Giving a building that has outlived its original purpose a new lease on life is a way of utilising a cultural heritage resource for the benefit of future generations. Often an innovative, adaptive design is required for an appropriate new use that preserves the substance and value of historic buildings. The former palace of the kings of Patan, and its current incarnation as a museum for Nepal's sacred art, the Patan Museum, is a good example.
Museums are often conceived as non-profit cultural and educational institutions. They depend on annual government allocations for operating costs and their staff are civil servants. Entrance fees, kept deliberately low by government bodies, are not at the museums' disposal and there is no incentive to raise other revenue because such income normally goes back to the central budget office. Maintaining and operating a museum of international standards in a country like Nepal is impossible unless the issue of independent sustainability is addressed. How can such a museum be operated without further burdening the national budget?
Nepal affords extremely limited funding for culture-and heritage-related institutions and activities. Unsurprisingly, public museums generally have low standards of display, information and maintenance, inadequate security provisions, and under-qualified staff. Sometimes, there isn't enough money for the electricity bill or to replace a light bulb-bad news for the visual enterprise of a museum. South Asian museums usually appeal neither to local people nor to foreign visitors used to higher standards. They don't achieve their educational aims or realise their potential as tourist attractions despite the often high quality of their collections.
The challenges for a new alternative museum in Patan were both devising an institutional structure that allowed self-reliance, and convincing the Government of the benefits of such a pilot approach. With an understanding of similar developments in other countries and the advice of local and Austrian consultants, the Department of Archaeology, the legal custodian of Nepal's cultural heritage, agreed to an institutional framework allowing the Patan Museum to be administered as a public corporation governed by a semi-autonomous board. An existing legal provision for development organisations, the "Development Committee Act 2013", was adapted for the first time for a cultural institution in Nepal. The constitution of the Patan Museum Board gives it the right and duty to operate the museum as a revenue-generating cultural institution, to guide its development plans and programmes, employ its own staff, and manage its budget, pricing policy and revenue generation. Thus, the museum could manage its operational and maintenance budgets and maintain high standards independently.
When it opened in 1997, the museum fixed the entrance fee at Rs 10 for local visitors, and Rs 30 for tourists from SAARC countries. For other visitors, the fee was fixed experimentally at Rs 120 (the equivalent of $2 then), but an increase is being considered in light of Patan Museum's international recognition.
The sale of tourist tickets will remain the mainstay of the museum's economy, but there are other facilities to generate additional revenue and also provide client services, a vital component of an inter-national-standard museum. These include:
. The Patan Museum Cafe in the newly landscaped palace gardens, one of Kathmandu Valley's most attractive outdoor restaurants.
. The Patan Museum Gift Shop with a selection of Himalaya-relevant art and other books, and also posters, postcards and other publications exclusive to the museum.
. A Guest Studio on the top floor overlooking the palace gardens for use by visiting scholars and artists.
. One gallery and the courtyard's open arcades for temporary exhibitions, another gallery overlooking Durbar Square for lectures or seminars, and the main courtyard for cultural performances.
The Patan Museum has had around 40,000 annually visitors since 1997, on average 100 per day. About half of these are foreign tourists. These numbers seem small in comparison to museums overseas, but it should be remembered that the Museum's 20,000 annual foreign visitors constitute 5 percent of all tourist arrivals here. No museum in the world can compete with that.
Sustained by the acclaim of major guidebooks and by word-of-mouth buzz, the numbers are sufficient to guarantee a sustainable and self-reliant future for this museum, one of Asia's best.