Saturday was yet another day at the museum for me. This time I visited the Museum of Siam, which opened early this year (April, I think). Located near the flower market of all flower markets (I forgot the name), the museum occupies the former building of the Ministry of Commerce. A section of the museum tells the story of the restoration and renovation of the building, which is definitely fitting because the 90-year old building itself bears a great deal of history.
The vision of the Museum of Siam is to serve as a learning space on the history and culture of Thailand. One thing that was underscored all throughout is "play-learning", thus inviting the visitors to interact with the displays (and taking of pictures is allowed all over). Large touch-screen LCDs entice visitors to play games. Small cupboards open to sound installations. One can simulate being a newscaster when people still had black and white TVs. One of the biggest hit, I noticed, among the displays is a re-creation of a 1960s Bangkok cafe, which back then was patterned after American diners. Here the visitors can re-live the old days as they sit inside the diner with American fried rice on the table.
Indeed, it is very heartening to see kids running all over the museum like it was their play ground. It seems that the idea of the place is to focus less on bombarding visitors with a deluge of information, rather, it introduces people to the history of Thailand in manageable chunks as well as piquing their interest to learn more. In effect, a visit to the museum is breezy and fun.
For me, the most commendable aspect of the Museum of Siam is how it challenges the long-established historical narrative that has been rammed into the throats of many generations of Thais. For instance, it asserts in one section that Thailand is not an ethnically homogeneous country of ethnic Tais, but it also encompasses other ethnicities, such as the Hmongs, Khmers, Malays, etc. Another section of the exhibit drives this point further by citing how after the 1930s a big wave racialist propaganda went mainstream and also leading to Siam being renamed as Thailand.
Similar patterns of establishing national identity - through the delineation of borders, the shift from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, and the evolution of Bangkok into a "modern" metropolis - were likewise interpreted in a more muti-faceted (and refreshingly critical) manner rather than subsrcibing to the widely-held national narrative. Rightly so, the exhibit's ends with a room that asks: what is Thailand tomorrow? A big blank wall runs through this room and visitors can "write" their answers on the wall through a touch-screen monitor.
The museum certainly appeals more to children, and yesterday there were lots of them around, learning about their history and culture in the most fun way possible. For once, I did was not tempted to break any of those creature's necks.