Social Science Baha
Official

Staging Memories at the Narayanhiti Palace Museum

Bryony Whitmarsh

This paper focuses on a particular time (the post-monarchy Nepali present) and site (the Narayanhiti Palace Museum) that I believe offers a compelling space for understanding the negotiation of Nepal’s recent past, thereby revealing as much about the Nepal of which it forms a part as the Nepal it institutionalizes – the on-going transition from royal to republican Nepal.

The Palace Museum means different things to different groups of people and key objectives of my research are to identify these claims, how they are formed and the reasons for their existence. I propose to use the following definitions from Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998, 48) to discuss three different registers of meaning of the Narayanhiti Palace Museum. The first, the museum as ‘a vault, in the tradition of the royal treasure room’ will analyse the state narrative as told in official speeches and the press (May 2008 – Feb 2009). The second, the museum as ‘a laboratory for creating knowledge’ will examine the processes of constructing collective memories in the space of the Palace Museum displays, and the third register of meaning: the museum as ‘a cultural centre for the keeping and transmission of patrimony’ will draw upon an ethnographic study ‘behind the scenes’ at the Museum.

The palace itself was transformed into a museum as a symbol of national unity (in the face of ethnic diversity) and as such is a particular instance of the reconstruction of a Nepali national identity, no longer dependent upon a Hindu monarch. I argue that the national identity under construction at the Museum is based on openness and transparency – creating an imagined community by emphasising the opening up of this space that was previously closed. The promised ‘openness’ associates the royal family with the ‘old’ Nepal, a deliberate strategy to render the monarchy as ‘harmless’. What the state is preserving is not the palace and its contents themselves, but their symbolic significance as a sign of political authority and legitimacy.

The processes of constructing collective memories at the Palace Museum reflects power structures within society. I will identify the way that the Palace Museum cultivates a memory of King Birendra, with little reference to King Gyanendra. Writing about the aftermath of the murders at Narayanhiti, Genevieve Lakier identifies the importance to the state of the construction of a collective memory that simultaneously remembers and forgets the king (2009).

I will then take us ‘behind the scenes’ at the museum to examine the politics of display; the processes, actions, attitudes and negotiations of those involved in constructing and visiting the museum.  Highlighting, for example, tensions between the ‘official narrative” and the agency of ex-Palace staff who now run the Museum.

Acknowledging that the social and historical location of the museum means that it will bear the imprint of social relations beyond its walls I propose to address the broader questions of how Nepal’s royal past is now understood and who authorizes the understanding?