Future of Asia's Past
Chiang Mai, Thailand
William Dunlap and Linda Burgess
At The Future of Asia's Past: An International Conference
on the Preservation of Asia's Architectural Heritage, some 350 participants
from 22 countries recently gathered to lament and discuss the fate
of Asia's most ancient and imperiled monuments. Among the sites of
immiment concern to this unprecedented conclave of government officials,
conservationists, environmentalists, curators, tour operators, developers,
and others, were Thailand's Ayutthaya, India's Ajanta caves, Myanmar's
Bagan, Indonesia's Borobudur, and Cambodia's Angkor temple complex
with its more than 1000 identified sites. Threats to these places
come from within and without, from time, tourism, economic development,
political conflicts, natural disasters, and the ever-increasing pillaging
brought about by a world market appetite for the rare and exotic.
The conference, hosted by The Asia Society and co-sponsored by The
Getty Conservation Institute and The Siam Society, in association
with the World Monuments Fund, opened with a prescient address by
Anand Panyarachun, Thailand's former ambassador to the U.S.. Calling
for intelligent "sustainable development" integrated with
preservation, he urged governments to protect their cultural patrimony
by enforcing regulations against the looting of sites.
Next, Jan Fontein, director emeritus of the Boston Museum of Fine
Arts, outlined and addressed the numerous hazards and human failings
endangering Asian sites. "Living monuments," those currently
under worship such as Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, are perpetually subjected
to alterations as "pious donors" and "devout local
sponsors" repaint, remodel, tear down and build anew in order
to make religious merit. In an ancient Bangkok temple, a narrow stone
gateway was recently demolished, in violation of existing secular
law, and a wider one constructed to accomodate automobile access into
a paid parking lot. For this transgression, the reigning abbot may
do time. Unfortunately, in Buddhist tradition, preservation of the
old counts for little.
Rapid economic growth can often prove fatal as well. Hotels, highrises,
and other commercial enterprises spring up and destroy much more than
sightlines: Chiang Mai's ancient walled city is all but lost to today's
bustling metropolis, and in Ayutthaya a four lane highway was built
by design over the city's ancient wall. Seoul's 1887 Independence
Gate has been moved some 70 meters to accomodate Songsan Avenue's
Industrial pollution, acid rain, and fallout from modern life are
ever-growing threats to Asia's past and present. "The Taj Mahal
has a form of marble cancer. It is a decaying monument today, and
is dying," to quote the impassioned M.C. Mehta, the pro bono
environmental lawyer who filed suit to curtail industrial pollution
and has been fighting his case before the Supreme Court of India for
the last 10 years. Earthquakes, harsh climate, and the overgrowth
of vegetation are problems as well. Ironically, some environmentalists
are actually fighting to save the huge strangler fig trees currently
destroying temples of Ta Prohm at Angkor.
Considerable damage is also caused by misplaced good intentions and
outdated conservation procedures. When non-reversible highly invasive
conservation techniques, and antithetical materials are combined with
a lack of early documentation, inaccurate or imbellished preservation
often results. As Fontein noted, "Of all the western technological
contributions to the architecture of the world, it is difficult to
name one that has had a more destructive effect on traditional architecture
than corrugated tin." This inexpensive and easily accessible
material has all but replaced traditional thatch, shingle and tile
roofs around the world. Its pollution is not limited to the aesthetic.
Iron oxide in the form of rust, leeches into stone wall and temple
The enormous growth in worldwide travel and tourism had proved a double-edged
sword in its effect on Asia's heritage. As accessibility to sites
increases so does conservation awareness and, in turn, financial support.
But with cultural tourism no longer confined to an elite few, pressure
from increased traffic can injure more fragile monuments.
Piriya Kraikrish, President Emeritus of The Siam Society, minced no
words, saying, "We are also to blame for the destruction of sites,
by collecting and thus creating a market. Can we blame those who live
from hand to mouth for prying artifacts loose to supply us?"
The world art market has deemed these objects precious and knowingly
encourages looting and pilfering to feed the trade. Richard Engelhardt,
UNESCO's Regional Advisor for Culture for Asia and the Pacific, compared
the dilemma of monument looting to drug trafficking. "Tighten
the noose and you galvanize the cartel. Attempt to cut it off at the
source and you push the activity further underground. Punishing the
end recipient is like jailing the drug addict." To continue the
metaphor, legalization would encompass opening up and regulating a
portion of the trade while flooding the market with high quality fakes.
Some novel ideas were posed as to alternative avenues for the cultural
tourist in the 21st Century. While viewing Bagan and Angkor Wat by
hot air balloon might sound appealing, it could only be intitiated
after pacifying and disarming the rebels. But virtual reality, CD
Rom, and interactive television may actually be better ways to experience
a monument, with less expense and risk. Engelhardt felt it was not
that far a reach from being asked to refrain from touching a sculpture
in a museum to being prohibited from walking on a monument. He suggested
museums might even redefine their roles in terms of "exchange
centers" rather than "collections," thus allowing artifacts
to remain the property of the originating country.
The urgency and pathos of this current predicament was recently underlined
when Cambodia's King Sihanouk admonished the world to, "Let Khmer
people live with their treasures," begging "all thieves,
Khmer antique lovers, Cambodian nationals and foreigners, to stop
looting our temples."
2003 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.
Web development by Patterson