William Dunlap


The Future of Asia's Past
Chiang Mai, Thailand

by 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 increased traffic.

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 floor, alike.

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."



Copyright 2003 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.
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