Saturday, March 28, 2020

Treasures of the highest order

Apr 19. 2019
The newly-renovated Prissadangkhabhimuk Hall displays wood-carving masterpieces such as the tall wooden door of the vihara of Wat Suthat and the round wooden raised seat for monks built in the Ayutthaya era.
The newly-renovated Prissadangkhabhimuk Hall displays wood-carving masterpieces such as the tall wooden door of the vihara of Wat Suthat and the round wooden raised seat for monks built in the Ayutthaya era.
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By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Nation Weekend

Thailand’s National Museum throws open eight more of its newly renovated and interactive halls

WITH THE opening of eight more halls early this month, the decade-long major renovation of the National Museum Bangkok’s exhibition rooms is nearing completion. To date, 12 halls have been entirely revamped and now boast an inviting interior, improved lighting and multimedia presentations that make them fun to explore. 

Four halls are slated to be fully renovated over the next three years, bringing new life to a museum long regarded as a dull and boring place.

The newly-renovated Prissadangkhabhimuk Hall displays wood-carving masterpieces such as the tall wooden door of the vihara of Wat Suthat and the round wooden raised seat for monks built in the Ayutthaya era.

The museum compound was formerly a part of Wang Na (the Front Palace) which was constructed in 1782, about the same time the Grand Palace was built. It served as the residence for five viceroys and one second King from 1782 to 1885 during the reigns of Kings Rama I to V.

“Unlike in the past where many artefacts were on show, we have reclassified and highlighted significant pieces that best represent each topic. From the more than 30,000 treasures in the collection, about half have been selected and the layout plan allows space for a 360-degree view of each piece. Multimedia techniques have been added for some exhibits and this provides more visual understanding than boards filled with text. The rotation of the artefacts will probably take place every two years,” says museum director Nitaya Kanokmongkol. 

Major improvements include the installation of new and more suitable lighting and specially designed secure glass cabinets fitted with controls to maintain correct levels of humidity and temperature. Visitors are even permitted to take photographs though, as elsewhere, flash and selfie sticks are banned.

“All the partitions that previously separated the exhibition space have been removed to reveal the beautiful and distinctive architecture of Wang Na. This includes the windows and doors decorated with lai rod nam (gold applique on black lacquer) depicting flowers and the mythical Himmapan forest as well as beehive-like crafted wood gussets of the doors that relate the characteristics of artisans of Wang Na,” Nitaya adds.

Four refurbished halls at Moo Phra Wiman – the former residential complex of the viceroys – were opened to the public last year. The Uttra Bhimuk Hall displays the clothes and costumes of the Siamese court; the Thaksina Bhimuk Hall is devoted to Thai musical instruments and art pieces related to the royal performing arts; the Burapha Bhimuk Hall exhibits armaments and in the Patchima Bhimuk Hall, the focus is on metal works. 

The upstairs room of the Wasantaphiman Hall has been remodelled to represent the residence of King Pinklao. The wooden bed is believed to have been used during the assumption of the royal residence when he was invested as the second King of King Rama IV.

At the newly renovated, two-storey Wasantaphiman Hall, the upstairs has been remodelled to represent the royal residence with furniture and household items like watches, candle holders, blown glass vessels, as well as the collection of lek lai (extremely rare metal), rhino horns and elephant tusks crafted into different deities.

The centrepiece is a royal wooden bed with an exquisite floral and bird pattern that the museum’s director assumes it was used during Chalerm Phra Raja Montien (the assumption of the royal residence) of King Pinklao, who was the viceroy of his brother King Rama IV and whose investiture raised him to kingship as the second King of Siam. 

“An important ritual during the coronation ceremony of Chakri Dynasty Kings is Chalerm Phra Raja Montien to inhabit Chakrapat Biman Royal Residence in the Grand Palace, which signifies the Monarch as the chief of the monarchy. When King Rama IV bestowed on King Pinklao an honour equal to himself, King Pinklao was believed to have performed this ritual in this hall and on this bed,” she says.

 A ranad (Thai xylophone) with a keyboard made of glass is on display next to an ancient cha khe (zither).

Part of the downstairs gallery is devoted to a collection of musical instruments used in royal serenades. Among the rare items is a ranad (Thai xylophone) whose bars are made from glass instead of the usual hardwood, an old-style cha khe (zither), and a large collection of instruments given to King Rama VII by King Manivong of Cambodia during his visit to Cambodia in 1930.

Another downstairs room, once the living area of the viceroys’ entourage, is given over to a collection of royal porcelain featuring the blue-and-white porcelain of the late Ayutthaya Kingdom and Bencharong ware from the early Rattanakosin period, both made in China for the Siamese court. 

“In addition to the popular Chinese motifs of chrysanthemums and peonies, Siamese motifs such as flame-like kanok and thep panom (a deity with hands pressed together in prayer) were painted by Chinese artisans to order. Because of the differences in cultures, the thep panom have Chinese faces while the kanok features a twisted stem. However, the Siamese designs and vivid colours of this unique Chinese porcelain make it immensely attractive,” says the museum’s director.

A multimedia presentation showing the step-by-step production of the porcelain is also provided.

An ancient set of Bencharong ware depicts the scenes from Thai literary work “Phra Aphai Manee”.

“Evidence suggests that Prince Wichaichan, who was King Rama V’s viceroy, set up a porcelain kiln at his residence. He ordered the plain white glazed porcelain from China and the painting and firing of the motif were done here. Once he passed away, the production was terminated but a member of his entourage, Phraya Sunthornphimon, later built a kiln at his house, producing porcelain with motifs mainly inspired by Thai literature like ‘Phra Aphai Manee’,” Nitaya adds.

A sapkhap khen (howdah with shields) is displayed together with its miniature and a replica of a mural that illustrates how it is used on elephant back.

The Prissadangkhabhimuk Hall houses different styles of sapkhap (howdah), the carriage placed on an elephant’s back for travelling and for battle. Different sophisticated patterns and fine craftsmanship indicate different royal ranks. 

One of the important pieces used in battle is the sapkhap khen (howdah with shields) made from wood and decorated with gold leaf on black lacquer and coloured mirror glass. Three sides of the seats are decorated with big wooden leaf-like pieces believed to act as aegis shields. Poles at the corners of the seat are designed to accommodate weapons. 

A miniature sapkhap khen with a touch screen show how the howdah is mounted on an elephant and next to it is the replica of a mural inside the Ordination Hall of Wat Bovornsatharnsuthavart, known as Wat Phra Kaew of Wang Na and now in the compound of the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute, that illustrates a battle on elephant-back.

The newly-renovated Prissadangkhabhimuk Hall displays wood-carving masterpieces such as the tall wooden door of the vihara of Wat Suthat and the round wooden raised seat for monks built in the Ayutthaya era.

The porch houses a collection of exquisite woodworks. Considered one of the finest masterpieces in the Rattanokosin era is the tall wooden door of the vihara at Wat Suthat Thep Wararam crafted in 1822 by King Rama II and his royal artisans. 

The door sustained partial damage in a 1959 fire and was brought to the National Museum Bangkok. This lacquered and gilded wooden door features bas-relief carving at different depths with flowers and animals protruding from the background, looking as if they are alive and moving. A touch screen for visitors to learn more about the motifs, the patterns and the carving technique is inviting. Thanks to the 360-degree view, visitors can see the paintings on the back of the door. 

Another highlight is the round and raised wooden monk seat used for preaching built in the Ayutthaya era in the 17th century. King Rama VII was gifted the seat by Wat Kangkao in Nonthaburi and later granted it to the museum.

In addition to its round shape, a rarity in Thai woodwork, this monk seat features ancient patterns. Gatekeepers and three-headed nagas are engraved around the base, while the top is shaped like a three-tiered roof. 

A rare collection of monk’s necessities, monk’s fans of rank and commemorative fans 

Another two-storey hall, the Brahmesthada, features a rare collection of monk’s necessities, monk’s fans that depict rank, as well as the commemorative fans for royal family members to offer to monks on the special occasions.

Downstairs is a display a collection of mother-of-pearl artefacts, among them a traditional ranad thum (low-pitched xylophone) and thon (goblet drum) dating back to early Rattanakosin era, many from the collection of Prince Paribatra Sukhumbandhu. The mother-of-pearl artwork is used as insignia denoting the rank of royalty and nobility and visitors can clearly see the lion emblem featured on different containers in the prince’s collection. 

Another multimedia presentation serves to illustrate different techniques for working mother of pearl. While Thais prefer the pasting technique, the Chinese prefer inlaying and Korean and Japanese artists use a painting technique. 

A set of mother-of-pearl containers from the collection of Prince Paribatra Sukhumbandhu

The two-storey building Prapat Pipittapan that was built during the early reign of King Rama IX is partly complete. Two rooms have opened and tell the history and the archaeology of the Ayutthaya Kingdom and Thonburi-Early Rattanakosin era. 

A gilded lacquer wooden platform believed to belong to King Taksin who established Thonburi as the new capital of Siam in 1767 is the first attraction to catch the eye followed by a reclining chair used by King Rama I on the battlefield. 

The treasures of the Ayutthaya Period

The upper floor is devoted to the Ayutthaya period and features a large collection of Buddha images, monk raised seats for preaching and dharma scripture cabinets. Rooms devoted to Lanna, Sukhothai and Rattanakosin-Bangkok collections have yet to be completed. 

“The treasures on display don’t only narrate Thai history, lifestyle, society and economy in different eras, but also the cross-cultural dynamics among countries. The lacquer technique was borrowed from Persia during the Ayutthaya era and the crafted woodwork and porcelain making originated in China. The musical instruments were similar to those of Cambodia. We hope the museum will become a living study room for many interesting topics,” says Nitaya.


The National Museum Bangkok is on Na Phrathat Road next to Thammasat University. 

Admission is Bt30 for Thais and Bt200 for foreigners. 

It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 8.30am to 4pm. 

Guided tours for groups can be booked in advance and are conducted by trained volunteer guides in English, French, German and Japanese on Wednesday and Thursday at 9.30am. Reservation can be made at

Guided tours in Thai are held every Sunday at 9.30am and 1pm.

Find out more at (02) 224 1370 and Facebook:@nationalmuseumbangkok.

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