneath our feet began to crumble and seemed likely to break away, so I straddled the ridge like a horse,’ reads Toshio Imanishi’s account of his Manaslu ascent.
A few feet away lay rocks of varied shapes, sizes, and kinds collected from Palpa, Kaski, Syangja, and Nuwakot. Labelled and caged in glass, their ages range from 2.5 million to 570 million years, and the historical implications may cause a minor existential crisis if one were to stop and contemplate.
At the mountain ecology section, simple posters—the kind that one would find taped to the walls of Nepali classrooms, display the flora and fauna. The gallery also has a few taxidermy animals-- disconcerting because the gallery is on the side of the building where the natural light does not reach-- and a butterfly exhibit.
Indeed, the museum is a study in contrasts, and different parts of the exhibit inspire different feelings. Some exhibits, like the Yeti display and the photograph of the Yeti footprint, play into the legend surrounding Nepal’s mountains, while flex banners of Nepal’s mountain ecosystem lie a few feet away. All at once, a sightseeing expedition becomes a school trip.
The third major section of the museum is the mountain activities gallery, where mountaineering gear from mountain expeditions through the decades is displayed in rows in floor-to-ceiling glass cases. Aided by photos and accounts of various expeditions, the exhibits are a tangible reminder that climbers are not merely brave, historic figures, but flesh and blood.
The mountain activities gallery also pays tribute to influential figures in mountaineering. Toni Hagen’s first trekking permit is on display. Alongside, is a jacket and sleeping bag, belonging to the first president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association Kumar Khadga Bikram Shah. Watercolour paintings and office equipment, which were once the property of geologist and conservationist, late Harka Gurung, are also exhibited.
The museum also takes visitors through a collage of displays on conservation areas in Nepal, prominently showing the implications of climate change. The exhibit then moves upstairs.
An elderly man peers closely at each of the photographs that display Nepal’s 125 ethnic communities. He is accompanied by his daughter, who has brought him to the museum after an appointment at the eye hospital nearby. He moves on to the other exhibits, stopping and reading carefully each time.
From the vantage point of the ground floor, it is easy to see that the museum is filling up with the afternoon crowd. Three women take pictures in front of the utensils in the Hall of Mountain People. A couple of young children run around Lama Ngawang Kochha Sherpa’s mandala on display in front of the Taiwanese exhibit. It looks like a normal day in normal times where people take day trips to the museum, but for the masks covering the visitors’ faces.
There is much to do outside the museum, too. Right in front of the main building lies a mock Mt Manaslu, which visitors can climb. Further away is the live museum, which has cows, goats, and bees. There is a restaurant, and multiple rest stops on the premises where visitors can relax.
“This space is not just a museum. We have also tried to make it a space for learning and research. Everyone is welcome here— tourists, students, researchers, or academicians,” says Kul Bahadur Gurung, General Secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
The museum showed up to a 37% annual increase in visitors before the pandemic, with the highest single-day visitor record of 3000 in 2018. “These exhibits mean a great deal to Nepal’s mountain communities and the museum is crucial to tourism in Pokhara,” adds Gurung.
Indeed, traffic at the museum has picked up as domestic tourists flock to Pokhara and schools around the city open back up. Gurung is hopeful that the increase in visitors will be a continuing trend once the pandemic is under control globally.