The repatriation of works of art in Thailand and the power of Internet users
Thai “netizens” – that is, Internet citizen activists – have joined forces in a hunt for sculptures and antiques in international museums and auction catalogs. Finding the corresponding missing pieces of art prompted many devotees to demand repatriation to their original homes. Protests beyond social media platforms were organized to raise awareness and lobby for the investigation. Robert Bociaga is investigating.
“Archeology and history are no longer subjects reserved for city dwellers and the upper class of Bangkok,” says Phacha vel Dr. Phacharaphorn Phanomvan, economic historian, archaeologist and heritage specialist. “Internet users use social media to share photos, exchange information about objects and their locations, and search for additional material. “
This may have happened for the first time in 2016, during a Sotheby’s auction featuring a photograph and description of a bronze sculpture by Prakhon Chai. Facebook has become an essential forum for the exchange of academic ideas. Since then, the movement has fostered heritage activism, but later it hit its glass ceiling.
Phacha’s interest in art rendering began while working at sites in Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia. According to her, “many sites are neglected and heavily looted even though they have great potential for conservation and restoration”.
The countries of Southeast Asia have suffered an unprecedented loss of their cultural heritage over the past 150 years, in part due to colonial appropriation, looting and illicit trafficking, resulting in vast collections of archaeological and art objects now located around the world in museums and private collections.
Fortunately, in Thailand there is an increase in movements demanding preservation of heritage such as SSO, allowing the art restitution movement to gain more publicity.
SSO (short for Sam Nuk Sam Roi Long which means “remember the 300 deities”) is the group made up of independent academics, archaeologists and local activists interested in the heritage of the Korat plateau in the region of Isan in northeastern Thailand. Their leaders are carrying out fieldwork in the Prakhon Chai district (part of Thailand’s UNESCO heritage listing plan).
Yet although social media has altered informal processes and the public narrative of art repatriation, governments still control the formal repatriation process.
Today, “SSO is coordinating with the US Homeland Security Office,” Phacha describes. “All of the restitution documents are actually the responsibility of the US government … the Thai government has done little other than facilitate the return.”
Hailed as one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world, the looted antique trade involves villagers, thieves and petty traders at the local level before the items reach action houses and collectors in the developed world. .
UNESCO reports that the illicit trade in cultural goods – of which antiques trafficking is a part – is worth US $ 10 billion per year.
For Phacha, “the looted material is reminiscent of post-war colonial dependencies and disruptive economic development”.
This opinion resonates with Ian Glover, Distinguished Reader in Southeast Asian Archeology at University College London. “The solution is ultimately in the hands of the customer, or the collector,” he writes in his paper. “As long as items are purchased without indication of provenance, they will continue to be offered in this manner.”
In the past, Thai villagers could easily be tricked into excavating and selling the artifacts at a fraction of the value purchased in international markets. As an experienced researcher with numerous field studies, Glover also remembers seeing in western Thailand “teams of illegal diggers washing and sifting small finds with jets of water to retrieve pearls. ‘gold and glass’.
But now the former looters have changed their attitude towards local heritage and are now working with SSO.
According to Phacha, it all comes down to Thai superstitions. “The looters believe their life has been cursed. They associate all of their failures, bankruptcies, premature deaths and ill health with looting. “
“The looters are over 80 years old now, but… they want things to be returned and worshiped in their rightful place,” she said.
However, during the time of the pandemic, restitution was stalled although problems with scaling the movement began even before.
“On the other hand, sales of illegally looted and excavated materials are now more reliant on social media. Most companies like Facebook have a mechanism to prevent sales of illegal material, but often only in English, and that requires a lot of reporting from users, ”Phacha explains.
In her view, open access to information not only strengthens professionals like her, but also increases the visibility of amateur archaeologists and amateurs, turning ancient and commercial networks into beneficiaries of this extensive access to social media and the Internet.
But there are downsides to this phenomenon. Hobby looters also follow college content online and run their own social media groups to discuss the results. “It’s potentially more damaging to archaeological sites due to the looting of smaller materials,” Phacha says. In the recently published book Returning Southeast Asia’s Past, along with other co-authors, she took a closer look at repatriations in the region.
So how do you prevent looting?
Embracing the return of artifacts by former looters and local communities is a good indicator of changing trends and sentiments.
“One strategy used is to develop small museums that offer tours – some led by students and schoolchildren – that teach the community about the long-term value of preserving or the careful excavation and recording of the location of antiques, ”says Glover.
Thailand has officially joined the global repatriation movement, both nationally and regionally. Still, it remains to be seen how social media will impact interactions with the antique market in the long run.
At least, Phacha reveals, 2022 should see more artifacts returned to the country.
– Asia Media Center