Important to invest in cultural assets

Important to invest in cultural assets


Ethnic Shan dancers perform before a cinema billboard by artist Navin Rawanchaikul celebrating Chiang Rai's diversity. (Photo: Brian Mertens)
Ethnic Shan dancers perform before a cinema billboard by artist Navin Rawanchaikul celebrating Chiang Rai's diversity. (Photo: Brian Mertens)

Thailand's vast architectural and cultural heritage is more than just a source of enjoyment and public pride. It is probably the nation's most important resource besides its people. And heritage empowers the people. It supports social and economic welfare in lots of ways. It's worth taking care of.

Unfortunately, however, the nation's heritage conservation system is centred on a policy that is more than six decades old, from before the era of booming growth and urbanisation. It is not up to today's needs. The Act on Ancient Monuments, Antiques, Objects of Art and National Museums (1961) is a narrow law that limits protection to archaeological sites, artefacts and architecture that are very old -- usually more than 100 years.

Lots of valuable heritage is more recent. And all over Thailand, heritage is intertwined with everyday life and modern culture. Think of the old towns and shophouse neighbourhoods, waterfront communities, temples, street vending, fresh markets, vintage wooden houses, civic buildings, and industrial heritage like old train stations and warehouses.

Despite the high value of this heritage, most of it lacks any official protection or conservation funding. The agency in charge, the Ministry of Culture's Fine Arts Department, got only 2.2 billion baht in annual budget in 2023, yet it has many tasks besides conservation. It issues warnings to protect heritage assets, but other agencies often lack the capacity or will to act.

Because this system is outdated, Thailand is losing important heritage resources every year. At the same time, conservation of heritage ranks low on the national agenda.

As in many countries, it's usually not a priority for the public, the civil service, or political leaders. That leaves powerful corporations, tourism operators and institutions free to seek short-term gains that erode heritage, creating long-term losses for society.

It doesn't have to be this way. The government should develop a new, more dynamic approach, adapting global models to Thailand's context to overhaul the nation's heritage policies, laws and regulations.

Under a long-term, comprehensive plan, heritage in every town and province should be surveyed and sustained with incentives, funding and local collaboration. Thailand should create its own institution like the National Trust of Korea, English Heritage Trust, or Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

Compared to building a trillion-baht megaproject, investment in heritage assets would cost little. After all, heritage has already been built. Yet sustaining it would plant seeds of progress in every province. Examples in Thailand and around the world show that heritage contributes to education, cultural tourism, careers, community, sense of place and quality of life.

Creative roots

The creative economy is a good example. Thai architects, designers, artists, curators, musicians, dancers, filmmakers and other creative professionals continually borrow from heritage resources, using it as capital to construct something new.

Museums, old buildings and history-rich places are powerful sources of inspiration. So are Thailand's traditional arts and crafts, music, dance, festivals, literature and local food. These cultural assets were created decades or centuries ago, yet they continue to create value.

This all comes alive at the Thailand Biennale, the international exhibition of contemporary art taking place in Chiang Rai province through April 30, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture's Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. Led by a dream team of veteran Thai curators, this event features heritage in a sensitive way that puts quality and culture first, rather than commerce and tourism.

Many of the 60 artists from Thailand and 25 countries around the world created new works specific to Chiang Rai's context, working with local artisans, materials and stories. The art is spread out across the mountainous province in more than 20 sites that include museums, galleries, an old tobacco warehouse, a set of railway cars, a meditation centre, and an ancient stupa.

Community groups exhibit hundreds more artists, with open-house visits to studios. There are workshops, outdoor film screenings, street food, activities for kids, and performances of music and dance. In the best Thai way, it's a festival.

Power of diversity

To be clear, the Thailand Biennale is not a "conservation" project per se. It's experimental and temporary. It doesn't preserve threatened architecture, document oral histories, or research artefacts. This institutional kind of conservation is greatly needed in every province. But the event shows what Thailand's heritage has to offer. It celebrates the power of community, diversity, critical perspective, and respect for differing opinions.

This exploratory approach reflects the nature of "contemporary" art. These days, art is not so much about beautiful paintings and sculpture. Artists today want to open your senses and mind to all kinds of new experiences and insights on yourself and the world. At the Biennale, they work with heritage to create a kaleidoscope of fresh visions of the past.

One example is Displaced in Whose Land?, a documentary by Navin Rawanchaikul, an Indian-Thai artist from nearby Chiang Mai. In the film, he journeys around Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district chatting amiably with local people. Sharing bowls of noodles cooked from family recipes, he learns their ancestral stories of migration.

The film reveals that some communities in there have as much in common with people in Myanmar, Laos and China as with those in Bangkok. After all, people have migrated to northern Thailand from up and down the Mekong River for millennia. The curators call it "translocalism" -- a fact of life in any border province. Navin also painted a huge, Bollywood-style movie billboard vignetting the film.

Another project, The 101 Historic Lanna House Collective, proves that Thailand's vintage wooden houses can still be saved. Artist Roongroj Paimyossak has spent years helping families preserve their homes rather than sell them off as scrap teakwood. His paintings convey the beauty of these structures.

Hilltribe people often feature in tourism campaigns and philanthropic projects, but at the Biennale, they speak for themselves. Busui Ajaw, a self-taught artist of Akha ethnicity, presents expressionistic paintings on animal skin depicting ancestral spirits. In April, the Biennale will host a festival of music by hilltribe groups. Other exhibits feature Muslim artists from Thailand's Deep South.

Inclusiveness is the Biennale's top priority, says Angrit Ajcharyasophon, a Chiang Rai artist who is one of the curators. Around the world, art biennales tend to be elite, metropolitan events that take place in big museums, glittering with billionaires, celebrities and superstar artists.

Large works of art are shipped in at great expense of cash and carbon.

Local first

The Thai team chose instead to invite most of the artists to create their works on site, collaborating with local potters, embroiderers, metalsmiths, carpenters and weavers.

Taiwan's Wang Wen-Chi, for example, sourced 20,000 bamboo poles from Chiang Rai suppliers, working with local bamboo craftsmen to build a marvellous sculptural pavilion. The Thai and Taiwan artisans learned techniques from each other.

Chiang Rai's diverse communities welcomed the opportunity to explore their history and creativity. National Artist Chalermchai Kosipipat, famous for building the province's extraordinary White Temple, funded construction of a new museum that serves as the event's core site.

A local businessman donated nine million baht and six rai of land. Hundreds of volunteers helped out.

"The Chiang Rai people feel like they are the hosts of the event -- that they are the boss, not the government," Mr Angrit says. "People tell me that the curators did so much.

"But many of the projects we didn't even know about. It's like we planted a tree and watered it, and now trees and flowers are growing all around."

Future biennales will be dull if local heritage keeps disappearing.

National investment in Thailand's architectural and cultural resources will ensure that heritage continues to benefit the public for decades to come.

Brian Mertens is founding editor of this column and co-author of Architecture of Thailand. Heritage Matters is presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate conserving the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the neighbouring region. Each edition is by a different guest contributor. The views expressed are those of the author.

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