Home News


  Print EMAIL help
Summary Report on the 2012 ICH and Museums Field School Alumni Seminar

The Field School Alumni Seminar 2012
August 6-10, 2012
Lamphun, Thailand

Screen shot 2012-09-11 at 11.07.43 AM

From the 6th to the 10th of August 2012, the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Center (SAC) and the International Research Centre on Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region (IRCI) co-hosted the International Field School Alumni Seminar on Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific in Lamphun, Thailand. The seminar brought together alumni and resource persons to share their experiences on safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH) via home institutions, as well as the impacts of lessons from previous Field Schools on these efforts. Engaging in research presentations, lively discussions, and site visits, participants grappled with issues that are at the core of safeguarding debates, and collaborated on illuminating and understanding the complexities of ICH management.

Dr. Christina Kreps, a resource person from the University of Denver, compared the Field School to a stone thrown into the water, stating that the projects and ideas introduced by alumni are like the ripples radiating out from the stone, diverging, flowing into one another, and reaching new shores. The presentations covered a wide range of topics, from an ethnography of Mawlid, a religious festival celebrated by Hui Muslims in China, to an analysis of the appropriation of the Northern Thai yok dok floral motif by the luxury goods manufacturer Bulgari. Despite this vast scope, common themes and questions united distinct topics and created space for comparison and exchange.

The opening presentation was given by Tim Curtis, the Head of the Culture Unit at UNESCO-Bangkok, who detailed UNESCO’s capacity-building efforts with regard to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Curtis emphasized UNESCO’s desire to minimize many entities’ singular focus on listing in favor of promoting a deeper understanding of ICH and the purposes of the Convention. This approach provided an appropriate foundation for the rest of the seminar, as participants shared case studies that were full of rich ethnographic detail and avoided the totalizing categorizations that ICH inventory lists can unintentionally engender.

Many alumni presented projects that took place in or were facilitated by local museums. Qiu Wei, from the Yunnan Provincial Museum in Yunnan, China, shared the case of the Nuodeng Family Ecomuseum in Dali Prefecture, where one family has preserved a collection of artifacts typifying Nuodeng Village’s historic importance as a center for salt-making. Ms. Wei described the museum’s growth process and the challenges the community faced in combining family museum ownership with pursuit of profit. While the local community that surrounds the Nuodeng Family Ecomuseum appears to be involved and engaged in museum activities, a community of Cho-ro people in Southeast Vietnam feels alienated by the local museum that seeks to display their culture. Dr. Nhan Lam, from the Faculty of Viet Nam Minorities Ethnic Culture, has been working with this Cho-ro community for about five years, and expressed his concerns about the museum’s failure to successfully include community members, stating that there are frequent misunderstandings due to language barriers. These two cases highlighted the essentiality of community participation and acknowledgement of ownership in establishing thriving museums and safeguarding projects. Qiu asserted, “At the Field School in 2011, one of the most important things I learned was about respecting local people and discussing with them when important decisions needed to be made. I realized that local people play the key role in community development.”

Resource person Dr. Peter Davis, from Newcastle University, elaborated on the importance of participatory methodology in museum development through the example of the Flodden Ecomuseum. This ecomuseum serves to commemorate and interpret the Battle of Flodden Field, which was fought in 1513 between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland and is still vividly remembered for its brutality. Cross-border collaboration was necessary in planning and implementing the Flodden Ecomuseum, and the sites have become powerful forces in fostering community pride and awareness of local tangible and intangible cultural heritage. What can heritage practitioners do to promote ICH knowledge, however, if creating a physical museum isn’t possible? Field School alumnus and archaeologist Montri Thanaphatarapornchai turned to the Internet, working with villagers from Ban Marum in Northeast Thailand to launch a virtual museum and social media platforms on traditional salt-making techniques and local knowledge and stories. Mr. Thanaphatarapornchai hopes to enlist the help of interested local students in maintaining these digital resources, yet the question of access for older community members who contributed to the project but lack computers remains unsolved. As the director of a local museum in Mahasarakham, Thailand, Santhipharp Khamsa-ard recognizes the rich cultural heritage of his region, and like Mr. Thanaphatarapornchai, he struggles to make resources from small temple- and school-based museums more accessible. Mr. Khamsa-ard presented on his efforts at developing management strategies for these museums and also featured case studies of flourishing museums, such as Wat Chaisri in Khon Kaen. Throughout the presentations, resource persons and alumni discussed the significance of recognizing context, which entails an appreciation for the diverse circumstances that surround and influence each case study. Participants agreed that these circumstances render a standardized method of safeguarding useless, and even dangerous.

Other Field School alumni explored aspects of ICH that are expressed through festivals and traditions. Linina Phuttitarn investigated the transmission and changing meanings of the Salak Yorn festival, which is celebrated by the Yong ethnic minority group in Lamphun, Thailand. Though historically the festival commemorated a young woman’s coming of age and marriageability, in modern times it has become a means for families and communities to come together and make merit. This shift is partly due to the repression of Salak Yorn during Phibun’s “civilizing” campaign. Mawlid, a festival marking the birthday of Islamic prophet Muhammad that is observed by Hui Muslims in China, also underwent revitalization after a period of prohibition during the Cultural Revolution. Zhang Xiaoyan from the Anthropology Museum of Yunnan University has been working with the Hui community to document Mawlid and to analyze contemporary changes to the celebration. Both Salak Yorn and Mawlid are still robust, lived practices that have been shaped by larger histories and preserved by local communities.

If cultural traditions continue to thrive, what should be the role of the heritage practitioner? Through his beautiful ethnography of the Kharphu festival, Karma Rigzin, from the Institute of Language and Cultural Studies in Bhutan, demonstrated that while documentation is a valuable, evocative tool, further intervention is not always necessary. The biennial Kharpu festival serves to thank the deities that watch over villages and the local environment. People from Tsamang in Bhutan feel connected to and by this tradition, and thus Kharpu should continue to be practiced organically with minimal interference from outside. Ngawang, also from the Institute of Language and Cultural Studies, shared another case from Bhutan, describing his efforts at assessing the status of ICH in the Yangthang community. Ngawang found that the number of participants in harvest rituals was declining due to economic migration, and he hopes to continue his documentation of ICH there so that audio-visual materials and school curricula can be developed as safeguarding mechanisms.

Some presentations raised challenging questions about the nature of authenticity and ownership in the context of museum exhibitions, tourism, and music returns. Dr. Shota Fukuoka, a resource person from Minpaku, has worked for years on safeguarding various performing arts of Southeast Asia, including sbaek thomm puppetry in Cambodia and wayang kulit puppetry in Java. When Dr. Fukuoka wanted to make a video of one scene from a wayang kulit performance to display at Minpaku, the performers refused, stating that the scene would be decontextualized and disconnected from the larger story. This desire for “true” or “real” culture is held by practitioners, tourists, and culture bearers alike, but moments in which these lived realities are manifested are slippery and oftentimes unexpected. A keen interest in the relevance of “space” and “time” to such “authentic” displays of ICH was conveyed by alumnus Dr. Jaturong Pokharatsiri, from the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Thammasat University. Dr. Pokharatsiri touched on issues of tourism gentrification at two markets in Thailand, Amphawa and Damnoen Saduak. Many local inhabitants at these markets feel disempowered and excluded, and Dr. Pokharatsiri seeks to prevent this from happening at other heritage sites by developing a framework of variables that focuses on local social values. Navigating similar situations in her work at Smithsonian Folkways, Resource person Dr. Sita Reddy confronts notions of ownership and access rights as she engages with musicians and communities in order to achieve restitution for musicians. In addition to responding to artists’ individual claims, Folkways is committed to actively working towards redistributive justice and indigenous self-determination via a unified policy for ICH returns.

When ICH becomes threatened, how can practitioners get involved? Several alumni tackled this question by using techniques from past Field Schools. Aphantri Seetheetham collaborated with community members from Bangkok’s Chinatown to identify ICH elements that are endangered by the construction of the Blue Line Underground Train. Vu Phuong Nga from the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology summarized her museum’s audio-visual ICH safeguarding projects and emphasized her goal of bringing these materials back to the featured communities. Resource persons also presented their safeguarding endeavors; Dr. Michelle Stefano of Maryland Traditions stressed the role of public folklorists in preserving, celebrating, and promoting living traditions, such as those of the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland. Seminar participants learned about a more top-down safeguarding approach from Shigeyuki Miyata, who explained the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties’ safeguarding system, which provides government subsidies to preservation groups as well as individual culture holders so that they can continue to practice and transmit their ICH.

On the last day of the seminar, alumni had the chance to revisit the four communities that they worked with during previous Field Schools. At Wat Ton Kaew, the abbot was concerned about the decrease in capable weavers, but reported that the brochure from the 2010 Field School has helped spread awareness of the weaving community. Pratupa community members were glad to have the participatory video, as it has become a tool for transmitting Yong culture and getting students excited about Yong language and Yong identity. The abbot from Pratupa has even set up a website to document his community’s ICH. The culture of respect and devotion for Khru Ba Srivichai still flourishes at Wat Chamatevi, and community members told alumni that they recently constructed a huge monument in his honor. At Ban Luk, inhabitants are considering a new safeguarding project, and have asked SAC for more copies of the brochure. These field visits were essential in assessing not only the long-term impacts of Field School projects but also the suitability of different kinds of media in each community.

Participants in the 2012 Field School Alumni Seminar agreed that the Field Schools have been crucial in shaping their interests, methodologies, and goals. Linina Phuttitarn captured these shared sentiments with her statement, “The Field School is a really good international foundation for people to come and exchange knowledge – the network expands our knowledge as well as improves our methods of safeguarding our own cultures by learning from other cultures.” As alumni contribute vital case studies that are some of the first to demonstrate how the 2003 UNESCO Convention has been implemented, these individuals also exemplify the passion, sensitivity, and connectedness that are necessary to foster community empowerment and facilitate successful safeguarding of ICH.

Download the Full 2012 Field School Seminar Report.