By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Sunday Nation
WHEN THE Fine Arts Department started its programme of renovations to the National Museum Bangkok back in 2014, the hope was that visitor numbers would increase, thus generating income for an institute that has been haemorrhaging cash money for decades.
The gamble has paid off, with museum director Nitaya Kanokmongkol reporting that the numbers have more than doubled and revenue from admission fees has increased fivefold, from Bt20,000 a day to more than Bt100,000.
The first fully renovated hall in the complex, Siwamokkhaphiman, re-opened two years ago with an entirely revamped interior, greatly improved lighting, and shorn of its walls and other obstacles to exploration.
The National Museum Bangkok recently opened four newly refurbished halls with a new display design and improved lighting that makes the facility more inviting.
Four halls in Moo Phra Wiman – a former residential complex of the viceroys – followed, opening this year just in time for the unprecedented interest in Thai history and traditional costumes generated by the royal-initiated, yesteryear-themed festival “Oon Ai Rak Klay Kwam Nao” and the hit period TV series “Buppesannivas” (“Love Destiny”).
“Today the museum attracts more than 300 Thai visitors and 500 foreigners a day, which is so much better than our previous record of 300, all nationalities combined,” Nitaya enthuses.
The museum was formerly Wang Na (the Front Palace) and constructed in 1782, about the same time the Grand Palace was built. It served as the residence for five viceroys during the reigns of Kings Rama I to V.
Work is continuing on Moo Phra Wiman’s other 12 halls and the aim is to complete the project within the next two years.
The Patchima Bhimuk Hall is home to exquisite metal works arranged according to technique employed.
“We previously put a lot of artefacts on show, but now we have reclassified and highlighted significant pieces that best represent each topic. The layout plan has also been reviewed and now 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,” adds the director.
Another noticeable improvement is 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. These days, visitors are even permitted to take photographs though, as elsewhere, flash and selfie sticks are banned.
The Uttra Bhimuk Hall displays exquisite clothes and costumes from the Siamese court.
Among the recently renovated four halls at Moo Phra Wiman, the most popular with Thai visitors is the Uttra Bhimuk Hall, which is home to a display of the clothes and costumes of the Siamese court. The “Oon Ai Rak Klay Kwam Nao” and the TV series “Buppesannivas” might have already ended but some visitors still turn up to the museum in Thai traditional costume and spend hours marvelling at the truly magnificent display of rare, intricately embellished costumes once worn by members of the royal family and noblemen.
The exhibition is enhanced by a video presentation on the dressing style and the making of textiles in the Siamese court as well as the traditional ways in which the costumes were laundered.
Prince Asdang Dejavudh’s khrui krong thong (translucent gown) made from mesh fabric embroidered with silver and gold threads, and somrot krong thong – gold lace netting worn as a sash.
“The works are reclassified according to category such as pha sompak – a kind of lower garment worn by noblemen to distinguish their rank, pha lai yang – printed cotton fabric worn as a lower garment, and pha krong thong – gold lace netting used as a translucent shawl by noble ladies. We also display pha yia rabap, an Indian silk fabric with gold stripes and brocade and pha sapak - a noble lady’s shawl made of silk and woven gold cloth embroidered with green beetle wings and crystal beads,” says Nitaya.
The richly embroidered piece at the centre is the costume of King Mongkut embroidered with oak leaves and fruit in flat metallic gold thread.
The highlight is the richly embroidered costume of King Mongkut embroidered with oak leaves and fruit in flat metallic gold thread. It dates back to 1859 and is believed to have been tailored and embroidered in Europe.
The pattern of the crown on the collar as well as the oak leaf design on the facing and back are similar to several textiles given to the King by the French government as a gesture of friendship. The embroidery technique is complicated and tight and the metallic gold thread is oxidised, so it turns black with time. The inner translucent cloth, however, is embroidered with a pikul flower (bullet wood) pattern thought to be the work of Thai artisans.
The royal garments were pricey and elaborate, as they were made of imported textiles from China, India, Cambodia and Persia and required skilled royal artisans to weave the already elaborate cloth with gold-thread or with a printed design that used the gold line technique known as pha khien thong.
Long-sleeved collar shirt made from yia rabap silk fabric brocaded with gold threads.
The embroidered clothes on display were widely favoured by members of the Siamese court, particularly the high-ranking ladies of honour. Silk and high-quality cotton were the most popular fabrics and often woven with coloured silk stripes or other materials such as gold or silver-wrapped thread, pearls, glass beads, crystal and jewelled beetles. Embroidery usually took the form of flowers and branches as well as classical Thai patterns.
The complete set of musical instruments played in a wong piphat khrueng yai (Thai classical orchestra)
Thai musical instruments and art pieces related to the royal performing arts are presented in the Thaksina Bhimuk Hall. Here visitors can see the complete sets of mother-of-pearl inlaid instruments of the 22-piece wong mahori khrueng yai (Thai grand orchestra) and the 12-piece wong piphat khrueng yai (Thai classical orchestra) arranged according to the positions of musicians. A video clip of the grand orchestra performing is also presented.
“The wong piphat khrueng yai of the Fine Arts Department performed during the Royal Cremation Ceremony of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol late last year and this has drawn interest in learning more about the set of woodwind and percussion instruments of the traditional orchestra,” Nitaya says.
A rare collection of intricate, small hun lek or hun wang na (the royal puppet of the Front Palace) can be seen at the Thaksina Bhimuk Hall.
Another highlight is the hun lek or hun wang na (the royal puppet of the Front Palace), which were introduced by Krom Phra Ratchawang Bowon Wichaichan (the viceroy in the reign of King Rama V). The puppets in intricate costumes were similar to the hun yai or hun luang (royal puppet) figures, with full arms and legs, a wooden tube and control rods but smaller in size – about 30-centimetres high each compared to the 85-110 cm of their larger cousins.
Hun yai or hun luang (royal puppet) figures
Also on display is a collection of khon masks and sian khru (teachers’ heads) of Hindu deities such as Brahma, Indra, Isavara, and Ganesh as well as elaborate and intricate accessories specially made in Europe on the order of King Rama VI and used in the royal khon. Here too, understanding is helped by the screening of a khon performance.
A rare collection of weaponry dating back to the Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin periods is on view at the Burapha Bhimuk Hall.
Armaments find their home in the Burapha Bhimuk Hall. Among the collections is the weaponry crafted for monarchs and noblemen including the Vishnu spear with bamboo shaft and decorated with gold damascene, and a caplock firearm with metal wrapped buttstock and gold damascene trigger set engraved with the name of Prince Vishnunat Nipathon – a son of King Rama IV.
Tamra pichai songkram (the military treatise on war strategy) is displayed, with a touch screen illustrating each page of the treatise.
The tamra pichai songkram (the military treatise on war strategy), the 82-page royal edition written in 1815 during the reign of King Rama II, is securely displayed in a glass cabinet but can be brought to life thanks to a touch screen, which shows each page of the treatise. This reflects the beliefs and rituals of warfare, different troop formations for mobilisation and for battle and campground plans.
The next glass cabinet further illustrates the orders in the treatise through tiny soldier figures marching in khrutphayuha benchasena (garuda formation with five types of soldiers).
The display of the battle formation in garuda form with five types of soldiers as illustrated in the military treatise.
The last stop for the visitor is the Patchima Bhimuk Hall, home to exquisite metal works arranged according to technique employed and including Buddha images in hum plaeng (gold-pleat wrapping), krum household items such as scissors and hand-held betel nut grinders etched in cross-furrows and inlaid with gold and silver, and a collection of water kettles and caskets made using the thom pad (painted enamel on copper) technique popular with Chinese artisans.
Hand-held betel nut grinders and scissors inlaid with gold and silver – a technique influenced by Persian artisans
Another six halls are slated to open in October and will display rare collections of ceramics, mother-of-pearl inlay, Buddhist monk utensils and royal transportation.
Among the project in the works is a virtual museum tour, audio guides in different languages and QR codes for smartphones to access further information, along 3D visualisations for some significant pieces.
Copper kettles in thom pad technique (painted enamel on copper) influenced by Chinese artisans
“The museum has to adapt and become a living museum, not a boring place, for people of all ages and to meet the rapid changes in people’s lifestyles,” Nitaya says.
THE PAST BROUGHT TO LIFE
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 9am 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, and on Sunday at 10am and 1.30pm.
Find out more at (02) 224 1333 and the “National Museum Bangkok” page on Facebook.