Glamour Returns to Bangkok National Museum

Glamour is back to Bangkok National Museum following decades of neglect. It makes the cultural institution a must-do attraction in any Bangkok art itinerary. 

Its birth certificate goes back to the same year than its prestigious neighbour, the Grand Palace. Originally constructed in 1782 along Sanam Luang (the Royal Field) the “Front Palace” or “Wang Na”, the structure was used as a residence for Siam Viceroys. But it is almost a century later that the palace was converted into the new Royal Museum by King Rama V. And this is finally King Rama VII who gave all the buildings within the Palace compound to display the extensive Royal art collections. Since 1934, the Museum is known as the National Museum and stands under the Fine Arts Department.

The Museum should be a pride for Thailand as it is considered as the most extensive national art collection in Southeast Asia. However, years of neglect have left the museum in a bad shape with many of items being damaged by humidity while rooms welcoming the collections were filled with dust with musty walls covered by saltpeter. Most visitors -including generations of Thai schoolkids- would remember the museum as a dusty dark place to visit.

Thailand Department of Fine Arts finally started to work on a program to give the Museum a much-need face-lift and turn it again into a pride for the Kingdom. At the end of last year, the National Museum of Bangkok finally unveiled the first part of its renovated exhibition halls. The former building welcoming the “Gallery of Thai History” has been turned into a Hall dedicated to 2,000 years of Siam art history with some of the most precious sculptures being now exhibited in a new presentation.

The renovation program for the Exhibition Hall 1 -located in the old Sivamokhaphiman Throne Hall- is part of the efforts of the current government to spruce museum collections and make them more attractive thanks to a renewed modernised museography. Entering Hall 1, visitors are immediately surrounded by figures of Thai Buddha and deities emerging under carefully mastered lighting. Visitors can then embrace Thai delicate art of sculpture over the centuries. All the styles are there, from Dvarati to Lopburi (Khmer) arts, from Lanna (Northern Thailand) to the Sriwijaya (Southern Thailand) styles, from the masterpieces of the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods to the golden bronzes of the Rattanakosin era, at the end of the 19th century.

The museum is also more visitors’ friendly: Thai and English audio guides are available for free while photography (without flashlight) is now allowed. This was not the case before.

A glimpse into the extensive collections of the National Museum, Bangkok
A glimpse into the extensive collections of the National Museum, Bangkok

Talking to the Bangkok Post, Fine Arts Department Director-General Anan Chuchote highlights the new philosophy of turning art institutions into “living museums” and active centres of education:  “I provided the policy to develop all national museums into lifetime learning centres for people of all ages and educational levels because these museums are sources of ancient artefacts and art pieces, which are a national heritage,” Anan said.

The renovated hall has been a real success as it now receives over 10,000 visitors a month, a 100% increase over the same period of last year. This encourages the department of fine arts to continue to renovate more areas.

Next to be redeveloped are Uttraphimuk, Surasinghanart and Prapasphipitthaphan Halls. The first one will be dedicated to textiles, the second shows a very large collection of Buddha not only from Thailand but also from neighbouring countries while the third will have the furniture collections being better presented. The aim is to push the National Museum into one of ASEAN must-see institution.

They are also plans to renovate and improve the National Gallery, the Royal Elephant National Museum and the Royal Barge Museum. They could follow the example set by the Museum of Siam or the Rattanakosin Exhibition which traces back the history of Bangkok. Thailand’s capital is definitely turning into a city of museums and arts.

(Source: Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office)