Recently, a UNESCO project has brought together several World Heritage Sites with interpreting museums in Southeast Asia. The result was fascinating; as such a contribution enlightens visitors of the real meanings and messages of the World Heritage Sites.

Nine museums associated with six World Heritage Sites in Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam recently built a beautiful ‘imaginary museum’ filled with artefacts and other objects taken from the World Heritage Sites concerned. They extended an invitation to travel through verdant mountain passes, along the Mekong and Red Rivers, and into temples perfumed with incense and flowers offered in tribute to eternal deities. This imaginary museum was the result of an unprecedented joint venture bringing together the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Angkor, Preah Vihear, Vat Phou, My Son, the Ho Citadel and the Thang Long Citadel.

Artefacts from World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia offer clues to understanding the complex historical and cultural processes that have given this region its unique place in world history. Consisting of a mosaic of peoples living along rivers and lakes, on plains and in forests, and among river deltas and mountains, the early history of the peoples of mainland Southeast Asia is known from archaeological evidence and historical accounts dating back to the second century CE.

The Funan and the Chenla, the Angkor kingdoms of the Khmer, the Champa, and the Dai Viet dynasties of Viet Nam are among the distinctive states that have contributed to the history of Southeast Asia. Other ethnic groups, their histories unfortunately little known apart from fragments in the margins of official accounts, have also played important roles in trade and other activities. The Khmer and Champa states accumulated their wealth through trade and exchange within Southeast Asia, gradually being integrated into a larger system that extended outwards from China and East Asia to the Islamic and Mediterranean worlds and as far afield as Africa. These states absorbed foreign influences, essentially from South Asia during the fourth to fifth centuries CE, in order to strengthen their political systems, backed by religious doctrines, and to develop their societies and economies.

In Viet Nam, a long process of cultural development among the populations of the Red River Delta nourished the area’s pre-Han cultural identity, preserving it for subsequent generations. Independence from China from the tenth century CE led the Dai Viet state to become an economic and cultural centre in the region, the Red River serving as a trade route with China, Champa, Java, Siam, India, the Straits of Malacca, and beyond.

In the 20th century, civil conflicts and conflict in the wider region left deep scars on many of the societies of Southeast Asia, and as a result the region’s political, social and cultural institutions are still being rebuilt. Much remains to be done in order that the voices of the region’s new generations of scholars may be heard. As part of my own involvement over many years in the reform of the region’s universities and heritage-related institutions, I have noted the aspirations of the scholars and experts of the region to construct new narratives relating to their own histories and to share them with their fellow citizens.

The Making of the Exhibition

As the manager of the exhibition project, I accompanied the nine participating museums for two years from 2011 onwards, along with colleagues from the UNESCO field offices in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand. Since joining UNESCO in 2002, each time that I have visited Southeast Asia on mission I have been impressed by the ever-increasing number of tourists in the region and the wealth being generated by this industry. Cultural and heritage tourism now accounts for some 40 per cent of the global tourism revenues. Millions of people now travel every year to discover other cultures, and heritage sites and museums are major attractions for travelers while also providing opportunities for improving livelihoods in surrounding communities.

However, much still needs to be done in order to ensure that the benefits of increasing tourism are shared with local communities and with those working in the heritage industries. As a result of working for many years on both World Heritage Sites and museums, the idea of trying to connect these together in order to try to contribute to increasing human, social and economic capital was very much on my mind, and many people offered their support to efforts to make this idea reality. In early 2011, the Government of Japan approved funding for a pilot phase of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Museums Programme that would be implemented in Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam.

The first phase started with a process of research and reflection in the summer of 2011 that aimed to carry out research on the condition of the World Heritage Site museums in these countries and to assess their needs more fully. What was the condition of their collections? Who were their primary stakeholders? What local cultural assets could be showcased in the museums? How were these institutions presented to visitors in guidebooks and other forms of information on the region?

Despite the diversity of their origins and institutional settings, many commonalities were discovered that could be drawn upon in building a common programme of institutional empowerment. Many museums in the developing world suffer from shortages of human and economic resources. Many of them are also still unfortunately seen as being ‘foreign’ institutions by many local people. The World Heritage Site museums in the three countries participating in the project have common origins, since they were associated to greater or lesser degrees with the archaeological research carried out by foreign scholars during early contacts between Southeast Asia and Europe. Essentially conceived as archaeological depots, and today having very small budgets and few staff, the institutions have not been able to develop modern museographical or scenographical approaches to displaying their collections, hindering local populations from being more fully involved in their development and activities.

Based on the reflection carried out in the summer of 2011 and afterwards, a first workshop was held within the framework of the project in Hanoi, Viet Nam, over 23 days in November-December 2011. A dense programme of five distinct modules and including a field trip to the My Son World Heritage Site allowed those participating in the workshop to produce a small exhibition that provided the core of the larger exhibition project. In May 2012, a second workshop was held in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which aimed to focus on the development of the content of the sub-regional exhibition programme.

Two major themes were identified and worked upon, the first being Nature and Myth and dealing with the representation of nature and life-forces through cultural expressions that often represent a form of symbiosis between indigenous and outside elements brought about by Buddhism and Hinduism. The second theme, Trade and Exchange, looked at the encounter between regional populations and cultural goods and expressions from neighbouring territories and civilizations as a result of migration, alliances, commercial ties or warfare. These two themes were illustrated by images and major artefacts and in-situ elements from all the participating World Heritage Sites. A third section of the exhibition was supplied by the museums themselves, with each participating museum choosing its own theme in order to showcase its own collections and to illustrate their strong connection with the intangible aspects of the Sites, including the beliefs, arts and lifestyles of the local populations.

Educational Programmes

In the wake of the sub-regional exhibition, the participating museums also set up pilot educational programmes related to the exhibition’s themes. Naturally, many museums selected their individual collections as resources for their programme, with the Thang Long Site Museum in Hanoi organizing a small excavation workshop for future archaeologists, and the Phnom Penh National Museum of Cambodia organizing a workshop on ‘kbach’, or Khmer ornamental and related skills inherited from pre-Angkorian times, for example. According to the schoolchildren and their parents participating in these workshops, their well-designed and participatory exercises in the company of the museum staff were very much appreciated. Some museums, as a result, are planning to take the exhibition and educational programmes on tour in the form of a mobile museum to remote towns and provinces that had few cultural attractions, let alone museums.

‘Connected History’ and Museums

The UNESCO World Heritage Convention aims not only to recognize and cherish the richness and beauty of the Sites on the World Heritage List, but also to try to understand the profound meanings and values of these Sites for connected human history. Not only are these Sites sources of national pride and identity, but they also illustrate the extraordinary nature of human interaction over time and how history has been forged as a result of exchanges of thought, scientific advancement and commerce.

While many of the Statements of Outstanding Value that are associated with the Sites stress this aspect, visitors to the Sites themselves can sometimes be unaware of this message or of the full meaning of the Sites, along with their responsibility for helping to ensure that they are safeguarded and protected for future generations. The striking success of the UNESCO World Heritage Programme offers the ideal setting for Site-related museums to play a pivotal role as mediators of peace and intercultural understanding, providing quality educational content for local and international communities and serving as agents of development. The museums can provide a link of continuity between creation and heritage, and they can enable various audiences, notably local communities and disadvantaged groups, to rediscover their roots and approach other cultures.

Through this UNESCO-Japan Funds-in-Trust project, we were able to accompany the process of revitalizing the participating World Heritage Site museums and interpretation centres in the three countries involved. Although only a pilot programme, the project was able to contribute to the development of professional skills among the staff of these institutions, and not only of curators and conservators, but also of archaeologists and the managers of the World Heritage Sites. Participants in the programme were able to re-envision the mission of the World Heritage Site museums in the contemporary world through collective reflection and practical exercises on the enhanced and holistic interpretation of the collections, collection management, the development of participative approaches among local communities, and museum visitor studies.

Taken as a whole, the project strengthened a regional network of Site museums and museum professionals who were able to exchange ideas relating to their various collections and Sites through the joint work of building the project exhibition.

It is our hope that the imaginary museum built as a result of this project will help to introduce you to the histories of the World Heritage Sites of Southeast Asia and awaken a desire to visit other museum institutions and related World Heritage Sites in future.

Our joint adventure continues.

Nao Hayashi