Kamthieng House Museum, Bangkok, Thailand

The Kamthieng House Museum is a museum in Watthana District, Bangkok, run by the Siam Society under royal patronage. It is a 160-year-old traditional teakwood house from northern Thailand.

The Siam Society under Royal Patronage was founded in 1904 in cooperation with Thai and foreign scholars to promote knowledge of Thailand and its surrounding region.

The Society premises on Asoke Montri Road in Bangkok house a library that has a unique collection including manuscripts and rare books. The Kamthieng House, a precious example of northern Thai architecture, houses a folk museum. Study trips are made to historical sites, cultural events, and nature sites in all corners of Thailand and overseas. Lectures are organized several times a month on a wide range of topics. The Journal of the Siam Society and the Natural History Bulletin are published annually and distributed free to members. The Society also publishes scholarly books; stages performances of music, dance, and drama; hosts exhibitions and conferences; and is involved in projects of cultural preservation.

Today, the Siam Society has a membership drawn from a broad spectrum of Thais and foreigners, and continues to operate as a non-profit organization dedicated to its founding cause.

The Siam Society was founded in 1904 in cooperation with Thai and foreign scholars. The Society soon established a reputation as a learned society whose members included many of the most illustrious historians and archaeologists of that period.

Crown Prince Vajiravudh (later King Rama VI, reigned 1910-1925), who encouraged and supported the Society, was its First Patron. HRH Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, one of Thailand’s leading scholars and then President of the National Library, was Vice Patron. Chao Phraya Bhaskarawongse (Phorn Bunnag), in recognition of his distinguished scholarship in the field of literature and his willingness to place his extensive library at the disposal of Society members, was made an Honorary Member.

Learned societies throughout the world extended their support right from the beginning. These included the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, the Batavian Association of Arts and Sciences, the Royal Asiatic Society and the Societa Asiatica Italiana. It was in fact the publications of these Societies that formed the basis of the Siam Society’s library.

From its inception, the Siam Society’s objective was to encourage research and information gathering on art, history, culture and natural sciences of Thailand and neighboring countries.

Having been in existence for 18 years, the Society was able to move into its own semi-permanent home at the first floor of the Falck & Beidek Building for the first time.

“Knowledge gives rise to friendship” was adopted as the Siam Society’s motto to convey the message that the search for knowledge links people of all nations in friendship.

The first building, the lecture hall and stage, located on the current property on Soi Asoke was opened and the Society was able to provide more complete library services to its members. The land was given to the Siam Society by Mr. A.E. Nana.

The Society’s separate library and office building was opened. HM King Bhumibol, HM Queen Ingrid of Denmark, HM King Frederik IX of Denmark, HM Queen Sirikit and HM Queen Rambai Barni graciously participated in the library’s dedication.

The Society was presented by the Nimmanhaeminda family of Chiang Mai with the Kamthieng House, an outstanding example of old northern Thai architecture. The house, rebuilt in the Society’s grounds, serves as an ethnological museum and is open to the public.

On its 84th anniversary, the Society received a donation from Khun Lada Ratkasikorn to reassemble in its compound a teak Thai house, in commemoration of her late husband, Acharn Saengaroon Ratkasikorn, after whom the house was named. This house is an excellent example of central Thai architecture. The Saengaroon House was graciously opened by HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana Krom Luang Naradhiwas Rajnagarindra, Honorary President of the Society, on February 26, 1988.

The Society, over the years, has embarked on important academic programs in cooperation with local and international public and private organizations. This has involved hosting international conferences on “Culture and Environment in Thailand” in 1987 and 1992, and “The Future of Asia’s Past” in 1995, co-sponsored with The Asia Society and The Getty Conservation Institute.

The Society in association with the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, undertook a research program on the domestic and foreign affairs implications of HM King Rama V’s first visit to Europe on the occasion of the centenary of this important event.

The Chalerm Phra Kiat Building, constructed in honor of the 50th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s accession to the throne, was completed, housing the library, the exhibition space, meeting rooms and facilities, as well as offices for Society staff. The building was graciously opened on behalf of His Majesty the King by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn on 30 September 1998.

The Association of Siamese Architects Under Royal Patronage gave a special award to the Siam Society for its excellence in the preservation of buildings, namely the auditorium, the Kamthieng and Saengaroon Houses in the compound of the Society.

At present, The Society has close to 1,800 members, including both Thais and foreigners. The Society remains committed to pursuing its long-standing objectives of research and promotion of the arts and sciences of Thailand and neighboring countries.

The primary mission of the new Kamthieng House Museum is to showcase the traditional spirit and belief systems of the Lanna people, within the context of a 19th-century northern Thai house. The educational aim of the exhibits is to provide an exposition of the motivating beliefs and ideologies in the practice of the Lanna lifestyle, especially in terms of its relationship with nature and the environment. Elements of lifestyle, ritual, art and architecture are presented within the Lanna world-view, through objects, graphic illustrations, photographs, video and sound.

Ritual practice, as it permeated the daily life and imagination of the Lanna household, drew together Lanna culture’s many intimate relationships/dynamics with nature, family legacy and crafts. Natural forces, seen and unseen, were accorded respect, both as a way of honouring ancestral spirits and collective memory, and of mediating with the spirit world. Rituals invoked mother nature in various forms, as animistic of the primal energy of the environment, and as personifications of the agrarian lifecycle.

At heart was a profound understanding of the need for balanced relationships with nature, an ethos of sustainable inter-dependence of individual, community and environment. In particular, the Lanna world-view (implicit in old cosmological texts and oral traditions), expressed itself through well-defined beliefs and practices, most notably in a detailed personal code of conduct – a meticulous etiquette of interaction between people, spaces and spirits.

An historic house built in 1844 on the banks of the Ping River in Chiang Mai by Mae (“mother”) Saed, great granddaughter of the Prince of Chae, Kamthieng House brings together many elements of lifestyle and culture in a typical Lanna house of the period. Constructed and passed on through the women of a northern matriarchal lineage, the house is one of the oldest surviving examples of traditional northern Thai architecture.

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Exhibits of primary crafts and rituals provide a glimpse of the taste and style of the merchant elite of late Lanna period, between the lifetimes of Mae Saed and her granddaughter, Mae Kamthieng – namesake of the house. Through its first hundred years, the house was pitched at a turning point in Lanna culture, with traditional lifestyle slowly giving way to the prestige of Western taste. But Kamthieng House was to remain a repository of the Lanna spirit, even as the late Professor Kraisri Nimmanhaeminda moved it to the Siam Society in 1962, to become a northern Thai ethnological museum.

The Kamthieng House Museum mixes museum-style displays with the context and ambience of an historic house. Visual drama, emphasised through lighting design and display styling, is coupled with a sense of place. Objects are grouped loosely to reflect central exhibition themes relevant to particular areas of the house, but not always directly related to the precise interior function of that area. Instead, objects are chosen for aesthetic impact and their ability to serve as windows into primary themes of Lanna culture.

The present redesign, begun in March 2001, returns the focus to life in and around a traditional Lanna house of the late 19th-century. Most important, aspects of Lanna ritual, belief, and lifestyle are reinterpreted in current museum idiom, to provide contemporary appeal to Thai and foreign visitors alike. At the instigation of M. Renaud Pierard, chief exhibition designer of several new museums in France, we decided to follow recent ethnological museum trends and incorporate traditional sound and visual portraits in the museum space itself.

The Kamthieng House research team spent considerable time researching Lanna musical and liturgical traditions, managing to track down the few living exponents of various surviving spirit traditions. Traditional chants, music and dance related to Lanna spirit beliefs can be seen and heard in 5 main areas of the house.

For instance, visitors hear “joi” and “pin-pia” courtship music as soon as they approach the verandah, at the beginning of the house tour. In the main living area, a discreet LCD monitor displays a short film sequence on the matrilineal heritage of the house, with old footage of traditional spirit dance. The soundscape alternates between courtship and spirit music, with occasional voice-overs of family history, in northern dialect.

In the kitchen, visitors can view a short film loop in which Mae Champa, a northern grandmother in period costume, cooks a meal of “kaeng khae kob” (northern frog curry) in the very kitchen visitors are standing in. Sounds of the cooking process are amplified in the space as well, giving visitors a sense of being there with Mae Champa.

Granary visitors are enveloped by ritual chants performed by “Pho-nan” Praphat, one of the few remaining northern ritual masters, calling the spirit of rice and buffalo.

And in the public education section of the museum, located on the ground floor, beneath the main house, student groups and general visitors can view a special 3D animation short film on Lanna village life and architecture. Through a series of events involving a 3D animation gecko, visitors (especially children) learn about aspects of the Lanna weir system, as well as traditional rituals and village spirit beliefs.

The animation culminates in a major segment showing how a traditional Lanna house is built. Designed by the animation studio, Imagimax, the feature will also be used to promote the museum at educational outreach events.

Naturally, these aspects of contemporary technology are merely discreet enhancements to the educational message. But we do believe it is necessary to use new media to speak to a new generation of museum-goers, especially in the case of the Thai audience, where all too often, the message of heritage and culture has been obscured by pedantry and old-fashioned exhibition presentation.

The new exhibits also include multimedia displays. Exhibits display systems have also been redesigned to accommodate the new script, all the while maintaining the integrity of the traditional architectural space.

In keeping with traditional Lanna house rituals, especially before major construction work, a ritual specialist was also engaged, to perform the relevant rites, as well as oversee the restoration of the house shrine.

The educational message is conveyed through discreet enhancements, using short multimedia documentaries, which are continually screened on monitors installed unobtrusively throughout the Museum.

On the ground level, beneath the main building, an especially produced, 3D-animation short-film on Lan Na Thai village life is shown continually. Tokto, the 3D- animation gecko, guides viewers through a series of activities and events, including traditional ceremonies and rituals, house building5, and weir construction as part of the 700-year old farmer-managed irrigation system. The surrounding space is used to display a weir model, a functioning loom, various traps made from bamboo or rattan, and assorted utensils characteristic of the period when the house was lived in.

Upstairs, on approaching the verandah, courtship musical tunes, Choi and Pin Pia, welcome visitors. Inside, a LED-monitor displays a short-film sequence of the matrilineal lineage of house owners, with authentic footage of a traditional spirit dance. The alternating courtship and spirit music is blended with voice-overs of clan history, in the Northern Thai vernacular.

The first building was built in 1932 and used as the lecture hall, stage, and library. In 2002, The Association of Siamese Architects Under Royal Patronage gave a special award to the Siam Society for its excellence in the preservation of buildings, namely the auditorium, the Kamthieng and Saengaroon Houses in the compound of the Society. Nowadays, it is used as an auditorium for conferences, seminars, music and performances, and etc.

Hamyon Collection
Kamthieng House Museum’s wood carving collection – ‘Hamyon’. This intricate, carved wooden plaque above the bedroom door is considered a protective talisman for the family, dividing the private family space inside, from the public verandah space outside. Beyond this point, those who are ‘tang-phi’ (literally ‘of a different spirit’) meaning ‘of a different clan’, must ask permission of the ancestral spirits (phi pu-ya’) to enter.The ‘ham yon’ is variously believed to represent the protective power of the ancestral spirits, or of the male head of household. The latter is based on a loose interpretation of the word ‘ham’, meaning ‘testicles’, and ‘yon’ the northern Thai derivative of the Sanskrit word ‘yantra’, for ‘magic diagram or symbol’. But many northern scholars find this interpretation linguistically problematic.

The proportion of the ‘ham yon’ is base on the foot of the main male householder, multiplied by 3 or 4, according to status. Usually installed with a new house, the ‘ham yon’ plaque is taken down and beaten ritually to remove its power, each time the main male householder changes. A new ‘ham yon’ is then commissioned and installed with the proper rites. These ‘ham yon’ are only a part of carved wood collection, which were purchased by the Siam Society from northern Thailand in 1965. The whole collection includes cover 200 items. All of them are over 200 years old.

The Siam Society’s collection of research manuscripts, books, rare books, photos, micro-film, tapes, videos, maps and traditional manuscripts on palm leaf, and other documents constitute the first non-privately owned library in Thailand.

The Siam Society library is noted for its outstanding rare books collection, most of which is related to Southeast Asia.

The Siam Society was founded in 1904 in cooperation with Thai and foreign scholars. The Society quickly became a learned society whose members included many of the most illustrious historians, archaeologists and epigraphers of that period.

The primary purpose of the society’s library was to make this information available to its membership and the research community. The library also supports investigation and background information for its many activities: local and international study trips; lectures by noted experts and scholars; art and artifact exhibitions of international standard; classical and contemporary cultural and musical performances; seminars, and publications by the Siam Society including, two international recognized periodicals, the Journal of the Siam Society (JSS) and the Natural History Bulletin (NHB).

From its inception, the Siam Society’s objective was to encourage research and information gathering on art, history, culture and natural sciences of Thailand and neighboring countries. In 1924, “Knowledge gives rise to friendship” was adopted as the Siam Society’s motto to convey the message that the search for knowledge is the bridge to friendship between nations.