Politics of culture and ethnic museums in Nepal
In Nepal the history of museums does not go back very far. It dates back to 1939 with the opening to the public of a collection of arms and other trophies at the residence of Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa. This museum, commonly known as Chauni Silkhana, subsequently became the Nepal Museum (Rashtriya sangrahalaya). From 1951 onwards, several national museums and art galleries opened, most of which were housed in the precincts of the three former royal palaces of Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and Kathmandu, and at archaeological sites. These museums came under the Ministry of Culture and their aim was to preserve and display to the general public cultural vestiges of the past. They have contributed to a general movement towards the patrimonialization (the process of turning cultural features into a people’s heritage) of Nepalese culture.
More recently, since 1990 to be precise, ethnic museums have been in vogue. The emergence of these types of museums has followed on from the return of democracy and the adoption of a new multicultural policy in the country as a model of governance. There have so far been few ethnic museums in Nepal. However, a number of them are currently being built more or less based on a model that has already been experimented in India and in other countries of South-East Asia. Each museum plans to showcase items of material and symbolic local life and to establish an ethnic heritage at a time when the future of these minorities is threatened by modernization and globalization. Examples such as the Ethnic Community Indigenous Museum of Lalitpur (Bhola Ganesh), which was built and is managed by Jyapu Samaj, and NNEM, the Nepali National Ethnographic Museum (Nepal Rashtriya Jatiya Sangrahalya) sponsored by the Nepal Tourism Board, and located in Brikuti Mandap (Kathmandu), are worth a mention.
The study of these ethnic museums, —researching the way they were created, how the objects were collected, who the museums belong to, investigating techniques for displaying artefacts, the use of mannequins, the narratives they illustrate, the links with the Janajati/Adivasi movement, — are thrilling issues that have been overlooked. These questions have to be scrutinized forthwith since these institutions play a major role in reinforcing collective identities and new forms of indigenousness. Ethnic museums provide groups with greater visibility and forms of recognition in the new socio-political landscape. The process of strengthening a group’s heritage therefore has a political purpose, which needs to be taken into account and investigated. It is also important to analyse the specific modes of remembrance that are utilized and the transformation of a living culture into an objectivised, fossilized and, in some ways, essentialized heritage.
These new museums undoubtedly reveal a feeling of nostalgia. Yet do they portray a necrology of the past or is new life instilled in the exhibits? It is also important to understand the role of global models, especially those established or advocated by UNESCO regarding these matters. It is hoped that this study will help to decipher how native Janajati people strive to adapt to modern society and how they juggle with different patterns of knowledge and historicity that stem from a patrimonialization of culture. In broader terms, the key issues here are: how a cultural heritage is being constructed, how it is produced, what the history of a group becomes in these patrimonial discourses.