The perplexing concept of “Thainess” newly explored
The concept of “Thainess” is a recurrent topic in Thai society with the Kingdom’s residents—from politicians to street vendors—often making reference to their Thai specificity in a bid to justify some of their odd and unique behaviours. Recently, the Museum Siam reopened its doors with a brand new exhibition looking at what exactly Thainess is, examining the best ways for someone to attempt to understand the fundamentals behind this term.
The original Museum of Siam was once—about a hundred years ago—the Ministry of Commerce, and, in contrast to the current exhibition on show, it bears no sign of any Thainess whatsoever. Designed by Italian architect Mario Tamagno in 1921, the former Ministry has been totally built following neo-classical Italian architecture. It is a majestic structure with its wooden stairs, halls, arches, stucco ceilings, and its corridors rhythmically lined by classical columns. In some ways it offers the antithesis to the Thainess theme.
After a stint as the National Discovery Museum Institute, the structure was rebranded as Museum Siam in 2011. The institution has often been looking at what makes Siam and Thailand different from other countries in Southeast Asia, most often exploring the historical and cultural elements which shaped the Thai identity. Closed for renovation during most of 2017, the museum finally reopened its doors in December with a rejuvenated exhibition on the concept of Thainess—all based around one central question… “What is Thai?”
The exhibition looks like a jigsaw puzzle pulled apart, where visitors will go through various themes to get their own idea about the titular Thainess. An interactive presentation—alternatively in English and Thai—explains Siam/Thailand’s positioning in history, and looks at the influence of neighbouring countries over the shaping of the Siam/Thai identity.
A second room then explores the many cultural icons which have shaped Thailand; from tuk tuks to papaya salad, and from famed Thai brands to advertising from the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Songs, TV commercials, daily life objects, and of course the central figure of Thailand—the Royal Family—are combined to give one a crash course in Thainess.
Each exhibition room looks—always in a fun, interactive way—at various aspects of Thai life. The symbols of the monarchy, religion and beliefs, the education system, traditional costumes, and of course food, are showcased within unusual presentations but always in a very entertaining colourful way.
Highlights include: the reconstitution of the Throne Hall (with all the symbols of power); a display of costumes reflecting Thailand’s societal hierarchy; and a giant kitschy deity which looks at the blend between religious and popular beliefs. Meanwhile, food lovers will enjoy the section that examines Thailand’s most iconic culinary dishes, which in turn can be created with an interactive application.
Once you’ve seen the full show you might know more about the shaping of the Thai identity, but you’ll no doubt still wonder why the term “Thainess” continues to be used so readily to justify anything awkward or inexplicable happening in the Kingdom.
NOTE: Admission is B100 for Thais and B200 for non-Thais, but the museum is free of charge for all visitors from 4pm until closing time.
4 Sanam Chai Rd.
Tel: 02 225 2777
Open: Tue-Sun, 10am-6pm
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot