A few months ago, visitors may have been somewhat disappointed to visit the Bangkok National Museum, discovering that the main highlight—the collection of Buddha statues and significant Thai treasures—had been replaced by an exhibition about Japan, while other halls were mostly closed for renovation. Now, it’s time to return to the National Museum as they present the best of Thai art in a new and contemporary presentation.
By Luc Citrinot
It is little known, but the National Museum in Bangkok is the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia with over 10,000 items on display. It is also one of the oldest in the region as the beginning of the collection was created by King Rama V in 1874.
Back in 2016, the museum unveiled the first stage of a renovation program deemed to modernise the presentation of the collections which had not changed for over 50 years. The Thai History Gallery was the centre of the first wave of renovations and is today the highlight of the collection.
In a former 200-year old palace (Siwamokkhaphiman Hall), the gallery shows the evolution of Thai art history, highlighting giant sculptures of Buddha and deities from the Lopburi to the Rattanakhosin eras. Highlights of the beautiful collection are the colossal Buddha Head of bronze, sculpted in the 16th century during the Ayutthaya Kingdom as well as the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, a stone stele showing the earliest example of Thai writing. The inscriptions are deemed to date back to 1292, in the Sukhothai Kingdom era. The stele is inscribed on the UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register since 2003.
Around the hall, statues and heads of Buddhas display the evolution of Thai art with its various styles over a millennium and are an excellent introduction for visitors. During the spring time, the National Museum reopened with refurbished halls and new displays, with improved lighting that makes the facility more attractive again for visitors.
The four halls are part of the Moo Phra Wiman complex, a former residential complex of Siam viceroys. They are fewer items exhibited, but they are better lighted and displayed behind glass cabinets to protect the pieces from dust and humidity. Digital and multimedia techniques have been added making the exhibition more entertaining and attractive for younger visitors.
The halls display crafts and traditional arts of classical Siam, from traditional costumes to weapons, from rare puppets used for royal performances and Khon masks to an extensive collection of music instruments. The textile hall is spectacular with two dozen magnificent, rare costumes once belonging to the Royal family or noble people. Embroideries enhance exquisite pieces of silk and cotton with silver and gold threads adorned with jewels such as gold necklaces. Among the highlights of this hall is a King Mongkut (Rama IV) embroidered costume with oak leaves and fruits design in gold thread. It dates back to 1859.
Renovations works are still going on for other parts of the museum including the sculptures’ collection. The task is to have the entire museum completed by 2020 with six further halls to be opened this month. They will present collections of ceramics, mother-of-pearl inlay, Buddhist monk utensils as well as royal transportation.
The renovated halls are putting the National Museum once again in its place as a truly top attraction in Bangkok. According to museum authorities, some 800 people visit the National Museum on average each day. Not suprisingly, before the renovation, the museum recorded only 300 people per day.
Information: The National Museum is opened from Wednesday to Sunday from 9am-4pm except on national holidays. Price is THB200 for non-Thai citizens. Guided tours are also organised in English, French, German and Japanese for free. Access to the Museum is by public boat or taxis. The museum is located along Sanam Luang next to Thamassat University (Na Phrathat Rd.) and the National Theatre. Tel: 02 224 1333