29
May

From Darbar to Sañgrahalaya: Creating New History in the Narayanhiti Palace, Nepal

Bryony Whitmarsh

In 2014, I presented early findings from my PhD research, focused on the ways in which the institution of the museum has been used to represent and reconstitute the nation. My PhD research is complete, and this paper takes a longer view (2009-2016), drawing on an ethnographic approach that took me behind the scenes of the museum over a period of three years (2013-2016).

The key research question addressed in this paper, is how is memory created through the way that the Palace Museum orchestrates space and the it plays in the generative processes of both individual and collective memory? I argue that the most powerful means of revealing a collective construction of memory and identity at the Palace Museum has arisen from challenges registered by the ex-palace staff who were tasked with the operational management of the Palace Museum.

Nepal’s transition from monarchy to republic created a moment within which new historical narratives were being created. The public institution of the museum was intended to both fix memories of Nepal’s royal past at a time when the country’s politics were inchoate and uncertain, and legitimize the nascent republican state. Yet, the more time has passed, the more effort is needed to maintain an official narrative that continues to resonate with the wider population and it is therefore important to understand how the representations in the Palace Museum were maintained over time, by whom, and with what resources. My work offers an account, based on ethnographic fieldwork that uncovers a broad social and political arena in which the past is made and unmade by numerous social agents including politicians, civil servants, museum professionals, and ex-palace employees, all of whom had something different to say. I argue that the actions of ex-palace staff have had a cumulative effect on visitor’s interaction with, and responses to Palace Museum, that they have encouraged reflective nostalgia (Boym, 2001). The ex-palace staff act as living spectres that haunt the governments’ project to construct collective memory of Nepal’s royal past.

Whilst this paper is organised chronologically, the analysis of the palace that takes place is framed synchronically through a focus on processes of individual memory formation and disruption. Spatializing memory-work through the frame of the Narayanhiti Palace enables me to do two things. Firstly, to identify the palace as a place where past, present and future imaginings of the nation collide through the actions of people. Second to reveal the instability of the meaning of the palace at any given moment. I use Boym’s dimension of restorative/ reflective nostalgia (2001) to draw out the tension in marking absence and loss at the Palace Museum. This is an important counterpoint for understanding the relationship between memory work and the construction of national identity. I conclude that over time, as political uncertainty and instability has continued, the element of doubt harnessed by Nepal’s politicians to create a collective memory in support of national unity, has spilled over to question the image of permanence presented at the Palace Museum.

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