EDITORIAL: Rescuing our cultural heritage

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The country’s museums need regular funding and enthusiastic management

The recent opening of the National Discovery Museum represents a bold step by the Thaksin administration towards keeping the Kingdom’s cultural and historical legacies alive and relevant to society.

The museum is part of a soon-to-be-completed museum complex that will comprise four stand-alone museums – the Museum of Natural History of Southeast Asia, the Museum of the History of the People and the Land of Southeast Asia, the Museum of Thailand History and the Museum of Science and Technology (in the context of Thai society). These museums will be grouped in a cluster and supervised by a public organisation, the Knowledge Development and Management Institute, chaired by Dr Chai-anan Samudvanija. The whole complex, when completed, will cost the taxpayers Bt3.5 billion.

Although there are several national museums that serve diverse purposes in Thailand, they are located at different places and are operated by separate organisations or authorities that may or may not coordinate their efforts to do justice to the country’s rich heritage. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said his government wanted the complex to showcase Thailand’s historical treasures and cultural legacy as well as those of the ancient civilisations that existed in the geographical area that would become Thailand, with the goal of turning the complex into another major tourist attraction for Thais and foreigners.

In principle, the museum complex project aims at becoming another educational centre that will teach visitors about the development of the ideas, knowledge and folk wisdom of the Thais and their predecessors. It is hoped that the complex will present information that will ultimately help inspire life-long learning. When completed, the complex will seek to establish a cooperative network with other museums in the country in order to standardise and improve the efficiency of the entire museum system.

The PM’s idea is ambitious and noble. But the government must make sure that funding will be used effectively and wisely. It is essential that the government realise that an advanced level of skills in cultural management are necessary to achieve these objectives. There’s no denying that cultural management is a new concept in Thailand. The obvious lack of awareness of the idea of cultural management among government officials in charge of the nation’s museums is reflected in the dour atmosphere of state museums, which tend to inspire boredom rather than interest. To begin with, most government museums fail to appeal to the public due to a few simple issues:

The officials who run museums are strictly bureaucrats, many of whom are not so keen on arts and culture. To them, their jobs are no different from any other in the workaday world. Creativity, learning and passion are not encouraged among staff members, who tend to cocoon themselves among the cobweb-covered antiquities and have no interest in improving things to reach out to a wider public. As a result, many museums, which are also seriously under-funded, are nothing more than collections of lifeless antiques and decaying artefacts in unimaginative displays and unappreciated by the public.

These museums are also absolutely devoid of the sort of lively academic or public activities that are necessary for building a bridge between the past and the present, between the public and our cultural history.

What is most important is that Thailand’s museums have not been adequately portrayed or promoted as being part of the public’s everyday existence. What’s worse is that government museums tend to stay cloistered in their own world, shunning necessary cooperation with overseas museums, which might result in any number of exhibitions of fascinating artefacts on loan from institutions abroad. Instead, it’s always the same old artefacts, which is one sure way to deter visitors from making a return visit.

As a result, museums have become somewhat irrelevant. This explains why parents take their children to department stores rather than museums on weekends. It’s common to see foreign tourists outnumbering locals at the National Museum. The fact is, persuading Thai children to appreciate their own country’s cultural legacy and history will remain difficult until museums can start organising interesting programmes to reach out and connect to the public.

The government needs not look to the West for examples of successful museum management. Many of the world’s great exhibitions have chosen to bypass Thailand on their way to Singapore and Shanghai, where there are world-class exhibition facilities. These destinations are sure to be recognised as Asia’s cultural cities. Their cultural scenes are vibrant and have wide appeal to the public.

Thailand, with its rich cultural heritage, already has most of what it takes to join and contribute to important international cultural exchanges. However, the country will only emerge from its relative seclusion if the government not only guarantees long-term funding for the development of our museum system, but also brings in a new generation of enthusiastic cultural managers to replace the bureaucratic dead wood.

Published on February 03, 2005

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