Keeping the Legacy

Piyavara Teekara recalls the years of hard work behind Thailand's new mecca of textiles

The objects are invaluable - in several cases, irreplaceable - ancient textiles, most of them the royal attire of kings and queens, princes and princesses, with the exquisite costumes made by world-renowned couturiers and respected local designers for HM Queen Sirikit forming the largest portion of the collection.

MAIN PHOTO: YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK

The setting is no less majestic. Home to several finance-related state agencies including the Ministry of Finance, the 1870 Ratsadakorn-bhibhathana building is located in the compound of the Grand Palace. It has been remodelled and installed with state-of-the-art facilities to ensure the best condition for all the precious textiles.

Ancient architecture merged with modern conservatory innovation, and the latest technology incorporated to restore and preserve the lives of ageing textile oeuvres - such is the professional context for the archaeological and curatorial novice Piyavara Teekara. Right after her graduation from Silpakorn University, Piyavara took a scholarship that would entwine her fate with the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles - the latest spin-off from the Support Foundation, for which her mother Thanpuying Charungjit Teekara acts as assistant to the secretary-general.

"Everything is difficult since we're all first-timers," said the 29-year-old head officer at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles of her and her team's responsibilities in establishing and running this new centre of fabrics.

"We know there'll be a lot of expectations and we are young. Running a museum is delicate work and it's not easy to find the right person for the job."

And no, Piyavara wasn't discovered for the job. She had gone through years of grooming before taking up the responsibilities. The young archaeology graduate started by working alongside the late Smitthi Siribhadra during the initial set-up. While Smitthi laid the structural foundation for the museum - allocating spatial use and administrative structures - Piyavara jumped into the hands-on curatorial aspect by working closely with the court in researching the objects in the collection, before travelling to the US to complete an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and finish a degree in Visual Culture: Costume Study.

"The internship was about collection management and it was very hands-on, starting from labelling the objects so you know how to track them, to storing the objects including studying about what material and container you use in storing each particular object. I even brought back samples of these materials. Also, it was about how to handle different types of clothes - how it should be mounted and displayed to best preserve its condition, which piece should be hung in storage and that some pieces, like those with heavy embroidery, should be laid flat."

Unlike in many private textiles collections, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles is designed to become more than just a warehouse and display space for ancient fabrics. Behind the facade of four gigantic exhibition rooms that house creations selected for public display, a museum shop offering goodies from the Support Foundation and basic amenities like a conference room and reception area lies a massive facility dedicated entirely to the conservation work with specially trained conservators and registrars in charge of professionally labelling, registering, restoring and storing every single object arriving in the museum's vast collection.

"Each object that arrives at the museum needs to be labelled and frozen in a freezer to disinfect it. It will be inspected for a condition report. It will be stored in an acid-free container and kept in climate-controlled storage.

"The conservators play an important role in the museum since they work closely with the textiles. They will offer us advice as to the maximum duration each particular piece can be exhibited for, and the restoration possibility - and impossibility - of some pieces curators may want for exhibition."

This explains why here at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, curators and conservators work hand in hand. They take feedback from one another and with the conservators constantly helping to monitor the condition of the stored objects, curators are able to plan ahead of time. According to Piyavara, they solve the problem of limited exhibition time for the delicate textiles by rotating objects with some of the most fragile pieces going on display for a short time before being removed and then replaced by another item. The strategy also allows the museum to encourage visitors to pay a second visit, since they will get to discover different items.

"We have to plan five years ahead because each exhibition requires a lot of researching while at the same time, we have to inspect the condition of everything we want to exhibit, and restore or repair it when need be," said Piyavara.

"At the moment when we're running the current exhibition, we are working on the next one. It's always an ongoing process."

While visitors to the museum will only get to see a portion of its gigantic collection and admire the beauty of Her Majesty's attire, Piyavara insists that the centre aspires to being much more than just a storage and display space. Like Her Majesty the Queen's long, enduring hard work that provides the basis for the Support Foundation, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles is something more sustainable - a place that will cherish and preserve the cultural legacy of the nation through this one of the Four Requisites - clothing.

"Clothing isn't like an art form. It's a life requisite so it's closely related to our daily life. I want people to come here and learn about the origin of our costume culture.

"I'd like to see the museum being the centre for knowledge exchange not just among Thais, but between countries in Southeast Asia and around the world."

Apart from an exhibition area, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles is also a centre for textiles conservation with a state-ofthe- art conservation laboratory, where arriving items will be inspected, disinfected and labelled before being transferred to the climate-controlled storage room.

The museum shop is a place to enjoy the large variety of goodies from the Support Foundation.

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