Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland-based architect Rick Pearson is not a mountain climber, but he is well versed in the art of museum and exhibition design. That’s why the Himalayan Trust contacted him in 2019 to transform two dilapidated school classrooms in Nepal’s Khumjung village into The Sir Edmund Hillary Visitor Centre. Pearson shares the story behind the new exhibit at the gates of Mount Everest, from navigating time zones and language barriers to logistics and Covid lockdowns.
Rick Pearson: On a visit to Nepal in 1960, Sir Ed asked the local Sherpa people what the one thing he could do for them was. They all said the same thing – “education” – so he helped build them a school. It’s been great for the community, but there were issues with international visitors turning up and wandering through, disrupting the learning, so they decided to repurpose two classrooms into a visitor centre.
It’s a small space, about 60 square metres, and the buildings needed a complete restoration. There was no insulation – we’re talking daily highs of -6°C, even when I was there in spring – so we lined, insulated, repiled and refloored the two buildings, then joined them into one. Everything was designed in Aotearoa, made in Kathmandu and then either carried or helicoptered up to the site. The village is a three-day hike from the local airport, and there’s no road access, so we were using horses and yaks to help get the gear up these rough mountain steps. A bunch of the fittings were battered and scratched when they arrived. I’d never accept materials in that condition in New Zealand, but I love it there; it adds to the story.
It’s their centre, so I wasn’t going to impose any Western aesthetic on it. The bold, clashing colours were taken from the monasteries surrounding the place. Colour is everywhere; they even paint the ceilings, so we commissioned local artist Serki Sherpa to do these incredible works, and then we added a frieze in the Sherpa language that tells the area’s unique natural history.
Because people come in with their packs and poles, we needed resilient materials that couldn’t be easily damaged. Plywood was the natural choice, but I was surprised when the panels turned up bare, as I’d specified a paint finish in some areas. My Nepali is non-existent, so it was just one of the things lost in translation – we also ended up with TVs instead of monitors for the exhibits. The installation was a challenge too. The locals had little experience in electrical, AV or mounting, but they learned as they went and did a fantastic job.
This school has changed people’s lives, so we dedicated one wall to its former students. They’re doctors, authors, and pilots; they have PhDs, own lodges and airports. It shows what education does and how it can empower people. Khumjung is a remarkable place and it gets under your skin: the people, the simplicity, the positive outlook of Buddhism. I want to go back.