Activists are accusing the Rubin Museum of Art of using a new project in Nepal to “divert attention” from possibly looted relics in its collection.
The Rubin, a New York-based institution dedicated to the art of Himalayas, provided principal funding for the recently opened Itumbaha Museum in Kathmandu. The museum comprises the first public galleries for Itumbaha—a historic Nepalese vihara, or monastery—and its collection of cultural artifacts.
The partnership with the monastery came about after the Rubin voluntarily repatriated two relics—a 14th-century carving and a fragment of a 17th-century arched gateway—in 2022. But critics suggest that the Rubin may own more Nepalese artifacts of questionable provenance that are in need of return.
“We believe that the return of the two items can only be the beginning of a process of introspection and follow-up by the Museum in terms of its responsibility toward Himalayan people and cultures,” wrote Riddhi Baba Pradhan, chairperson of Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign, in a July 27 letter to Rubin executive director Jorrit Britschgi.
The Recovery Campaign, which is dedicated to documenting and preventing the theft of cultural heritage from the country, called on the museum to “carry out an in-depth review of the provenance of its entire inventory, including items on display and in storage.”
The Rubin’s support of the Itumbaha Museum “cannot be a way to generate misplaced goodwill nor to divert attention from the responsibility of foreign collectors and museums on the matter of stolen heritage items from Kathmandu Valley and Nepal as a whole,” Pradhan added in the missive.
The following day, a group of activists gathered at the Itumbaha Museum for a protest that echoed Pradhan’s concerns. Demonstrators brandished signs with slogans such as “Say No to Cultural Invasion,” “Rubin Stop Your Whitewashing,” and “Rubin We Want Our Gods Back,” according to a report from Hyperallergic.
In a statement shared with Artnet News, Britschgi said: “We are sensitive to the issues raised by those who have objected to the Rubin’s support of the Itumbaha Museum. Repatriation is a complex topic that is evolving in real time, and we welcome dialogue with all parties in Nepal in order to center local perspectives and arrive at a full understanding of the issues at hand.”
Britschgi explained that, while in Kathmandu for the inauguration, his team “had the opportunity to discuss with the Nepal Heritage Recovery Campaign some of the nuances, challenges, and opportunities regarding art from Nepal.”
The director said the Rubin is “proactively investigating” its full collection and will “continue to return any objects that have been stolen.”
Swosti Rajbhandari Kayastha, a curator and scholar of Nepalese art and culture at Lumbini Buddhist University who spearheaded the new museum project on the ground in Itumbaha, commended the Rubin’s support.
“At least the Rubin asked how they could help, and they were very respectful in their collaboration,” she told Hyperallergic. “Why always look at the negative side? This is a chance to come together and do things correctly. We should acknowledge that this is a positive step in the right direction, and we should commend them for trying.”
“This new exhibition, driven by the community, is an exciting new era for the Itumbaha collection and for global museology as it foregrounds living heritage,” said Kayastha.
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