On a recent trip to Bangkok I explored two museums that presented two contrasting representations of the city’s urban and cultural history.
The first was the relatively well known Jim Thompson House in the Pathum Wan district, close to the MBK shopping centre. Thompson, born in Delaware, USA, was an intriguing character; trained architect, OSS operative and business entrepreneur, he famously revived the Thai silk industry in the 1950s after having worked on the restoration of the historic Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. He also had a good eye for quality Asian antiques and art and in 1958 decided to construct a suitable home for himself and his substantial collection.
Sited along one of Bangkok’s numerous klongs or canals, the large house is actually a fusion of six individual structures that were sourced from surrounding areas, including the former ancient capital city of Ayutthaya. The traditional timber buildings were dismantled, shipped by river to the site and reassembled according to plans drawn up by Thompson and his Thai architect. The oldest part of the house, used as the living room, was part of a silk weavers home dating from the early 19th century. In spite of the considerable age of the architectural components utilised, they were generally in excellent condition due mainly to the pest resistant nature and durability of the teak hardwood.
The distinctive Thai architectural and decorative elements of the house, raised above ground level on timber pylons, were, even by the 1950s, becoming a rare sight in Bangkok’s rapidly developing urban environment. If any other wealthy foreigner had built the house it would probably have been cynically passed off as a fanciful indulgence, but Thompson’s obvious passion for Thailand and its culture ensured that his efforts were always seen as a genuine attempt to preserve part of the country’s disappearing built heritage. Considering himself simply a temporary custodian, he always intended to bequeath the house and its valuable cultural contents to the people of Thailand on his death, an event that was to transpire perhaps sooner than he expected.
Thompson mysteriously disappeared in March, 1967. He was visiting friends in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, when he failed to return from a solo walk in the surrounding hills, triggering an extensive but ultimately futile search and numerous subsequent conspiracy theories. As per his wishes the house was placed in the care of the James H.W. Thompson Foundation under the royal patronage of H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and registered as a national museum.
Perhaps because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Thompsons disappearance the house is treated as a kind of sacred space with every item apparently left as it was at the time of the owner’s final departure. It is a beautiful space filled with stunning artefacts but one in which movement and access is strictly controlled (via regularly timed tour groups), photography is banned and touching is out of the question. This is of course understandable when you have dozens of priceless cultural items on display in an unconventional space but it results in an atmosphere that is more akin to a temple or palace visit than a tour of an intriguing ex-pat’s unique home.
*main image courtesy Wikipedia
The following day I visited a small urban museum located in the Bang Rak district.
The Bangkok Folk Museum (also known as the Bangkokian Museum) comprises three buildings sited on a large block of land. Stepping inside the property from the quiet suburban street, one is presented with a two-storey domestic dwelling surrounded by a lush tropical garden. Constructed in 1937 for the Suravadee family, the house represents a fusion of Thai and Western architectural elements. High ceilings, covered verandas and walls punctuated with large shuttered apertures enable maximum ventilation and cooling for comfortable living in the tropical climate. At the same time the space is divided into separate living, dining and sleeping areas that many foreign visitors would find familiar.
This Westernisation of the local architectural vernacular reflects the increasing exposure and influence of the Western lifestyle on the rapidly emerging urban middle classes of Thailand during the pre-war years. As you wander through the house it is evident that the wealthy Suravadee family enjoyed all the modern conveniences of the time and beyond, from indoor flush toilets to a television and refrigerator. The multitude of decorative and sentimental items are a mix of Thai and foreign origin, again indicating the increasing cosmopolitan nature of the privileged classes. A collection of early 20th century European porcelain mingles with Chinese ceramics in the dining room, whilst an upstairs room displays ancestral relics including a traditional Thai Benjarong jar from the King Rama V era (1858 – 1910). Scattered amongst these valuable items are numerous more mundane yet often charming period objects such as a manual clothes press, sewing machine and porcelain washing bowls, all genuine domestic articles used by the family.
Wandering through the house gives one a real sense of modern domestic life in early to mid-20th century Bangkok, albeit from the perspective of a relatively well to do family. And this is precisely what former university professor Waraporn Suravadee intended when she opened the museum in 2004. After having inherited the property from her mother, Ms Suravadee decided that she wanted to preserve her family’s legacy through both its built and material heritage. In addition to the main house a more traditional teak structure at the rear of the property was originally constructed in the Sathorn District in 1929 as a home and clinic for Dr Francis Christian, Ms Suravadee’s stepfather. Dr Christian unfortunately died before he could move into the house and it was eventually dismantled and rebuilt at the present site as part of the museum. Preserved in memory of the doctor, it contains many of his personal effects and contemporary medical instruments. A third timber building displays a collection of traditional kitchen and cooking implements on the ground floor whilst the second storey houses the Bang Rak District museum.
*main image courtesy Wikipedia
Both museums attempt to preserve a part Thailand’s built, urban heritage from two different perspectives.
The Jim Thompson House was an attempt by a foreigner, passionate about Thailand’s ancient culture, to preserve a traditional architectural vernacular (stretching back centuries) that was rapidly being replaced by more modern, predominately Western, built forms.
With the founding of the Bangkok Folk Museum, a member of a local Thai family endeavoured to preserve a relatively brief (and relatively recent) moment in urban Bangkok’s history via her domestic built heritage.
Both museums contribute, in my opinion, equally important historical narratives to the urban history of Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, and both are well worth a visit whenever you find yourself in the city.