Rebecca Catching

A Postcard from Bangkok:
How Museums Can Play a Role
in Reshaping the Narrative of a City
and Preserving Intangible Cultural Heritage

In the mind of many Western tourists, Bangkok has a reputation as being something of a party town—a reputation not helped by images of tourists behaving badly in films such as Hangover Part II or The Beach. But Bangkok is more than an Ibiza of Southeast Asia or a transit lounge on the way to the beaches; it has one of the most fascinating and dynamic cuisines in the region, a rich Buddhist tradition which has produced temples of astounding architectural detail and variety, and bustling streetscapes, where underneath Bangkok’s uber-modern elevated transit system, one can still hear the pok, pok, pok of a vendor grinding garlic and chilies for papaya salad made on the spot.

Museums can play an important role in strengthening this kind of messaging, in explaining to visitors the essence of the city. But they can also contribute to rebranding by changing the focus from indulgence to education, if money is invested to support the growth of a high number of high-quality institutions. One thinks of how Amsterdam, once known for its permissive culture of coffee shops and brothels, which rebranded itself as a cultural destination now with over 144 museums—and now has more tourists than it knows what to do with. In Asia, we can look to Singapore, which was losing ground to more exotic and less expensive vacation options which with the support of the tourism board, rebranded itself as a cultural hub of Southeast Asia through investment in museums, galleries, and art fairs.

While in Bangkok in the fall of 2019, I saw two exhibitions that presented two very different images of Thailand, which influenced Bangkok’s brand in different ways. The first was a very slick exhibition at the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall. The museum presents the history of the Rattanakosin Kingdom (the Chakri Dynasty) which ruled Thailand from 1782-1932 and still wields great influence today. Visitors had to sign up for a tour and as an English-speaker this involved wearing a crackling audio guide which offered a pre-recorded text in English which was combined with human interpreters doing their best to fill in the details despite some pretty severe language barriers. The approach of using a human guide with a mandatory tour can be very effective, as is the case of New York’s Tenement Museum, but the two layers of audio interpretation were a bit overwhelming and guests had precious time to look at or understand what was in front of them, before being rushed on to the next exhibit.

However, the biggest challenge for me, as a foreigner, was that the interpretive tone was a bit of a “hard-sell” as one can see from the tour highlights on the museum’s website.

1. Grandeur Rattanakosin Room

2. Prestige of the Kingdom

3. Remarkable Entertainments

4. Renowned Ceremonies

5. Graceful Architectures

6. Impressive Communities

7. Sight – seeing Highlight

8. The Color Thai way of Living

9. The Heart and Soul of the Nation

The exhibition focuses on the achievements of the Chakri Kings and their connection to the creation of modern Bangkok. The flashy multimedia presentations highlight the many achievements of the dynasty but lacked any sense of conflict or drama. I would have been more interested to learn what life was like for the average Thai, or understand more about the history of Rattanakosin Island, the fortified city which occupied a large part of modern Bangkok, but then perhaps I was not the intended audience. The chirpy voice of the guide, the glowing adjectives, and the bombastic music, were all too familiar for me, as someone who has lived and worked in China for a decade and a half. In my travels in Asia, I have often encountered this kind of “official” dialect used in didactics. For instance, the National Museum of China wows audiences with its voluminous spaces and crisp and clean exhibition design, but the interpretive tone aims to engender a sense of awe and respect, rather than a sense of connection.

Feeling like I needed a reset, I caught a taxi across the Chao Phraya River to Congdon’s Anatomical Museum (Siraj Medical Museum), taking a trip in a museological time machine. Congdon’s is a rare treat for anyone interested in the history of museums; with Victorian-era vitrines holding all sorts of ghastly sights—severed fetuses and skeletons of famous scientists—Congdon’s feels like a haunted cabinet of curiosities.

Making my way down the double-height staircases lined with portraits of famous scientists, I stumbled upon another fantastic museological relic, the Sood Sangvichien Prehistoric Museum & Laboratory. This quaint archeological museum features skulls, arrowheads, fossils, and even some beautiful hand-written didactics. One hopes that these museums will not get washed away by the tides of modernization as they are truly fabulous sights to behold even if they do not speak in a contemporary vernacular. We needn’t look further than the old-timey dioramas of the Warburg Hall in New York’s American Museum of Natural History or the spectacularly-weird Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A. to see the appeal of such nostalgia.

After this little sojourn, I continued on to Museum Siam, which offered up more than just shelter from the rain, which was pelting down like a torrent of ball bearings. Though housed in a yellow, stucco, French-colonial building, the museum was only opened in 2007. Traditional appearance aside, it espoused a modern and inclusive interpretive tone embracing both Thailand’s remarkable history and its dynamic contemporary reality. The main exhibition, “Decoding Thai-ness,” offered a fairly-nuanced approach to the idea of national identity, exploring high-culture and low culture, pop culture, and food culture, through an array of engaging interactives. Though the issue of museums using their authority to designate a particular national identity is a fraught proposition, (especially in a country such as Thailand, with so many ethnic minorities), the narrative was framed as both an answer and a question, with didactics problematizing the idea of a fixed national identity and probing the viewer to engage in their own discussions through the inclusion of social media elements. Parts of the exhibit felt like Douglas Coupland’s Souvenirs of Canada, in the way that it used material culture to give form to something formless. At the same time, there were moments when more conservative voices would come through. We saw this tension played out in an exhibit of national dress. A set of spiral steps played host to costumed mannequins, with those at the top in traditional costumes indicated as being the “most Thai” and those on the bottom steps being the least Thai. This kind of ranking is, of course, problematic, but it has the benefit of generating debate. On the bottom steps, we can see a statue of Ronald MacDonald, his hands clasped together in the traditional “wai” gesture of greeting alongside a mannequin in a kinky leather cabaret outfit sporting a golden crown. This mongkut is a traditional crown in Southeast Asia which looks a bit like a stupa, which was worn by one of Thailand’s most famous beauty queens Miss Universe Thailand Chalita Suansane and also lady Gaga in her concert in Bangkok. The use of the mongkut in secular contexts has been something of a flashpoint for some Thais, and to include this sensitive topic was a brave way to spark conversation.

Following more of a straight chronological approach to Thai history was a multi-media installation entitled “Birth of Thai-ness.” Featuring kings and political leaders along with some pop culture elements—influential musicians and classic films, the installation involved an impressive a kinetic and audiovisual presentation which was projected onto a wooden stage. Vitrines holding different objects would pop out of the stage like prairie dogs, making an appearance in synch with the audio track, and slowly disappear as the presentation moved on to the next historical actor. This presentation finally reached a grand finale, with the kind of precise choreography only found in North Korea’s Mass Games, but despite the pageantry, it displayed a fairly-surprising appreciation of folk culture coming from a state institution.

While on one hand, the exhibit firmly identified the monarchy, religion, and the government as the pillars of Thai society, another section on folk religion took a more modern approach. Presenting deities and gods used in every day religious practice, the exhibit displayed an impressive focus on the theme of spiritual diversity where the didactics even suggested that to “not believe” was also an option.

In another exhibition hall, we can see a towering red and gold statue of Nang Kwak (a version of Lakshmi) welcoming visitors to an exhibition on foodways and dining culture. Nang Kwak is present in many Thai businesses and restaurants and even street-food vendors are known to carry her statue in the hopes of prosperity. Exhibits explain the importance of dipping sauces in Thai cuisine or the habit of drinking coffee from a bag. There are videos about the classic Thai table, the kinds of cutlery used, and the distinctly-Thai condiment caddy which usually contains fish sauce, chili, powder, sugar, and prik nam pla—a fish sauce decorated with whole sliced chilies which is as addictive as it is vengeful.

The exhibition also contained an excellent interactive “Thai Food Foreign Name” which focused on the origins of Thai cuisine, whereby viewers could pick up a plastic plate featuring a question about Thai food and scan the QR codes on the bottom of the plate to activate a series of animations on topics such as why boat noodles come in such a small bowl or how the signature dish of Chiang Mai—khao soi noodles—was apparently introduced by Chinese Muslim traders, the Chin Haw 秦霍, when they traveled from Yunnan to Thailand. This method of presenting knowledge as a question was a good way to activate the viewer’s neural circuitry, to make them question their existing knowledge, and long-held assumptions of Thailand as a homogeneous entity.  

The museum has made a brave and clever move in putting its weight behind these under-appreciated cultural assets and intangible heritage. The museum’s director, Rames Promyen, even made a symbolic gesture during the exhibition opening by driving his scooter and parking it under the museum’s colonnade. The scooter was, in fact, a rod phumphung—a kind of itinerant shop laden with plastic bags of fruit, vegetables, and flowers, that rolls through the alleyways hawking its wares. But in 2018, the government began to crack down on street life and street stalls vowing to return Bangkok’s sidewalks to its citizens. This, of course, ignores the obvious fact that Bangkokians seem to be enjoying their sidewalks just fine, just as the Parisians enjoy their sidewalk cafes. There is also the unavoidable problem, that in a city where kitchens tend to be extremely small, the availability of low-cost food is vital for working-class people. By driving his rod phumphung into the museum, Rames Promyen proclaims that this informal culture of the street is worth celebrating, and it not some kind of shameful dirty secret. Bangkok’s street life should not be swept under the rug, or hidden away in hawker’s centers as is the case in Singapore or packaged up and rammed into a shopping mall as was the case of Shanghai’s once-lively Wujiang Road food street. Rather street life should be a core component of the city’s branding and Shanghai and Singapore should be taking notes. While the high-maintenance tourists can always dine in five-star hotels, in an increasingly-globalized world novelty and authenticity are becoming sought-after commodities. Museums can play a role in supporting this culture, not only for tourists to enjoy but to preserve something of Bangkok’s authentic character for the enjoyment of native Bangkokians.