• The “Birth of Thainess” room illustrates the evolution of Thainess through historical situations with hydraulic modules, audio descriptions and graphic presentations.
  • The mock-up of a classroom shows how Thai nationalism is integrated with the education system.

What price Thainess?

lifestyle December 17, 2017 01:00

By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Sunday Nation

2,500 Viewed

The new permanent exhibition at Museum Siam examines through interactive displays the evolution of Thai culture



EIGHTEEN MONTHS after wrapping up its first interactive permanent exhibition “An Essay of Thailand”, which traced the origin of Thais from pre-historic times to the modern day, the newly revamped Museum Siam is once again open and has a new permanent exhibition that explores diverse aspects of Thainess.

While “An Essay of Thailand” aimed to rediscover the country's history and cultural roots, the new show “Decoding Thainess” employs metaphors as well as thought-provoking and critical approaches in looking at who we were in the past and are today through 14 rooms spread across two floors.

The “Birth of Thainess” room illustrates the evolution of Thainess through historical situations with hydraulic modules, audio descriptions and graphic presentations.

In bringing itself into line with modern times, the museum has taken into account feedback from visitors over the last decade and dug deep into its own research, ridding itself of written presentations and exhibition boards and replacing them with visual presentations, games, augmented reality, 3D laser cuts and hydraulic modules.

“The exhibition explores the meaning of Thainess through advanced and more interesting story-telling techniques and covers everything from history, architecture and traditions to food and clothing. It thus encourages visitors to look to the future by presenting stories of the past. Innovative interactive exhibits invite visitors to immerse themselves in the rooms and better understand the contents. We provide them with an unconventional museum experience that offers both knowledge and enjoyment,” says the museum’s director Rames Promyen, who demonstrated his own “Thainess” during the recent opening by riding around on a motorcycle laden with foods in plastic bags.

Thais call this shop-on-wheels rod phumphung, in essence a Thai-style roving vendor. A hawker on a motorbike carries bags of food between sois and villages, conveniently offering residents the option of buying food, fruits, vegetables and condiments on their doorstep.

The shop on wheels, rod phumpung, represents a Thai-style roving vendor.

And in another new approach, there is no fixed route to follow like the previous permanent show even though each of the 14 exhibiting rooms has its own theme.

“We learned from the past show that there should not be a fixed sequence because we are presenting a social context not a scientific approach. Visitors are free to explore. Each room’s gimmick and subject is complete in itself. The topics across the rooms on the second floor are easy to access while the metaphoric subjects are largely presented in the third-floor rooms,” says the museum’s curator Pachat Tiptus.

The mannequin of Lady Gaga wearing traditional Thai headdress questions what Thainess means in this changing world.

A mannequin of Lady Gaga in a skimpy costume wearing the traditional Thai headdress known as a chada has pride of place in the “Is this Thai?” room in reference to the controversial act that generated an online firestorm following her 2012 Bangkok concert.

The singer, it will remembered, chose to wear a provocative costume with a borrowed chada and sat on a motorbike with the Thai flag sticking out the back while performing her song “Hair”. Her detractors were shocked, saying her antics was inappropriate and disrespectful of high culture and Thai traditions. Younger Thais disagreed, commenting that such statements were misguided and oversensitive.

More controversial issues are projected on the screens around the room together with examples of comments from the social networks. Among them is a tourism ad produced by the Tourism Authority of Thailand featuring a music video titled “Thais tour in Thailand: Let’s have fun!” released last year. In the MV, actors and actresses dressed in khon costumes from Ramayana epic travel to different popular tourist attractions and take part in various activities including riding horses, driving go-karts and cooking the much-loved Thai dessert khanom krok.

Shocked viewers urged the Culture Ministry to ban the MV for damaging Thai culture, saying khon performers must strictly follow so-called traditional practice and not perform such inappropriate activities. More than 60,000 Thais diagreed and signed a petition opposing the Culture Ministry’s attempt to withdraw the ad.

Other bones of contention highlighted by the exhibition include the tuk-tuk dress, worn by Miss Thailand Aniporn “Nat” Chalermburanawong, that won the Best National Costume award at the 2015 Miss Universe pageant, and the foreign-looking actors/actresses who star in Thai period dramas.

“We are not questioning whether or not these items are inappropriate or otherwise but their representation of Thainess. Do we have to look only to high arts and untouchable traditions when mentioning Thainess? Don’t everyday items like the tuk-tuk, pad thai, and huay (Thai lottery) also portray Thainess?” adds the curator.

The “Magnificently Thai” room is a replica of a throne hall.

The “Magnificently Thai” room is a replica of a throne hall and conveys the aesthetics and beauty of Thai architecture and fine arts built on the traditional concept of trai bhum or Buddhist cosmology. The royal throne, the royal crematorium as well as the massive prang (Khmer-style tower) of Wat Arun are also modelled after the universe concept based on Brahma and Buddhism principles. The structure comprises of the centre of the universe, Mount Sumeru, surrounded by Sattaboripan mountain ranges where deities live, the ocean and the four continents where people reside.

“It is believed that the King has divine status and the architecture related to the monarchy is traditionally fashioned around this belief. To Thais, the King is the heart and soul of the nation,” says Pachat.

“Thailand’s Three Pillars” room

The core concepts of Thailand’s three deeply rooted institutions, nation, religion and monarchy, which collectively reflect the expression of Thainess, are featured in the “Thailand’s Three Pillars” room. Using AR that’s designed like a jigsaw, visitors are invited to assemble parts on the table in the centre of the room and view pictures related to the three institutions on the screen.

The “Degrees of Thainess” room presents so-called Thainess through a variety of costumes. 

Dummies dressed in a variety of clothes stand on a spiral platform in the “Degree of Thainess” room. In pride of place is the khon costume of Phra Ram in the epic Ramayana, while the lower steps feature the Thai student uniform, academic gown, traditional separates like the jong kraben and sabai, as well as muay thai boxing shorts.

“Phra Ram, who in the Ramayana epic is the incarnation of Phra Narai, is a metaphor of kingship because Thais believe the King is Phra Narai who comes to earth for the sake of world peace. The lower seven steps represent Mount Sattaboripan – a mountain in Buddhist mythology situated in the middle of Himavanta, a mythological forest. The mountain comprises seven ranges encircling Mount Sumeru – the centre of the universe. The McDonald's clown performing a wai is also presented here thanks to his respect for Thai culture,” adds the curator.

 The “Birth of Thainess” room

In the “Birth of Thainess” room, hydraulic module technology is integrated with audio descriptions and graphic presentations to illustrate the cultural evolution through the timeline of historical situations. 

Various items and models kept in glass cabinets rise up from a long wooden table to represent each historical period from the reign of King Rama IV who embraced Western innovations and initiated the modernisation of his country, to the modern days of Siam in the reign of his son, King Rama V. 

The cultural mandates issued between 1939 and 1942 by the government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram during his first term as prime minister are also presented, as is the 1997 “tom yum kung crisis” – the financial meltdown that began in Thailand and swept across Asia. Hitting rock bottom led many Thais to recognise the wisdom of the “sufficiency economy” espoused by His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and the last glass cabinet to pop up from the table is a miniature of the Royal Urn in remembrance of the late monarch.

Three iconic figures represent “very Thai” popular culture.

Greeting visitors in front of the room “Only in Thailand” is a beautifully carved wooden Thai lady in traditional garb performing a wai. Standing next to her is the police dummy dubbed Ja Choey (Sgt Still) that is normally found at traffic intersections – an effort by the Thai police to deter motorists from breaking traffic laws and reduce road accidents.

Inside the room is a four-metre-high statue of fat Nang Kwak – the lady said to bring good business – and a collection of familiar daily houseware items and tools that instantly suggest Thainess. They include the Thai seasoning set, a plastic bag tied with a rubber band containing a drink, and the cylindrical bus ticket holder with its long rolls of paper tickets and coins. 

The jangle of coins in a bus ticket dispenser is a unique everyday feature.

“These demonstrate the creative personality of Thais who are very good at adapting and improving things for everyday use, convenience and suitability to situations,” says Rames.

Visitors can learn more about the origin of famous Thai recipes like tom yum kung, som tum and pad thai in the “Taste of Thai” room where a variety of dishes with a QR code are available for visitors to pick up and place on the table. The QR technology comes with vibrantly colourful motion graphics in providing both the recipe and its origins. 

QR technology is used in combination with vibrantly colourful motion graphics to tell the origin of wellknown Thai dishes. 

SINCE THE DAYS OF SIAM

Museum Siam on Bangkok’s Sanam Chai Road near Tha Tien is open daily except Monday from 10 to 6.

Find out more at (02) 225 2777 or www.MuseumSiam.org.