A blog by photographer George Serras about his voluntary assignment with the Luang Prabang National Museum in Lao in 2011.
George helped the museum to photograph its collection and set up a photography program in a joint project by the National Museum of Australia, the Luang Prabang National Museum and Australian Business Volunteers.
After being the first passengers on the brand new ATR72 plane from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, we arrived in the early evening to our comfortable house in Luang Prabang in Lao and realised to our delight, that we were within 10 metres from the Vat (Temple) Manorom, which occupies the oldest temple site in Luang Prabang. We soon became accustomed to the warm resonating sounds of the prayer bell, rung every morning at
3.45 am with a follow up 4.00 am reminder call for prayer time at the temple. (Incidentally, we are teaching the monks and novices English in exchange for lessons in Lao.)
I am in Lao on a two month voluntary assignment at the invitation of Mrs Vanpheng Keophanna, Director of the Luang Prabang National Musuem (LPNM), to photograph the fragile collection in her museum and to provide training to her staff. The Luang Prabang National Museum, also known as the Royal Palace Museum, was built in 1904 during the French colonial era as a residence for King Sisavang Vong and his family. It has a French/Lao elements in its design with a grand marble staircase imported from Italy.
About 10 years ago, the Japanese Government through its friendship program donated a large range of photographic equipment (including Nikon 35mm and Mamiya medium format, a comprehensive studio flash system and even a portable darkroom). The National Museum of Australia donated a no-longer-needed professional Nikon camera body that reached full depreciation in 2005. Although obsolete to the National Museum, this camera body integrated with the extensive range of existing Nikon lens that the LPNM had, to create a digital system.
Day one at work started on Tuesday 4 January 2011 with a welcoming party for my family and I, along with a New Year celebration party for the staff at the LPNM. On the second day I was shown the storage site of the collection (located within the basement in a vault-like configuration of corridors and narrow chambers). By the end of the day, we had arranged to have the battery contact points of the Minolta flash meter re-soldered (due to battery corrosion), replaced some fuses on one of the four studio flash packs, tested the flash heads and brushed off the dust from the equipment that was sitting in the 'studio' area located beside the central courtyard area and below the King's residence. (I was also shown the escape tunnel from the central courtyard that lead to the banks of the Mekong River, in the event of the King needing to make a quick escape).
By the end of the week I was training five museum staff and had them familiarised with the equipment so that they could photograph their collection. We had also backed up the collection information system on an external hard drive and started to prepare simple user manuals on how to use the equipment in English and Lao for existing and future staff.
Week 2 begins tomorrow with anticipated excitement in this land of historic temples, free 4.00 am wake-up calls with sound of morning bells, culinary delights and truly beautiful people.
Week 2 brought a sense of familiarity with the town. Riding to the local markets and knowing where to go and what to buy is becoming easier. The staff at the museum have also started to familiarise themselves with the photographic equipment donated by our museum allowing for the documentation of their collection.
As a team, we have started to photograph the King's Palace collection including ornately carved ivory-handled swords from the early nineteenth century, mother-of-pearl inlayed boxes, ceremonial containers, Buddha sculptures of bronze and brass, along with the exhibition cases in the gallery areas.
On the weekend, my family and I were invited to Monk Vanna's family village, Ban Khoc Kham, located north of Luang Prabang on the Mekong River. The journey consisted of an hour drive and an hour boat trip. Although the village is relatively close to Luang Prabang, we were informed that we were the first farang or foreigners that had visited and everyone was very keen to study us closely. Some of the young children screamed when they saw me - clearly they were unfamiliar with the sight of a classic Greek god.
After asking Monk Vanna what his family needed the most, we brought with us two 30-metre rolls of lino as a gift to the family (so they can line the lower floor of their traditional wooden house). We spent one night in the family home and we were welcomed by the village elders for a baasii ceremony. The ceremony is a unique Lao ritual in which guardian spirits are bound to the guests of honour by white strings tied around the wrists. We were seated around a pha khwan, a conical shaped arrangement of banana leaves, flowers and fruit which also hung the cotton threads. When the Buddhist chant was finished by the village elder, in this case Monk Vanna's uncle, Phar, one by one, the villagers moved around the room to tie a thread to each of our wrists warding off bad spirits and welcoming the good ones.
Luang Prabang is a special place where history, tradition and culture sit comfortably amongst coffee shops and French patisseries.
The day begins with breakfast at home with French and Laotian tastes including organic coffee grown in the highlands and butter croissants, baguettes with butter and jam. Upon arriving at work at 8.00 am, the staff are offering me a second breakfast of Lao pork sausage (saikok), noodle soup, chilli paste, sticky rice, dried water buffalo lung (pot), fresh pork and sticky fried rice with egg (similar to an omelette) called kaogigeen saikai. Small doses of food eaten regularly here ensures that food is the centre of many social gatherings, including work-related discussions.
The name Luang Prabang means city of the Pra Bang. Within the museum lies a Buddha figure cast of a gold, silver, and bronze alloy - the most prized exhibit within the museum's collection. It stands 83 centimetres high and weighs approximatley 50 kilograms. According to legend, the Prabang was cast in Sri Lanka in the first century AD. It came to Lao as a gift from the King of Khmer, Phaya Sirichantha, to King Fangum of Lanxang Kingdom in 1356. Luang Prabang was originally called called MuaongSua, Xiangdong and Xiangthong. In 1560, the name was changed to Luang Prabang in honour of the Prabang image. Vat Ho Pha Bang will become the keeping place of the gold cast of the Buddha figure or Pra Bang.
By the third week at work, as a team the museum photography trainees had photographed large sections of a mural (a mosaic made of coloured glass), displays in the gallery, a wide range of collection material, identified (and removed) a variety of pests from the photographic archive (including hide beetle, silverfish and booklice). They also began a strategy to re-house the photographic archive and introduced a pest control process for the archive.
The days are becoming increasingly warm, and some days are quite smoky due to slash and burn farming in the mountains. In any case, the town becomes quite hazy in the early evening as everyone lights their charcoal stoves for cooking.
The items within the museum's collection are itemised under 16 groups. The group headings are: textiles, decorative art, musical instruments, royal accessories, pictures, ceramics, medals, weapons, religious objects, documents, furniture, stone tools, glassware, molds, metals and costumes. I am teaching the staff photographic lighting techniques so that they are able to document the collection themselves when I leave. So far, we have photographed selected collection material from half of the identified groupings above. The staff are becoming more confident in how to light each object type.
During the week I received a call from the office of the Australian Embassy based in the capital of Lao, Vientiane. The newly-appointed ambassador, Lynda Worthaisong, was in Luang Prabang to visit a school that the Australian Government funded, to attend the opening of a newly constructed temple, funded by the Australian-Lao society, and to visit the museum and to hear about my volunteer project. Along with her assistant, we walked through the gallery space and she commented on the beauty of the collection material within the historic former palace.
The English classes continue after work with the monks and novices next door up. Lately I have been helping Novice Phot with his English homework while my wife is helping other novices. The monks ask questions like - what is the meaning of 'wonder'? At 5.15 pm, the time the temple bell is rung, we stop and are invited for prayer in the temple as the working day slowly comes to an end.
The week began with copywork. There are over 60,000 photographs in the King's collection most of them being housed in albums (including those terrible 'magnetic' albums). Fortunately, in most cases, the adhesive stripes have 'lost their grip' and no longer hold the photos in place. This makes it both convenient to quickly remove the photos for the copywork process and to relocate the photos into a more stable enclosure.
The copywork process involved Mr Nouphanh Keosouda removing the prints from the album, Mr Sengphone Keophanna placing the photo onto the copystand and Mr Phoxay Inkong firing the camera with a cable release. This process ensures that the staff were able to photograph 50 small black and white original photograph from the King's albums within an hour.
Besides this, we also started to photograph some of the framed photographs including a historic portrait of the Queen Khamphouy (above).
Another week and another wedding. This time it was Monk Vanna's brother and the wedding was celebrated in Ban Khoc Kham, a village upstream on the Mekong River.
As a wedding gift, I gave some money to Monk Vanna's mother so that she could buy meat and other ingredients for the wedding. It took three hours for the long-boat to reach the village. It was an 'all-stops' affair dropping villagers off to their villages along the river. About 15 minutes into the boat trip, we stopped at a floating petrol station on the Mekong for 10 litres of fuel. The fuel was going to keep the generator going for lighting and the live band at the wedding.
Anyway, it was dusk when we arrived and quickly settled into the 'Vietnamese' house ... a community house built by a Vietnamese family. With the simple beds made, mosquito nets up, I was ready for my welcoming Lao Lao whisky (made from fermented rice). Dust rose in a cloud as many people danced on the dirt floor. The three energy efficient bulbs that operated under the makeshift dance area (tarps and bamboo poles) ensured that there was enough light to see that you were still dancing with your chosen partner. At times, the music got punchier and the youngsters started jumping up and down in the middle of the circle while the oldies 'like me' continued the Laotian swing ... it was like a moshpit surrounded by the circle of oldies.
Lao, a place where young and old can mix around a dusty dancefloor.
Tuesday is the day of the week when the museum is closed to the public. It gives the staff an opportunity to catch up on gallery maintenance, cleaning and other exhibition work. It is also the day when the staff and I photograph the exhibits in the gallery. To have access to the exhibits for a whole day allows uninterrupted photography. Today's Tuesday's session involved photographing the King's throne, the houdah, the King's elephant seat and the King's reception area. The staff experimented with photographing the collection in the gallery using existing backgrounds such as curtains and drapes.
Another significant collection item photographed was the 'Nang Teang-aun' story. The Director of the Museum, Mrs Vanpheng Keophanna, detailed the importance of this significant object which is illustrated with natural pigments, layered with gold-leaf and is 370mm high and over 15,000mm in length. The story is laid out in a folded concertina booklet consisting of approximately 100 pages of illustrations. The object was deinstalled from the showcase and delicately brought in the studio for photography. Besides providing an electronic version of the story, the images will be stitched together allowing for a facsimile to be produced in the future. Three panels that depict the story of Nang Teang-aun are highlighted above.
On the weekend I watched a drum being made by a group of monks and novices under the supervision of an experienced drum-maker at Vat That Luang. The ox skin was hosed down with water so that it could be softened. It was then beaten over and over again with bamboo sticks for about four or so hours. This helped to soften the skin so that it produced a warm resonance. The drum was going to be used the following weekend for an ordination ceremony, part of the process of novices becoming monks.
On Friday, the museum received a visit from the In-County Manager for Laos of Australian Business Volunteers (ABV), Mr Somchit Siri and ABV's Program Manager, Sarah Patrick. Mr Somchit lived in Canberra for about 25 years before moving back to his home country. Besides the visit to the Museum to witness first hand the successful progress of the project, the ABV staff also visited the Souphanouvong University, the Tourism Provincial Department and the Northern Region Sustainable Livelihoods Department.
There are 48 cultural groups in Lao and the week began with a New Year's Day celebration for the Tai-Dam community. The staff of the Luang Prabang National Museum were invited on Monday to join in the celebrations of this smaller Laotian community.
It is believed that the Tai-Dam originated in north-western Vietnam, and began to migrate to Lao in the late nineteenth century. Tai-Dam differ from many other Laotian groups in that they are not Buddhist, instead practise a form of ancestor and spirit they worship. They are also well-known producers of fine quality silk and cotton textiles.
This week saw the opening of a Buddha restoration exhibition. The restoration project started in 2001 and this week's opening celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Lao-Japan project. The sculptures were retrieved from a famous temple called Vat Visoun where they lay for a long period of time in a deteriorating state.
Of the approximately 100 sculptures found in the temple, 15 have been restored and are on display in the temporary gallery at the Luang Prabang National Museum.
The remaining sculptures are slowly being restored by a team of Japanese conservators working beside selectively chosen art students from Vientiane known for their woodworking skills. The conservators and artisans shape blocks of wood into replacement sections whether it be a hand or any other deteriorated part of the body. Besides this they filled holes, created by wood borers, using a traditional filler material made of ingredients sourced from the local forests and apply gold-leaf during the final stages of the restoration process. They all worked under the guidance of Professor Yanagimoto Isao, head conservator from the Faculty of Buddhism, Minobusan University, Japan.
This week also saw the beginning of a two year volunteer project. Mr Horisawa Mitsuei is a senior volunteer with Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA). A former senior curator, Mr Horisawa spent 16 years with the Himeji City Museum of Art, which is located about 50 kilometres west of Kobe in Japan. The Art Museum houses some significant artworks including paintings by Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Rene Magritte and sculptures by August Rodin and Aristide Maillol. Mr Horisawa has come to the Luang Prabang National Museum to work with the archive of the photographic collection and other curatorial museum matters.
Another Tuesday and another opportunity to photograph the historic mural which occupies 12 sections of wall within three large rooms. The mural is a mosaic made up of coloured glass pieces and depicts images of Laotian life.
Commissioned by the King Sisavang Vong, it was created by the best craftspeople in Lao in preparation for his coronation that never came. The country was in the midst of revolutionary change and the Nationalist Movement for an Independent Lao made the monarchy redundant.
Once all the panels of the mural are photographed, Mrs Vanpheng Keophanna, Director of the Luang Prabang National Museum is planning to print up the images to seek information from those who remember the stories that are represented in the mural.
From a budgetary and operational perspective, the museum receives very little funding from the Laotian government and welcomes (and quite often relies on) overseas assistance. Donations from Japan, Australia and other countries with offerings of equipment, conservation and exhibition materials allow the Exhibition and Collections staff to care for their culturally significant collection.
Luang Prabang is indeed a very special place. A place where I have learnt more than I have taught and where I am reminded of how optimistic and happy people can be despite having very little income. It is also a place approximately 30 temples with many monks and hundred of novices that help to enhance the beauty of the town.
As for the country Lao, I am reminded that despite over 2,000,000 tonnes of ordnance was dropped between 1964 and 1973, it is place where a child or adult injured by an unexploded ordnance (UXO) is seen as a UXO survivor not a victim, a place where this type of optimism strengthens the community and a place where the West can learn a lot from this landlocked country in the East.
Indeed a remarkable place of humble and loving people.