Helen Mears and Sandra Dudley peek inside Myanmar’s National Museum in Nay Pyi Taw.
Emerging out of the hot plains and empty roads of the official capital city Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s newest national museum looms large. A flight of steps takes the visitor into a vast, high-ceiling entrance hall. A gleaming corridor of galleries stretches ahead, beyond a set of ornately-carved wooden doors.
In scale and grandeur, the National Museum (Nay Pyi Taw) is only a little less ostentatious than London’s British Museum although, given the small resident population and limited number of visitors, it’s hard to see how it might attract the kinds of numbers it seems intended to accommodate. Its galleries are dedicated to the promotion of Myanmar’s rich archaeological heritage, art history, decorative art and performance traditions, and the country’s place in the ASEAN pantheon of nations. There’s even a reconstruction of the famed Mandalay Palace “Lion Throne,” the original of which remains in the National Museum in Yangon (unlike many of the other exhibits which were transferred to Nay Pyi Taw). There’s also a children’s discovery room, with several “hands on” features, and a gallery dedicated to featuring the costumes of the country’s (officially recognised) “national races” and subgroups— an exhibit that has become typical in Myanmar. Unfortunately, on our visit, these rooms and some others were closed after their flooring was damaged by earthquakes.
We were at the National Museum to talk Museum Studies with staff members who were joined, for the British Council-organised workshop, by colleagues from regional museums, including the archaeological site at Beikthano, the Cultural Museum and Palace Museums of Mandalay and Kayah State Cultural Museum (Loikaw). While still small— the whole workforce comprising an estimated total of 1,000 people— Myanmar’s museum sector looks likely to grow as attempts to modernise the sector, including through overhauling the restrictive 1964 Library, Museum and Exhibition Monitoring Law, are enabling the development of new privately-run museums. Nay Pyi Taw’s National Museum, which opened in 2015, came at the end point of a four-year programme of extensive renewal and redevelopment of government-run museums, which included the refurbishment of galleries at the Yangon National Museum. In addition, 95% of the government-run “cultural museums” found in most of Myanmar’s states and divisions were also updated during the period 2011 to 2015. This extraordinary government investment was driven by the efforts of the former Director of the National Museum, Yangon, now museum consultant, Daw Nu Mra Zan. After undertaken a visiting professorship in Japan, at Osaka’s National Museum of Ethnology, and a tour of the country’s museums, on her return to Myanmar, Daw Nu Mra Zan submitted a report calling for investment in its museum sector. She found a sympathetic ear in the then Minister for Culture, U Aye Myint Kyu, whose appreciation of the potential of museums was informed by his own experience within the tourism sector, having previously served as former deputy minister of Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.
This investment came to an abrupt halt in 2015 following the general election that saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi become State Counsellor. Like many other ministries, the Ministry for Culture and Religious Affairs has had its budgets cut significantly and plans for further museum improvements, including at Loikaw (Kayah State) and Taunggyi (Shan State), will have to proceed more slowly than previously anticipated. However, despite the limitations imposed by the new administration, the museum workforce remains keen to develop its knowledge and skills so as to best exploit the sector’s potential. A postgraduate diploma in Museology course, established by Daw Nu Mra Zan at the National Museum in Yangon in 2003, is thus providing an important tool for preparing the new generation of museum workers.
Over the three days of our visit to Nay Pyi Taw, our conversations ranged from continuing professional development, to postgraduate qualification models, to organisational structures. Especially interesting were discussions about how the sector might become more “user-led” and adopt practices of “co-curation” and “co-production” in its activities. Participants (90 per cent of whom were female), varied widely in their age, backgrounds and experiences, many having undertaken training organised by and visits to international museum organisations as well as the diploma course.
Our visit marked the start of what we hope to be longer-term partnerships between museum professionals and researchers in the UK and in Myanmar. While our findings at this point are provisional, what did emerge was the potential for the museum sector— which includes a “cultural museum” in most of the country’s ethnic states— to take a more significant intermediary role in developing relations between the state and Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities. While currently interaction is limited to locally-based cultural specialists feeding into regional museum displays and events, increasing awareness of the importance of intangible cultural heritage, may provide the basis for a deeper engagement. Our conversations with our Myanmar museum colleagues, many of whom self-identified themselves as members of ethnic minorities, suggest that, whatever the hegemonic nature of their architecture and displays, Myanmar’s museums may offer more to the process of civil society development than might initially appear.
[Image courtesy of Helen Mears]
The described visit was part of an International Museum Academy organised by the British Council. Workshops and discussions, which focused on reviewing the effectiveness of the postgraduate diploma in Museology, were led by Dudley and Mears at the National Museum, Yangon, 14-16 March 2018, and at the National Museum in Nay Pyi Taw, 18-20 March 2018. The British Council has been working with Myanmar’s museums since 2014 when it undertook research into the cultural skills gaps and shortages across Myanmar’s arts sector. This was followed by a comprehensive assessment of skills needs of the museum sector in 2015, after which time the Council has organised targeted training programmes for the sector.
For other projects commissioned by the British Council: See here for a recent film by the International Museum Academy, Myanmar.
Sandra Dudley is Head of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester.
Helen Mears is an independent museum researcher, as well as Keeper of World Art at Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove and Lecturer at the University of Brighton.