Monastery, Monument, Museum

Sites and Artifacts of Thai Cultural Memory

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Maurizio Peleggi
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , October
     2017.
     280 pages.
     $62.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780824866068.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Maurizio Peleggi’s publications are necessary for anyone interested in developing a critical understanding of the foundations of modern Thai identity and culture, and this most recent offering continues the trend. The book builds and expands on his previous work and establishes itself as both an important contribution and an impressive undertaking. Spanning a full millennium from the 11th century through the 21st, Peleggi examines the institutions, historical narratives, and monuments that have infused Thai cultural memory. In so doing, he challenges his readers to place the issues surrounding Thai history into a larger global and postcolonial context. He states that a goal in writing this book 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” (5). Through his discussion of wide ranging evidence, he succeeds. 

To accomplish his task, Peleggi organizes his book into three sections, composed of two or three chapters each: Sacred Geographies; Antiquities, Museums, and National History; and Discordant Mnemoscapes. Within the chapters of each section, Peleggi provides familiar narratives with detailed context and pointed analysis, drawing conclusions about how each case study illuminates and informs Thai memory. For example, in chapter 3, “The Place of the Other in Temple Art,” Peleggi uses the depiction of foreigners on a lacquer manuscript cabinet to explore Thai perceptions of outsiders within a Buddhist cosmological view. He looks back to the cosmopolitan setting of Ayutthaya for an understanding of the early interactions between Thais and Europeans and their possible incorporation into the Thai Buddhist Cosmology based in karmic retribution known as the Traiphumor Three Worlds, utilizing inscriptions, manuscripts, murals, and foreign accounts to supplement his discussion. Further in the chapter, Peleggi effortlessly moves toward a discussion of the incorporation of Westerners into mural paintings in the 19th century. He shows the changing effects of colonialism and imperial power on Thai perceptions of outsiders and their place in the Buddhist cosmos while simultaneously understanding that their presence was of the utmost importance in the shift from placing Thai civilization into the Buddhist universe, to situating the Thai kingdom in the global landscape. As Thai relationships to outsiders changed, their perception of foreigners’ roles changed, and so did Thai self-reflection. For me, a scholar always looking for a greater integration of art history and material culture into historical, religious, and cultural scholarship, this chapter successfully utilizes art to supplement a larger argument about a changing Thai worldview.

Peleggi’s understanding of the close ties between art and group memory run throughout the book, but perhaps are best exemplified by chapter 5, “A Museum and an Art History for the Thai Nation.” In this chapter Peleggi traces the connection between the establishment of the National Museum of Thailand, the developing narrative about the country’s history, and the special emphasis placed on once-forgotten Sukhothai and its Buddha image. As interest in regional arts grew and the desire to develop a Thai “civilized” narrative was firmly established by European countries, together with China and Japan, Thai and Western scholars categorized Southeast Asian art into historic kingdoms that served to support grand histories and nationalist ideals. Even though plenty of evidence points to other, more ethnocentric rather than politico-centric classifications of Thai art history, art historical narratives have strayed little from the established status quo. 

Each chapter segues into the next and each part builds on the previous one. In the final section of the book, Peleggi explores the central role of monuments, film, and contemporary artwork to embrace or challenge Thai identity and memory as it has become more contested at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st. In these final chapters, Peleggi continues to build his discussion on material objects. The section brings the book into the contemporary period and, as a result, has more of a focus on the connection between individual people and the themes of history and memory than in the previous sections.

The strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to synthesize a variety of source material and interpretive approaches into a multidisciplinary analysis of the Thai “cult of memory.” He discusses the complex issue of Thai identity and history, challenging the reader to question how the accepted narrative developed. The success of the Thai elites in creating a national memory and a shared sense of Thai history across a region that continues to both reveal and conceal its fractures is significant and has needed this kind of exploration and discussion for some time. That the book is brought into the current period helps to make it feel like the reader has traveled with the author through space and time to gain perspective into the broader issue of Thai cultural memory. Peleggi presents his evidence and ensuing discussion in a tone that is both academic and accessible, and for this reason the book is an excellent contribution to understandings of Thai-ness and the larger exploration of group identity in the postcolonial world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca S. Hall is Assistant Curator at the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maurizio Peleggi is Professor of Cultural History at the National University of Singapore.

Keywords: 

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