Fine Arts must up its game

Fine Arts must up its game

Two days after the Fine Arts Department tried to distance itself from controversial environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports on the construction of a high-speed train station in Ayutthaya -- a stone's throw away from the province's historical park that is a Unesco World Heritage site -- the agency suddenly made a U-turn.

On June 1, Fine Arts Department chief Prateep Pengtako said his agency had nothing to do with the EIA reports. He said the department's officials are not on the panel of experts and were never invited to attend any of the meetings.

This statement raised some eyebrows. The department had, after all, had to answer questions by Paris-based Unesco in its Sept 7 letter about the possible impact of the project on the heritage site.

However, on June 3, Mr Prateep corrected his statement, saying the agency did indeed have reservations about the station's construction as the structure's sheer size, at 45 metres in height, was too high.

He said the department also recommended a redesign of the station so it could be downscaled and made more harmonious with the heritage setting.

"There have been consultations between the department and project operator all along," he added.

The swift change in stance, though baffling, eased public anxiety. If not, the department may have found itself in some trouble, perhaps being accused of dereliction of duty.

The Fine Arts Department is expected to be more proactive in matters relating to conservation. The agency's modus operandi leaves numerous loopholes in conservation work and, in many cases, by the time it takes action, it's too late.

Take for instance, the threat against old railway stations from the double-track extensions of the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). Several buildings, mostly one-storey structures in vanilla-maroon paint, are more than a century old. Several have high aesthetic value and are regarded as being national heritage buildings.

Scholars and conservationists kicked off a conservation campaign for those buildings in 2018, asking the SRT to remove the structures and transform them into museums or local learning centres. If the SRT did not want to have a hand in the conservation work, the scholars asked for a chance for local groups to do it.

As the campaign went on, the Fine Arts Department was timid and shied away from any effort, saying it was none of its business. A typical excuse from the agency was that it had no power over unregistered buildings. At the same time, the agency's criteria for historical building registration is too narrow.

Fortunately, the SRT has learned its lessons after losing a few stations. The state enterprise, with the help of local groups, saved several stations from demolition. This mission went on without support from the Fine Arts Department.

With budget and manpower constraints, the Fine Arts Department could consider working with professional organisations like the Association of Siamese Architects, which each year comes up with a list of buildings worth preserving.

At the same time, the department should be more open to public participation. For instance, it should revise the conservation law in order that people can initiate the registration of buildings that deserve conservation by launching a sign-up campaign.

Some local groups are wealthy enough to take care of heritage but support or cooperation from the Fine Arts Department would be helpful.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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