Thailand and the US mark two centuries of amity with an exhibition of gifts exchanged
THE SMALLEST of the 79 artefacts on view in the exhibition “Great and Good Friends” – gifts exchanged between Thai monarchs and American presidents and their delegates over two centuries – is a golden cigarette case. Roughly square at about eight centimetres, it bears the Royal Cypher of King Ananda Mahidol.
And yet this smallest of tokens of affection played a significant role in rebuilding trust and friendship between the nations towards the end of World War II.
Pridi Banomyong, as regent, sent this gold cigarette case bearing King Ananda’s cypher to President Franklin Roosevelt as World War II drew to a close.
On behalf of the young King Ananda, Rama VIII, then studying in Switzerland and for whom he was serving as regent, Pridi Banomyong sent the cigarette case to President Franklin Roosevelt, who was rarely seen without a cigarette (usually lodged in a long, slender holder).
“It was a message of peace,” US Ambassador Glyn Davies said last Wednesday as he opened the exhibition. “This is a power of gift to shape a history.”
Of course the Japanese army was occupying Siam at the time and in 1941 had coerced its prime minister into declaring war on America and the Allies. Then in 1945, two agents of the US Office of Strategic Services sneaked into the Kingdom to meet Pridi, who had established Seri Thai (the Free Thai underground resistance movement). Pridi gave the Americans the cigarette case for Roosevelt, a signal that the King sought peace.
The message was clear, but the gift remained a secret for nearly 30 years.
The United States and Thailand are this year celebrating the bicentennial of friendship, and the exhibition – continuing through June – is one of several observances planned.
It features portraits of the two countries’ heads of state, gold nielloware, garments, textiles, religious items, weaponry, basketry and musical instruments.
Davies spoke of how a single object can share many stories – about “history, diplomacy, culture, honesty and generosity”.
The items are on display, amid tight security, in two galleries of the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles at the Grand Palace. Curators Trevor Merrion and William Bradford Smith borrowed the American pieces from the Smithsonian Institution, National Archives and Library of Congress.
Phraya Suriyawong Montri’s 1818 letter formally launching relations between the two countries is on the right, next to a copy of the 1833 Treaty of Amity and Commerce.
Ceremonial correspondence and other artefacts from the first century of the nations’ friendship date back to an 1818 letter that foreign minister Phraya Suriyawong Montri (Dit Bunnag) sent to President James Monroe, conveying King Rama II’s approval of trade with the US.
“This letter was recently discovered among Monroe’s papers at the Library of Congress,” said Merrion. “It was written in Portuguese because English wasn’t understood in the Kingdom at that time.
“Dit Bunnag writes about American trader Stephen Williams arriving in Bangkok to trade for sugar and recommends that other American merchants bring muskets.”
The suggestion was eagerly taken up, with American ships reaching Bangkok throughout the 1820s. Soon enough, in 1833, a Treaty of Amity and Commerce was signed. A copy of the treaty is on view in three segments – the original was a roll more than three metres long. It contains Thai and English but, just to make sure everyone understood was the document entailed, it was also transcribed in Portuguese and Chinese.
Letters to the US presidents from King Mongkut, Viceroy Pinklao and King Chulalongkorn
Letters to two presidents from King Mongkut (in 1856), Viceroy Pinklao (1859) and King Chulalongkorn (1869) are excerpted, each bearing royal seals and, in the first and last cases, the royal signatures.
It was Abraham Lincoln whose warm phrase “great and good friends” became the title of the exhibition. He was replying to King Mongkut in 1862, thanking him for the offer of a pair of elephants – but declining on the grounds that the American climate would not “favor the multiplication of the elephant”.
President Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 letter to King Mongkut and the ceremonial robe Prince Wan Waithayakon gave the Smithsonian Institution in 1947.
Lincoln’s charming letter is shown alongside daguerreotype portraits of King Mongkut and one of his daughters. The Siamese ruler’s offer of elephants had actually been addressed to President James Buchanan – in what Merrion called “the most famous letter in the National Archives” – but by the time it arrived, Lincoln was in the White House.
King Mongkut sent this gold nielloware bowl, water pot, tray and shear to President Franklin Pierce in 1856.
King Mongkut, Rama IV, outlived or outlasted a series of presidents. Franklin Pierce was in office in 1856 when he sent an elaborate silk wrap, swords and items of gold nielloware. He’d fretted over what might be suitable for a president who, though a sovereign, was not royal.
“Gold nielloware was reserved for high-ranking noblemen, a rank seen as closer to that of the US president,” Merrion said. It should be remembered, he added, that the two countries were still striving to understand each other’s customs.
An ivory-and-silk prayer fan and an alms bowl with lacquered lid and mother-of-pear-linlaid stand were among King Chulalongkorn’s gifts to the Smithsonian Institution.
King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, continued his father’s efforts to open Siam to the West, shipping exquisite examples of nielloware and lacquereware to the World Fairs in the US from 1876 to 1915 to showcase his subjects’ craftsmanship. Many of these items were then given to the Smithsonian Institution.
The exhibition has several of these pieces, including an alms bowl with mother-of-pearl inlay and a prayer fan of ivory and silk gold thread.
King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, and Queen Rambhai Barni became the first reigning monarchs of Siam to visit the US.
When in 1931 King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, and Queen Rambhai Barni became the first reigning monarchs of Siam to visit the US, it caused a sensation. Footage is screened of their reception in New York City, where they visited the Empire State Building, newly completed as the world’s tallest building. Various photos are shown, along with a copy of Time magazine with the King on the cover.
A silver niello bowl with gold trim was a gift from King Prajadhipok to President Herbert Hoover in 1931.
He gave President Herbert Hoover a large silver niello bowl bearing his Royal Cypher and depictions of a garuda, Hanuman and Erawan.
The gold nielloware that Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit gave to President Dwight Eisenhower during their US tour in 1960 and other different presidents and first ladies are on display. Smith pointed out the more modern presentation and more typical of the 20th century, “partly thanks to the Support Foundation initiated by Queen Sirikit”.
“The exquisite gold nielloware is crafted in new forms – shaped like a bell pepper and a turtle.”
Gold nielloware give by Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit to presidents and first ladies.
Eisenhower also was given a stunning gold niello desk set and a royal decoration that no other president has received. He wore the medal and chain of the Most Illustrious Order of the Royal House of Chakri during the White House state dinner hosted for Their Majesties.
King Bhumibol made President Eisenhower a member of the Most Illustrious Order of the Royal House of Chakri and gave him a gold niello desk set, right.
That royal tour is wonderfully evoked in the exhibition, most memorably the King’s jams with famous jazz musicians and a tour of Disneyland in the company of Walt Disney himself. The cheerful boy in the photos and film footage is, of course, the future King Rama X.
Some of the traditional musical instruments King Bhumibol bestowed on the US Library of Congress.
Smith related that King Bhumibol gave 10 traditional Thai musical instruments to the Library of Congress during his visit to Washington. Five of them are in this exhibition.
Ambassador Davies pointed out one the several objects in the show that have undergone extensive conservation, a painstaking process documented in a video.
“This ceremonial robe made from netted golden threads is the one that impressed me most. It was very beautiful and unique,” he said. “Prince Wan Waithayakon, a grandson of King Mongkut, gave it to the Smithsonian Institution while he was Thailand’s ambassador to the US in 1947. It was from his personal collection. He was also the first Thai diplomat to serve as president of the United Nations General Assembly.”
Visitors can virtually explore the exhibition in 360 degrees through the Google Arts and Culture application that’s available for free download.
TOKENS OF AFFECTION
The exhibition “Great and Good Friends” continues until June 30 at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles within the Grand Palace compound.
It’s open daily from 9am to 4.30pm.
Respectable attire is required – no shorts or flip-flops.
Admission is Bt150 (Bt50 for students with ID and children 12 to 18 years old, free for younger children).
Learn more at www.GreatAndGoodFriends.com.