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Looking back to go forward

Jan 16. 2015
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By Pradit Phulsirikij
The Nation

A little-known museum in Phitsanulok offers a fascinating peek into how our rural forebears worked and lived
POTS, SOME FASHIONED from metal, others fired from clay, share kitchen space with large earthen jars and stoves in a low-ceilinged kitchen where more than a century ago, our ancestors cooked their rice, scraped vegetables from their smallholdings and, on occasion, prepared a small animal trapped for the pot. 
This modest bamboo cottage covered with thatch is just one of the scattering of buildings that make up the Sgt-Major Thawee Folk Museum in downtown Phitsanulok, a privately owned facility that looks back at the lifestyles of Thais who once ploughed the land in the Central Plains and North. Long ignored by the nation’s cultural authorities, the folk museum has recently received help from the National Discovery Museum Institute and today offers visitors much more than just a visual treat but also the sounds of the past, among them the pounding of ingredients to make a curry and an age-old lullaby used to rock a child to sleep.
Long before the digital age was even a distant dream, the Siamese people combined their strengths to carry out self-sufficient farming and home-based manual work in order to survive. How they did this is showcased through a remarkable collection of tools used by villagers for many long years that speak volumes about the villagers they once belonged to.
They include coconut graters fashioned from wood to resemble rabbits and other common shapes, trapping devices, lamps and pottery, few of them ever seen in today’s world. They come to life through touch-screen monitors that blend perfectly with the design as well as through signs that once pulled unleash a soundtrack that takes the visitor back more than 100 years.
Yet not that long ago, the museum was on its last legs, crippled by financial problems.
The Folk Museum was opened at its present site in 1990 by its namesake, Sgt-Major Dr Thawee Buranakhet. Born into a poor family in the province, Thawee started collecting as a 10-year old. Over the years, he accumulated everything from inherited Buddha amulets to pottery, kitchenware, household items, farming tools, irons, cowbells and trapping devices, buying them off villagers and second-hand vendors. He stopped, albeit briefly, when his wife pointed out that there was no longer any room in their home. Thawee concurred and promised he would contribute the items to an educational institute in Phitsanulok. The institute turned down the gift, saying it had neither the space nor the money. And so the museum was born.
In 1983, the Cultural Promotion Department – or the Office of the National Culture Commission as it was known then – recognised Thawee for his achievement in founding the museum. The honour served to make the collection better known but did little to offset his expenses though he was able to scrape up the cash to move to the new location.
Despite the constant struggle, Thawee, who is now 82, asked his children to continue the museum’s role as a treasure trove of Thai history and local wisdom. With more than 10,000 exhibits now on show, he felt it was vital to preserve this heritage for future generations.
Fortunately, the National Discovery Museum Institute stepped in, signing a memorandum of understanding with Thawee to help develop it.
Institute director Rames Promyen says the institute will support four aspects of the development, namely physical, exhibitions, marketing and promotion, and sustainable development.
In terms of physical improvement, the space will be redesigned to better match visitors’ demands. More convenient access will be provided for the elderly and the disabled and an orientation room will be created, allowing visitors to better understand the concept of the museum.
The exhibitions will be developed in such a way as to transfer cultural knowledge of local wisdom and enhance inspiration for young people through an interactive system. Visitors can learn by themselves via the technology and also acquire information through games.
The marketing and promotional campaigns will focus on spreading the word about the museum and turning into a landmark for both local and foreign visitors. 
Sustainability is seen as important too. According to Rames, the survival of folk museums requires participation from various parties in the communities and for this reason, the institute has joined with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to attract more visitors as well as major local administrative organisations including Phitsanulok Municipality and the TAT Phitsanulok Office to participate in sustaining the museum. Rames adds though that this is just a start. The institute has to monitor and evaluate the results as well as analyse strength and weakness of the museum before taking any further steps.
“It's not only growth of the museum in terms of visitor numbers that’s important, it’s how the institute can help enhance the learning process to strengthen management. Eventually, the owner will be able to move forward by himself,” he says. 
The Sgt Maj Thawee Folk Museum is from 8.30am to 4.30pm Tuesday through Sunday.
Admission is Bt50 (Bt20 for children).
For more information, call (055) 212 749 and (055) 301 668.

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