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Emergence of modern, democratic Thailand displayed in ‘Memory of the World’ collection

Dec 09. 2017
The official ceremony granting the first constitution takes place at Ananta Samakhom Throne.
The official ceremony granting the first constitution takes place at Ananta Samakhom Throne.
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By PHATARAWADEE PHATARANAWIK
THE SUNDAY NATION

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Old Siam to modern city: Royal photo collection now Unesco ‘memory of the world’

A MASSIVE collection of century-old royal photographic glass-plate negatives and original prints recording old Siam’s transition to the modern kingdom has been designated as a “Memory of the World” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

Documentary heritage submitted by Thailand now sits among new 78 Unesco “Memory of the World” listings, including the Shakespeare documents (a documentary trail of the life of William Shakespeare, from the UK and US), Indonesia’s Borobudur conservation archives, Vietnam’s imperial archives of the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945), Myanmar’s King Bayinnaung bell inscription and China’s oracle-bone inscriptions.

“The Royal Collection holds almost 35,427 glass plate negatives and 50,000 prints, covering a long and continuous period from 1855-1935,” said Culture Minister Vira Rojpojchanarat.

The collection was previously preserved in three separate royal libraries of the original owners, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and Prince Damrongrajanubhab, King Monkut’s (King Rama IV) son.

In 1977, they were given over to the care of the National Archive in Bangkok. To date, 24,800 plates have been scanned for digital use and 4,149 plates have been included in the national database.

The massive collection portrays old Siam through to the modern Kingdom of Thailand during the reigns of King Mongkut (Rama IV) to King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).

‘Admirable work’

“This collection offers an unparalleled chronicle of a critical period in the history of modern-day Thailand and its relations with the rest of the world,” Misako Ito, communication and information advisor for Unesco Bangkok told The Nation.

“Thailand’s National Archive has done admirable work in preserving the collection using digital technology and now, with the inscription of the collection on the Memory of the World register, we take one step further in ensuring that this precious heritage is safeguarded for and appreciated by future generations.”

The Unesco website trumpets the collection for documenting the important transformations underway in Siam at a time of massive worldwide change. The collection depicts “national(ly) and international(ly) important personalities, places and events, from the age of western colonisation in Asia which prompted Siam to examine its national identity and to reform its society – through the years of the First World War, when Siam sided with the Allies and shared the victory, and the aftermath of the war including the worldwide political, social and cultural changes – affecting Siam and leading to the dawn of its constitutional monarchy.”

The rare photographs record historical events including the royal coronations of all four Kings. The historical photography includes “The King of Siam’s eclipse” on August 18, 1868. Through his calculations, King Mongkut was able to predict the solar eclipse two years before it happened. The collection shows the series of phenomena he captured in Hua Hin. The series of King Rama V’s European trips, undertaken as part of his modernisation of Siam and his opening up of the country to the outside world, are highlighted in this collection.

A century ago, King Rama VI committed Thai troops to battle halfway around the world bringing Siam to the Allied side in the to First World War and sharing the victory. 

The most important historical images cover the kingdom’s transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional democracy, which began when Rama VII agreed to a codified constitution to resolve the bloodless coup of 1932. Also included in the collection is a series of photographs of the official ceremony granting the first constitution at Ananta Samakhom Throne and images of the Brahmin ceremony at the Giant Swing at Bangkok City Hall, a tradition terminated under King Rama VII. There are also a series of pictures of Siam in pre-modern days, when it was often called “Venice of the East” in recognition of its people’s lives along the rivers and khlongs.

The royal collection is the fifth heritage archive from Thailand recognised by Unesco. 

Arts and sciences

Previous honours include the archival documents of King Chulalongkorn’s transformation of Siam (1868-1910), epigraphic archives of Wat Pho, The King Ram Khamhaeng inscription, and the “minute books” of the Council of the Siam Society – 100 years of recording international cooperation in research and the dissemination of knowledge in the arts and sciences.

The Memory of the World Register now includes a total of 427 documents and collections, coming from all continents and safeguarded on various materials from stone to celluloid and from parchment to sound recordings.

 

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