These archaeologists would become the instructors of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who through their teachings nurtured a longstanding passion for and commitment to the disciplines of anthropology, history, archaeology, and the arts. In 1991, on the occasion of the Princess’s 36th birthday, the scholars’ vision was realized and the HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre was founded. In 1992, the government formally approved the project and issued a decree to establish the SAC as an official government agency under the supervision of Silpakorn University. Originally, the SAC's institutional status was equivalent to that of a university department or faculty.
In the early phases of development, thematic approaches were adopted that are still evident in the SAC’s work today. Reacting to post-Cold War localism movements that emphasized local community strength and self-sufficiency as counterweights to uneven development and globalization, the SAC initiated its first collaborations with local museums across Thailand. SAC researchers sought to situate the SAC as a space for local museum practitioners and community members to come together to exchange experiences and build partnerships. This period also marked the beginning of the SAC’s robust audiovisual documentation tradition; SAC scholars encouraged the use of cameras to record and preserve ritual practices, festivals, and other cultural expressions.
In the early 1990s, as part of a larger trend of decentralization and government reform in Thailand, many organizations that were formerly administered by universities were choosing to become independent in order to increase funding and overall efficiency. As such, in 1995, the SAC became an autonomous organization for a trial period of five years. During this time, the organization moved into its current space in Taling Chan, and continued to develop and expand its role in data collection and management, research, and public education. The SAC’s 1997 partnership with the Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO) and the resulting publication of the bilingual French/English journal Aséanie embodied not only these institutional advances but also the early desire for the SAC to become part of a larger humanities and social sciences network.
On March 9, 1999, HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn graciously presided over the formal opening of the SAC. Due to its success throughout the five-year trial period in functioning and thriving as an autonomous organization, the SAC served as a model for the drafting of the Autonomous Public Organization Act of 1999, which endeavors to establish a more independent system for government agencies in Thailand. In November 2000, the SAC became the sixth organization in the country to be approved as a public organization under the supervision of the Ministry of University Affairs. When the Ministry of Culture was reestablished with the 2002 Restructuring of Government Agencies Act, the SAC was moved to the Ministry of Culture.
The early 2000s saw the strengthening of the SAC’s database and museum projects as staff engaged with the technical aspects of digital resource design and initiated the digital databases on ancient inscriptions, ethnic groups, and community-based museums. The collection and consolidation of knowledge on specific issues via databases led to new findings. For example, the Ethnic Groups in Thailand database helped to clarify of some of the existing misunderstandings on ethnonyms and ethnic classification. This work on ethnic identity also led to policy changes at the national level, including the recent Cabinet resolution to safeguard the livelihoods of the Karen and Chao Lay people. Such research developments were shared with the larger academic community through annual anthropology conferences, seminars, and publications, and these activities and materials epitomize the SAC’s success in creating dynamic spaces for scholarly exchange.
Furthermore, this period brought the reinvigoration of an organization-wide emphasis on participatory, community-based projects that empower community members as decision-makers in issues of self-representation, cultural heritage protection, and knowledge and resource sharing. Finally, recognizing the potential of international collaboration in enhancing the SAC’s work and profile, staff pioneered cooperation with various international organizations. The SAC’s affiliation with IWF Gottingen, a German film institute, effected the repatriation to Thailand of a collection of films made between 1965 and 1967 about Thai hill tribe communities. Additionally, from 2003 until 2007, the SAC partnered with the Smithsonian Institute and participated in the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC.
In 2010, the SAC undertook a process of self-evaluation in order to update the organization’s mission and vision and to determine strategic objectives to guide the wide range of projects. As a result, the SAC now has a clearer mission statement centered on promoting humanism and the development of tolerance and mutual understanding in a multicultural society. Today, the SAC continues to assess its role and objectives as staff grapple with a host of interconnected issues, including cultural survival in the age of ASEAN, digital content control and access for source communities, and the embrace of a more critical approach to heritage management.