New Siam Through Local Eyes: Thailand’s Local Museums Festival 2010
25 November – 1 December 2010
Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (Public Organization)

The year 2010 marks the centenary of King Chulalongkorn’s death (r.1868-1910). To commemorate his legacy, the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (Public Organization) organized the 2nd Local Museums Festival around the theme, “New Siam Through Local Eyes.”

King Chulalongkorn’s forty-two year reign was a period of profound transformations across the Siamese empire. Motivated by the intention to modernize the country, King Chulalongkorn introduced a host of administrative, religious and educational reforms, abolished slavery and introduced taxation, launched the railroad, and oversaw the massive economic expansion of agriculture and trade.

In Thai history books and national museum exhibits, the story of Rama V’s reign is usually told from a central Thai perspective — that is, we learn about the “big picture” of this epoch of modernization that resulted largely from the Siamese court’s colonial encounter with the West.

What is often missing from the picture of this period is how the common people of Siam experienced these changes. As the repositories of local histories, memories and artifacts, many of Thailand’s local museums provide a window onto how different populations across the country were impacted by the modernizing reforms of the Rama V period.

To uncover this hidden side of the story of the Fifth Reign, from November 25 through December 1, 2010, the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (Public Organization) invited fifty-five local museums from all four regions of the country to share their own perspectives on “New Siam.”

The “New Siam” exhibit encompassed five main sub-themes. The first sub-theme focused on how the monumental growth of commerce during the Fifth Reign – particularly the expansion of agricultural production and exploitation of natural resources such as timber and minerals–transformed the landscape and livelihoods of local populations. Several museums from Northern provinces featured artifacts, photographs and narratives from the era of timber logging in this once densely forested region. One object dating to this period is the timber stamp hammer – a metal instrument used to brand logs with the mark of the timber company. The expansion of the railroad system in the North was also directly linked to the timber industry, and several participating museums (Museum of Urban Lamphun and the Phrae Museum of Forestry) recounted the stories of the ethnic groups that provided the manual labor and in some cases sacrificed their lives to complete the rail lines. And as we learn from the collections of the Surin Visual Archives (Surin Samosorn) the timber industry also directly impacted the livelihoods of the ethnic Kui elephant mahouts from the Northeast, whose elephants were avidly sought after by timber laborers from the Northern provinces. In the Southern provinces, such as Phuket, ore mining became a mainstay of the local economy, and the Ore Museum of Phuket tells the story of this industry with dioramas and photographs. With the growth of ore mining came the influx of Chinese laborers, who brought not only their culture but also new industrial commodities such as rubber. The Phuket Thai Hua Museum recounts the history of the Chinese in Phuket through the lens of the Thai Hua Phuket School – formerly one of the best educational institutions in the province.

Transportation was also a critical means of the economic expansion and centralization during this period, and several of the participating museums focused on this topic. For instance, the Museum of Thai Boats in Ayuthaya and the Museum of Model Boats of Khlong Lad Mayom in Bangkok have model boats and stories of life and trade on the Chao Phraya river and its arteries during the Rama V period, before river transport began to give way to land travel during the subsequent reign of King Vajiravudh (r. 1910-1925).

This brings us to a second sub-theme of the exhibit: educational and religious reforms. As Siam opened to the global economy and undertook centralizing administrative reforms, the demand grew for a skilled and educated workforce. To meet this need, Rama V introduced a modern educational system and standard curriculum with Thai as the language of instruction. During this period, the first schools open to girls were established, such as the Luang Ratchinee School in Nakhon Pathom Province. Now a museum, the Luang Ratchinee School features photographs and narratives from former teachers and students, whose memories shed light on how these educational reforms transformed the traditional roles of women in Thai society. Educational reforms also had a major impact on Buddhist monasteries, which had historically offered a traditional education for males based on Buddhist scriptures written in local scripts, ranging from Lanna to Khmer. Once institutions for transmitting local forms of knowledge and literacy, Buddhist monasteries were enlisted in the effort to reform and modernize the country–in part by offering a new modern curriculum in the central Thai script, and in part by mobilizing the lay community. Many monastery museums across the country feature collections which reflect this period of reforms. For instance, at the Phathasima Monastery in Nakhon Sri Thammarat and the Khlong Hae Museum in Songkhla, the collections focus on the biographies of reformist Buddhist abbots who played a leading role in mobilizing the lay community in the modernization effort. At the Khlong Hae Monastery Museum, collections highlight the life story of the seventh abbot, Phau Than Thong, who mobilized the community to construct rail lines and roads, such as the road between Khlong Hae and the city of Hat Yai.

The third sub-theme looked at how Western trends and influences in fashion, architecture and leisure were adapted to suit local tastes and contexts. The upper classes and nobility of Siam were often the first to adopt Western consumer products and leisure activities. For instance, at the Museum of Queen Savang Vadhana in Bangkok, a croquet set and a collection of archival photographs of a croquet game at the palace attest to the popularity of this sport among the ruling elite during the Fifth Reign. Western trends did not travel solely via the central palace, however, and at the Rong Meng Monastery Museum in Chiang Mai, a pith helmet that belonged to a wealthy local trader named Panya Chaiyot tells the story of how trade routes between the northern region of Lanna and cities in present-day Burma such as Moulmein (Mawlamyaing) and Chieng Tung brought modern goods to the north, thereby changing the lifestyles and consumption patterns in this region. One outcome of these trade encounters was that the khaki colored cloth-covered pith helmet – a symbol of the British colonial Empire – became a marker of wealth and high fashion among Siam’s northern elite.

A fourth sub-theme of the festival is that local museums are an archive of the triumphs but also the trials and tribulations of local communities during the Rama V period. While the reforms brought better livelihoods and development for some, for others it brought struggle and hardship. For instance, a photo exhibit organized by the Museum of Urban Lamphun documents the construction of the 1.3 kilometer Khun Tan railway tunnel, which was built over a period of ten years by Tai Yai, Khmu, Khon Muang, and Northeasterners, hundreds–if not thousands–of whom lost their lives as a result of the hazardous working conditions. An 80-year old local resident whose grandfather worked on the tunnel said that his grandfather reported seeing 30 body bags per day.

In some regions, the centralizing administrative reforms and imposition of taxes triggered resentment and resistance. Such was the case among the Ngiaw, or ethnic Shan, migrants from British Burma who worked as laborers in the northern teak forests and ruby mines. Taxed excessively by Siamese officials, they staged a rebellion in 1902 which included deadly attacks on Phrae, Lampang and Phayao provinces. The Shan rebels were finally routed and the leader was beheaded. Artifacts, texts and archival photographs related to the Shan uprising are featured at the Sri Khom Kham Cultural Center in Phayao.

The fifth and final sub-theme of the festival focuses on New Siam’s ethnic and cultural diversity. Indeed, Siam during the Fifth Reign was a cosmopolitan mix of Western missionaries and doctors, Chinese traders and laborers, Khmu timber laborers, and Karen chieftains, among many others. Many of Thailand’s local museums offer a picture of this cultural pluralism. For instance, the Tang Siam Ha Museum in Samut Songkhram highlights the life stories of Chinese boat vendors who later established shops along the Mekong River, while the Kad Kong Taa Community and Historic District tells the story of Lampang during the era of timber trade along the Wang River, when the town and marketplace was a cultural crossroads of Tai Yai, Burmese, Indians, Chinese, Westerners, and Khmu.

The museums mentioned above are but a small sample of the wealth of historical and cultural knowledge that were represented in this year’s Local Museums Festival. Taken together, the participating museums gave the visitor a vivid picture of how each locality experienced the era of King Chulalongkorn’s modernizing reforms in profoundly different ways, depending on factors such as geography, socio-economic status and ethnic background. Finally, the Museum Festival suggests that fostering national unity in Thailand must go hand-in-hand with valuing the nation’s rich regional cultural diversity and recognizing the many voices and versions of local history. Thailand’s strength is its plurality.

Detailed information about the Festival is available at the Centre’s website (in Thai).

[Alexandra Denes, Ph.D. is an Associate Researcher at the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (Public Organization)]