The origins of the National Museum can be traced back to 1874. King Rama V, also known as King Chulalongkorn, established the public museum to exhibit the royal collection of his predecessor, King Mongkut, also known as Rama IV. Fans of musical theater will be familiar with King Mongkut from the famous Rogers and Hammerstein production, The King and I. The story is based loosely on the experiences of a British woman named Anna Leonowens who taught English to the king’s children in the early 1860s. However, The King and I is a highly fictionalized account. Its historical inaccuracies and disrespectful portrayal of the king were so insulting to the Thai people that the musical and any subsequent movie productions of it have been banned throughout the country.
The musical was drawn from two books written by Anna Leonowens. The first, titled The English Governess at the Court of Siam, was written in 1870, three years after the author had left Thailand. Two years later, in 1872, she wrote a second book called The Romance of the Harem. Decades later, a woman named Margot Landon stumbled across the books and combined elements of each into a book named Anna and the King of Siam, which was published in 1943. It was Landon’s account that inspired the Rogers and Hammerstein musical.
It is hard to say exactly where the historical inaccuracies worked their way into the story among all the different versions. There are three main issues at which the Thais take umbrage. First are the claims of Anna Leonowens’ prominence in the king’s court. In reality, King Monkut’s diaries barely mention her. Second, The King and I insinuates that Leonowens was responsible for various social and economic reforms, many of which were enacted before she arrived in Thailand. Third, and perhaps most insulting to Thais, are the overtones of a romance between Leonowens and the sixty-year-old, highly religious King Mongkut. The king had spent a large portion of his life as a monk, and the portrayal of him in The King and I is considered an affront to his religious nature. This portrayal reflects a common misconception about the Thai people: despite the notoriously raucous nightlife of Bangkok, most Thais are conservative and spiritual.
The National Museum is a good place to get a clearer historical view of King Monkut, since the exhibition began as a display of the king’s Royal collection. Initially, it was called the Bangkok Museum, but when it came under control of the Department of Fine Arts in 1934, it was renamed the National Museum. It is the largest and oldest museum of its kind in Southeast Asia, and in addition to King Monkut’s Royal collection, it houses a very well-curated collection of ancient artifacts, most of them from the Ban Chiang archaeological site.
A particular highlight of the museum is Phra Thinung Phutthaisawan, which served as the palace’s private chapel. It houses a highly revered image of the Buddha named Phra Buddha Sihing. Identical images also exist in the cities of Nakhom Thammarat and Chiang Mai. It is not known which of the three the original is. Legend claims that the original floated over the sea to Thailand from Sri Lanka, but likely it was made in Sukhothai, one of the former capitals of Thailand. Most temples position the primary Buddha image towards the back of the temple, but here in Phra Thinung Phutthaisawan, it is right in the middle. This leaves room for a group of cabinets in the back, which hold scriptures that are themselves works of art.
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