Myanmar’s National Museum Reveals Country’s Dynamic Past
October 29, 2014
Next month, Myanmar will host the ninth annual East Asia Summit, marking the conclusion of the country’s highly anticipated leadership role as 2014 ASEAN chair. Over the last three years, Myanmar has made strides in moving forward with dramatic political and economic reforms, and, says Ms. Nu Mra Zan, former director of the National Museum of Myanmar, the nation is eager to showcase its great symbols of culture, which remained largely in the shadows under the military regime.
Ms. Zan and Ms. Mie Mie Thet Nwe, deputy director of the museum, were in the San Francisco Bay Area recently as The Asia Foundation-sponsored Margaret Williams Fellows in Asian Art.
A veteran museum professional of nearly two decades, Ms. Zan is now a consultant for the Ministry of Culture and has overseen vast improvements in the National Museum of Myanmar in the last few years. The museum’s collection boasts 20,000 cultural and historical artifacts, including a spectacular gilded Lion Throne of the Myanmar kings, which stands 34 feet 6 inches high. Other treasures include elaborate court costumes dating back to the 18th century, and Buddhist sculptures from former kingdoms representing stylistic developments throughout the ages. A notable addition in their collection is a recently repatriated 11th century sandstone Buddhist statue that was looted in 1989 from a pagoda in Bagan. The statue was housed for a period at Northern Illinois University before it was returned to Yangon in 2013.
I visited the museum in Yangon last year, a five-story concrete building that represents many facets of Myanmar’s colorful heritage and dynamic past. I was impressed by the scope and breadth of what was there – everything from fossils in the Natural History showroom, to ethnographic exhibits of Myanmar’s diverse ethnic groups and contemporary art. However, much of it was displayed in an outdated fashion, poorly lit with inadequately labeled explanations. I also noted that other than a handful of local viewers, most of the visitors were tourists from abroad. The experience was reminiscent of museums I visited in China in the 1980s.
At a presentation at The Asia Foundation, Ms. Zan listed some of the improvements they were able to make, such as new LED lighting, a new ramp for the handicapped, and attractive wood panels at the entrance directing viewers to exhibits. However, the basic design of the building allows little flexibility for the exhibits, she said. There is only one room where the ceiling is high enough to house the throne, for example.
Among the many challenges, the most pressing now is conservation of artifacts and good storage facilities, Ms. Zan said. The artifacts are vulnerable to the humidity and heat in Myanmar where expertise and resources are scarce. Temperature-controlled environments can be a challenge if electricity isn’t always available, and materials such as acid-free tissues to store delicate textiles can only be obtained from abroad. A thorough assessment needs to be made for a sensible and sustainable system of conservation with the realities of local conditions in mind.
While archaeological sites such as Bagan receive the attention of foreign donors, Ms. Zan said directing them to the museums has been more difficult. The National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan, has provided professional training to museum staff in the past, including both Ms. Zan and Ms. Nwe. The Japanese also recently donated audio equipment to the National Museum.
As part of their Margaret Williams Fellowship, the two fellows participated in a professional affiliation at the Asian Art Museum and visited other Bay Area arts institutions such as the Oakland Museum of California, the Chinese Historical Society, and the African American Arts and Culture Complex. They also participated in a symposium on ethnography in Myanmar at the Center for Burmese Studies in Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. These experiences have given them invaluable new perspectives on museum management and exhibitions, they said. They will take back ideas about new ways to engage audiences, using interactive methods that do not require advanced technology or expensive resources.
Attitudes in the U.S. toward Myanmar have been mixed. The challenging reality of Myanmar’s opening-up process – from rising communal conflict and media restrictions to a fragile peace process – has generated concerns in the U.S. for the country’s continued democratic transition. Yet many Americans remain hopeful about the country’s direction and prospects for greater economic and cultural engagement with the West. Ms. Nwe visited New York twice this year to assist in the installing and dismantling of several pieces of Buddhist sculpture on loan from the National Museum of Myanmar to the Metropolitan Museum for its stunning “Lost Kingdoms” exhibit. A major exhibit of Burmese Art planned next year in New York by Asia Society will be a first of its kind in recent years to showcase Burmese art to an American audience.
Perception gaps over national policies will not disappear overnight. Yet these exhibits are opportunities for the rest of the world to beginning learning more about Myanmar’s unique culture, and for Myanmar to present another positive facet of the nation after many years of isolation.
Julia Chen is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer for the Asian American Exchange unit in San Francisco, which administers the Margaret F. Williams Fellowship in Asian Art. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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