Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Monastery, Monument, Museum: Sites and Artifacts of Thai Cultural Memory

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Monastery, Monument, Museum: Sites and Artifacts of Thai Cultural Memory

Article excerpt

Monastery, Monument, Museum: Sites and Artifacts of Thai Cultural Memory Maurizio Peleggi Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2017.

"How plausible [. . .] is it to assume the existence of a shared Thai cultural memory?" (p. 4). This is the promising question that sets Thailand historian Maurizio Peleggi's latest work, Monastery, Monument, Museum, into motion.

The monograph carries on with the author's previous work on material and visual culture in the kingdom with a narrative that aims to bring memory studies into a dialogue with a vast array of Thai sources. Peleggi 's ambitious goal is to "conceptualize cultural memory not as a storeroom or archive of tangible and intangible materials, but, rather, as a dual process of recollection and reinscription," whereby "(a)ny memorial act-individual as well as collective, concrete as well as symbolic-modifies the preexisting mnemonic landscape either by adding to it or by intentionally altering it" (p. 5). The author has also made the ambitious choice to consider sites and artifacts ranging from rock art to street art installations, and over a period spanning the pre-modern and contemporary.

Monumental in scope, Monastery, Monument, Museum makes for a surprisingly fast read. The Introduction makes up 9 pages, and there are eight chapters of approximately 20 pages each, which organize the book into three distinct parts.

The first part of the book, "Sacred Geographies," explores Thai cultural memory by focusing on devotional art in the pre-modern and the early modern era. Chapter 1 takes the reader to sites across the kingdom that have been inscribed by religious myth-whether in the form of Buddha's footprints or relics. Peleggi shows that myth becomes a form of memory that is embodied in the landscape. This is illustrated in the way that Thai Buddhists engage with sacred sites in an attempt to harvest the kind of magical potency that inhabits them (saksit).

The next chapter examines Buddha images that are regarded as embodiments of potency, and attributed magical powers and personalities. The author explores the circumstances under which apparently controversial processes-like the looting, displacement, replacement, borrowing, copying, and breaking of Buddha images- do or do not result in a loss of such extraordinary qualities.

Chapter 3 then investigates representations of foreigners-Westerners (farang) and Muslims (khaek)-in temple art, including wooden cabinets and murals. Here, Peleggi lets the court cosmology treatise of the Three Worlds (Traiphumi) guide his analysis. He therefore argues that foreigners in such contexts are mainly treated as opponents of the Dharma, and are thus used to fix the primacy of Buddhism over other world religions in Thai cultural memory. The author indicates that the royal court's adoption of "Western" cosmology during King Mongkut's reign (1851-68) is in reaction to European expansionism, and that it prompts a new search for national identity.

The second part of the volume, "Antiquities, Museums, and National History," is dedicated to the modern era. Peleggi argues that this is characterized by "the mergence and development of antiquarianism and eventually archeology, partly as the result of a shift in the elite's worldview and partly as a response to colonial and neocolonial projects of knowledge" (p. 5). Chapter 4 looks at the relationship between art and national identity in the face of European imperialism. By focusing mainly on the fourth, fifth, and sixth reigns of the Bangkok period (that is, the second half of the nineteenth century), he investigates how kings turned to the imported practice of antiquarianism in an attempt to rewrite the memory of Siam's past from a perspective that reflects European epistemological concerns.

Chapter 5 examines further the nexus between art and national identity by exploring how artifacts in museums of the 1920s were managed in response to dominant discourses of cultural evolutionism. …

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