Best Mountain Museums on the Planet

©istockphoto/tdub303For many coun­tries, moun­tains rep­re­sent iden­ti­ty. From the Alps, to the Himalayas, the Rock­ies, and the Andes, the moun­tains rep­re­sent icon­ic land­scapes that define not only a place, but also its sport­ing achieve­ments and the cul­tures that reside between them. Moun­tain muse­ums serve not only as a tes­ta­ment to the con­querors that dared to climb and stand upon sum­mits, but also to paint a por­trait of a unique envi­ron­ment, filled with rare flo­ra and mys­te­ri­ous wildlife.

To under­stand the moun­tains isn’t just to see them as tow­ers of rock and ice, but to see how their exis­tence shapes the peo­ple and cul­tures that grow with­in them. These are some of the world’s muse­ums ded­i­cat­ed to moun­tains, moun­taineers and moun­tain cul­ture.

Inter­na­tion­al Moun­tain Muse­um – Pokhara, Nepal1
With a soar­ing triple atri­um, rem­i­nis­cent of a moun­tain­ous sky­line and the Anna­pur­na Range ris­ing in the back­ground, the Inter­na­tion­al Moun­tain Muse­um of Pokhara, Nepal cel­e­brates the Himalayas in sport, wildlife, and cul­ture. Set in a large, airy space, the muse­um divides into three gal­leries: Moun­tain, for geog­ra­phy, Moun­tain Peo­ple, for the cul­tures that thrive with­in and Moun­tain Activ­i­ties, the one ded­i­cat­ed to Himalayan climb­ing.

The Moun­tain Gallery dis­plays infor­ma­tion and pho­tographs on each of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks from Nepal and Tibet to Pak­istan. With rock sam­ples, plant life and wildlife repli­cas, the muse­um describes the cre­ation and geol­o­gy of the Himalayas, formed when the Indi­an and Eurasian plates col­lid­ed, thrust­ing the land upward into the famed peaks known today. The gallery also dis­plays col­lec­tions of rare Himalayan but­ter­flies, high alti­tude flora—including the rhodo­den­dron, Nepal’s nation­al flower—and a fas­ci­nat­ing look at a snow leop­ard, made famous by Peter Matthiessen’s book.

The Moun­tain Peo­ple Gallery is ded­i­cat­ed to the indige­nous cul­tures from the Andes to the Alps and the Himalayas who depend on the moun­tains as a source of life and how it affects their way of being. A large swath of the gallery is devot­ed to the Sher­pa, orig­i­nal­ly horse­men and traders who descend­ed from Tibet, who reside across the Khum­bu. Besides their famed work as guides and porters, the Sher­pas pro­duced inno­v­a­tive tech­niques to farm at high alti­tude, built resilient vil­lages out of the mate­ri­als they found in the high hills and used the moun­tains as a major part of their folk­lore and song, seen from the many musi­cal instru­ments on dis­play. There’s also an exhib­it on the lore of the Yeti.

The Moun­tain Activ­i­ties Gallery cel­e­brates Himalayan moun­taineer­ing, dis­play­ing his­tor­i­cal equip­ment from the first ascents of the 8,000-meter peaks such as Mau­rice Herzog’s land­mark climb of Anna­pur­na in 1950, Lino Lacedel­li and Water Bonatti’s con­tro­ver­sial first ascent of K2 in 1954—a moun­tain that was not sum­mit­ed again until 1977—and Hillary and Norgay’s con­quest of Ever­est. The gallery traces moun­taineer­ing from its prim­i­tive begin­ning, fea­tur­ing a col­lec­tion of ice axes, cram­pons, stoves, sleep­ing bags and down wear from the 1920s to the mod­ern attire of the ear­ly 2000s.

While most of the col­lec­tion her­alds achieve­ment, a small sec­tion just beyond the glass cas­es pro­vides a jar­ring con­trast. Heaps of rope, oxy­gen can­is­ters and cook­ing tanks take up almost an entire room. The exhib­it rep­re­sents a col­lec­tion of trash left by expe­di­tions on Ever­est over a course of three sea­sons. It’s a stark and human­iz­ing reminder of the human effect on the moun­tains and the impor­tance of pre­serv­ing the pris­tine envi­ron­ment.

Brad­ford Wash­burn Amer­i­can Moun­taineer­ing Muse­um – Gold­en, Col­orado2
Brad­ford Wash­burn was an Amer­i­can moun­taineer, car­tog­ra­ph­er, artist and pho­tog­ra­ph­er who first sur­veyed Alaska’s moun­tains by air and cre­at­ed maps of peaks such as Denali and Ever­est. After Washburn’s pass­ing in 2007, the Amer­i­can Alpine Club and the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Soci­ety ded­i­cat­ed a muse­um of moun­taineer­ing and climb­ing to his name, hous­ing col­lec­tions of relics, maps and pho­tographs that tell the sto­ry of Amer­i­can moun­taineer­ing both in North Amer­i­ca and abroad. Set around a mod­el of Ever­est, the muse­um, while mod­est in size, dis­plays how moun­taineer­ing was a part of Amer­i­can cul­ture, from first ascents in Alas­ka and the Himalayas to a sec­tion ded­i­cat­ed to the 10th Moun­tain Divi­sion, the famed infantry who fought across the alpine ter­rain of Italy and Aus­tria in World War II.

Among one of the museum’s most cher­ished trea­sures is a sim­ple antique wood­en ice axe that belonged to Amer­i­can moun­taineer Pete Schoe­ing, who used it in an act of hero­ism known as ‘The Belay.’ In 1953, on the heels of the first con­quest of Ever­est, Schoe­ing and his team attempt­ed the first ascent of K2 but were trapped in a storm at 7,260-meters (25,000 ft.). With one of his team mem­bers suf­fer­ing from a pul­monary embolism, Schoe­ing and his group, all roped togeth­er, began to descend in the midst of the storm. Sud­den­ly, one of the climbers, George Irv­ing Bell, slipped on an ice sheet and pulled five oth­er climbers down with him. Schoe­ing, who had been belay­ing the group, quick­ly took his ice axe and jammed it into a boul­der, arrest­ing the fall of the entire group and sav­ing the lives of five men. Schoeing’s actions earned him an award for hero­ism in moun­taineer­ing and the nam­ing of Schoe­ing Peak in the Ellsworth Moun­tains of Antarc­ti­ca.

Along with the muse­um, the Amer­i­can Alpine Club main­tains a vast library of over 20,000 books, maps, films, pho­tographs, archiv­ing guide­books, hand-writ­ten route maps and doc­u­ments of moun­tain cul­ture and explo­ration. The muse­um and library also hosts lec­tures, screen­ings and social events for the Col­orado climb­ing com­mu­ni­ty.

The Mess­ner Moun­tain Muse­um – South Tyrol, Italy3
Ital­ian moun­taineer Rein­hold Mess­ner entered his­to­ry as the first per­son to climb the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks, and he has ded­i­cat­ed his life to the preser­va­tion and edu­ca­tion of moun­tain explo­ration and cul­ture. The Mess­ner Moun­tain Muse­um is not one but six sep­a­rate muse­ums across South Tyrol in Italy, each ded­i­cat­ed to a sep­a­rate aspect of the moun­tains. Set against the dra­mat­ic Dolomites, the Mess­ner Muse­um serves not only as a gallery of Reinhold’s pas­sions, but also a forum to share ideas, spur inno­va­tion and con­ser­va­tion and respon­si­bly pro­mote the sports of climb­ing and moun­taineer­ing.

The first muse­um, set in an unre­stored medieval cas­tle in Fir­mi­an, is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of moun­tain art and its sig­nif­i­cance in rela­tion to the his­to­ry of moun­taineer­ing and alpin­ism. A large seat­ed Bud­dha looks off to one side rep­re­sent­ing the Himalayas, while an Inuk­suk rep­re­sents the indige­nous peo­ple of British Colum­bia and Alas­ka. As vis­i­tors descend an under­ground stair­case, they delve into a nat­ur­al gallery carved inside the moun­tain, where they are grant­ed with sweep­ing panora­mas of the Dolomites and an artis­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the moun­tains told in var­i­ous medi­ums includ­ing paint­ings, pho­tographs, and sculp­ture.

The Dolomites branch, known as ‘The Muse­um In the Clouds’ is ded­i­cat­ed to the sto­ry of tra­di­tion­al rock climb­ing in the Ital­ian Alps. The muse­um is built to resem­ble a church, with 20 naves that doc­u­ment the his­to­ry of climb­ing rock in the Dolomites, fea­tur­ing antique pro­tec­tion devices, hand drawn jour­nals of routes detail­ing first ascents, ropes, boots and cloth­ing from the first rock climbers to the mod­ern alpin­ists of today.

Set in Juval Cas­tle, which dates to 1278, the third muse­um rep­re­sents moun­tain myth and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. While a large por­tion is ded­i­cat­ed to Tibetan and Bud­dhist iconog­ra­phy such as maps, masks, and prayer wheels, the muse­um fair­ly rep­re­sents all moun­tain­ous spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, such as the rev­er­ence of Ayers Rock to Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nals, Mt. Fuji’s rev­er­ence in Japan and the impor­tance of the moun­tains to North Amer­i­can tribes.

The muse­um at Ripa (Tibetan for ‘Moun­tain Man’) is a fas­ci­nat­ing ‘Liv­ing Muse­um’ that pro­motes the exchange of dia­logue, ideas, and cul­ture between moun­tain peo­ples, giv­ing them the abil­i­ty to share ideas with the local Dolomite com­mu­ni­ty. Mess­ner has pre­vi­ous­ly invit­ed groups from Tibet, Mon­go­lia and North and South Amer­i­ca to spend the sum­mer exchang­ing cul­tur­al ideas in a wel­com­ing and open forum.

The Ortles branch is devot­ed to glac­i­ers and ice, from Alas­ka to Antarc­ti­ca and the Himalayas. The muse­um is sit­u­at­ed direct­ly under a glac­i­er that guests can walk direct­ly into, while arti­facts, pho­tos, and film tell the sto­ry of cold explo­ration from ice climb­ing to the cross­ing of the poles. Along­side the wall, sev­er­al alcoves por­tray 13 dif­fer­ent moun­taineer­ing sto­ries, includ­ing some from Mess­ner him­self.

The final muse­um, which opened less than a year ago in Coro­nes, is devot­ed to the pure sport of moun­taineer­ing, rock climb­ing and explo­ration of the Dolomites. Messner’s aim with his final muse­um is to explore the har­mo­nious rela­tion­ship between ath­lete and moun­tain. The col­lec­tion is still under­go­ing place­ment, but it serves as a tes­ta­ment to Rein­hold Messner’s true pas­sion.

 

While these muse­ums are cen­ters to the his­to­ry and rev­er­ence of the moun­tains for many cul­tures, there are small pock­ets of region­al col­lec­tions ded­i­cat­ed to the explo­ration of a par­tic­u­lar area.

Boul­der, Colorado’s Nep­tune Moun­taineer­ing has a small muse­um tucked in its store, with arti­facts from antique skis to pitons and his­tor­i­cal moun­taineer­ing equip­ment set in a fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion.

In the town of Ash­ford, at the foot of Mt. Rainier, the Whit­tak­er Bunkhouse hous­es a small col­lec­tion in their café ded­i­cat­ed to the exploits of Lou and Jim Whit­tak­er, one of America’s most revered climb­ing fam­i­lies includ­ing pho­tographs, ice axes, and oxy­gen tanks from their many expe­di­tions. Moun­taineer­ing is a sport steeped in his­to­ry and cul­ture as it is in ath­leti­cism. In a rapid­ly chang­ing cli­mate, the moun­tain muse­ums help pre­serve cul­ture, his­to­ry, and the pur­suit of free­dom in the high hills.