Thailand is getting more serious about its heritage, and this is a good trend. Cultural institutions are beginning to take advantage of the new craze as funds are now provided to renovate palaces, old buildings, or to create museums. In the last decade, the Museum of Siam, or the Museum of Contemporary Art, has been welcomed addition to Bangkok Museum scene.
Now is the time for venerable cultural institutions to get a much needed facelift, and among them is the National Museum. This is Thailand most prestigious cultural institution, as well as being the oldest in the country. Set up in the former ‘Front Palace’, a structure which used to be the residence of Siam Viceroys, the museum’s doors were opened some 130 years ago by King Rama V to become the ‘Royal Museum’. Later, in 1934, the institution was given its definitive name of ‘National Museum’. It is one of the most extensive institutions in Southeast Asia, with some 10,000 items in its collections. Most of them are not visible today due to the lack of space and the sorrowful state of some of the buildings. Neglected for many decades, most Thai students would remember the museum as a boring compulsory school visit, consisting of dark, dusty, or musty rooms.
But this is changing now that a program is step by step giving the National Museum back its former lustre. At the end of last year, the National Museum of Bangkok finally unveiled the first part of its renovated exhibition halls. The former building known as the “Gallery of Thai History” has been turned into a Hall dedicated to 2,000 years of Siamese art history, with some of the most precious sculptures being now exhibited in a new presentation.
The renovation program for the Exhibition Hall 1—located in the old Sivamokhaphiman Throne Hall—is part of the effort of the current government to spruce up the museum collections and make them more attractive, thanks to a renewed and modernised museography. Entering Hall 1, visitors are immediately surrounded by figures of Thai Buddha and deities emerging under carefully mastered lighting. Visitors can then embrace the art of delicate Thai sculpture collected over the centuries. All the styles are there, from Dvarati to Lopburi (Khmer) arts, from Lanna (Northern Thailand) to the Sriwijaya (Southern Thailand) styles, and from the masterpieces of the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods to the golden bronzes of the Rattanakosin era at the end of the 19th century.
The museum is also more visitor friendly now. Thai and English audio guides are available for free, while photography (without flash) is now allowed (this was not the case before). Talking to the Bangkok Post, Fine Arts Department Director-General Anan Chuchote highlights the new philosophy of turning art institutions into “living museums” and active centres of education.
“I provided the policy to develop all national museums into lifetime learning centres for people of all ages and educational levels because these museums are sources of ancient artefacts and art pieces, which are a national heritage,” Anan said.
The renovated hall has been a real success, and it now receives over 10,000 visitors a month, a 100% increase over the same period from last year. This encourages the department of fine arts to continue to renovate more areas.
Next to be redeveloped are Uttraphimuk, Surasinghanart, and Prapasphipitthaphan Halls. The first one will be dedicated to textiles, the second will show a very large collection of Buddha (not only from Thailand but also from neighbouring countries), while the third hall will showcase the museum’s furniture collections with an improved presentation. The overall aim is to push the National Museum into one of ASEAN must-see cultural institutions.
There are also plans to renovate and improve the National Gallery, the Royal Elephant National Museum, and the Royal Barge Museum. They could certainly follow the example set by the Museum of Siam, or the Rattanakosin Exhibition which interactively retraces the history of Bangkok. It seems as though Thailand’s capital is definitely turning into a city of museums and arts.
(Source: Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office)