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Honoring Nepal: Slideshow and Audio

Voice of America

In NYC, Himalayan Art Museum Responds to Quake with Practical Aid Info by Adam Phillips for Voice of America, posted May 8, 2015 (transcript of audio segment)

Since April 25th, when a 7.8 level earthquake struck Nepal, world attention has focused on the Himalayan kingdom, where more than 7500 Nepalis were killed, and untold numbers were injured or made homeless. International aid and relief efforts have taken many forms. In New York, a major Himalayan arts museum is working hard to raise awareness of Nepal’s cultural heritage and its ongoing plight.

Seventh Avenue and Seventeenth Street in New York City is 12 thousand kilometers away from Nepal, but at the Rubin Museum of Art, which showcases the arts and ideas of the Himalayan region and their relationship to other cultures, that gulf is bridged easily and daily.

Patrick Sears: “You know, we are far away but we’re also very close.”

Patrick Sears is the executive director of “the Rubin,” as the museum is colloquially known. He says that like New York, Nepal is a melting pot of ethnic and religious groups ““ Sherpas, Ghurkas, Newaris, Hindus, Buddhists and others.

Sears: “It’s a place where religious expression, philosophical expression has combined and melded in a very interesting way. But it still guides the principles of those Nepalese who use these objects for veneration, for mnemonic devices, for study, for inspiration, just to be surrounded in their lives with them. Which is one reason this current tragedy so profoundly felt.”

Sears says that among Westerners, religion is often separate from daily life. In contrast, ordinary life for most Nepalis is steeped in spirituality and ritual, and that sacred sites and monuments play crucial roles in the health and happiness of everyday Nepalis.

Sears: “And when those sites and monuments are damaged or lost, it’s felt in a different way there than it would be here. And it is a vibrant culture. It is unfortunately, a largely impoverished one, one in which communication is challenging, and one in which the governments are also challenged for both political and economic reasons. They have very little. But they are also a resilient, optimistic culture”¦”

Jan Van Alphen, the Rubin Museum’s Director of Exhibitions, Collections and Research, has spent many years getting to know the people of Nepal and their art, religion, history and culture. He has worked extensively with the UN and various NGOs in the Katmandu Valley to help restore some of Nepal’s architectural treasures. When the earthquake hit, it destroyed or damaged decades of careful work. The quake was personal for Van Alphen in another way: his daughter worked in a Katmandu orphanage whose roof collapsed. Fortunately, all the children survived.

Van Alphen: “My daughter had contact with the children in the school over there recently and they are all smiling! Not that they are happy with the situation, but they adapt very quickly. I mean if you live in conditions – like 90 percent of the Nepalese – outside the Katmandu Valley, life is very hard. And they deal with it. They deal with the spirits. They deal with the mountains and with many problems of infrastructure. They are survivors, for sure. And despite the damage they have now, they will go on. An earthquake is not enough to finish with all that.”

The Rubin Museum is in a delicate position with respect to the current crisis. On the one hand, the Rubin is not a charitable fundraising organization; on the other hand, it is a natural “go-to” place for Americans who want to know how and whom to help in the aftermath of the recent quake. So Sears and his staff created a section of the website called “Honoring Nepal.”

Sears: “And we divided it into various information gathering and sharing portals. Knowing where to give in a time of real tragedy is a very challenging thing, especially if you are not familiar with the region. We can help by vetting a number of charities that work in the region that are on the ground now that are trying to be of immediate, medium and longer term assistance. We hope that that section provides a little bit of information and help to those seeking to give in some tangible way.”

Because the intense media attention on the earthquake has made the public aware of Nepal in a way it rarely has been before, and certainly will not be for long, Rubin curators are also displaying a range of fascinating Nepali artifacts, both on the website and in a small exhibition space in the museum.

Sears: “And we hope that they will engage with us online and perhaps come to the museum see a small, very quick selection that we’ve placed on view, and without charge, look at those objects, learn something about them, [and] hopefully be inspired a little about them and reflect not only on the history, but also on the current circumstances.”

Patrick Sears is the Executive Director of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, an institution devoted to Himalayan art, culture and ideas from the ancient past to the present day, and their ongoing relationship with other world cultures.