In the Ethnographic Collections at Moesgaard Museum, we have a big collection of artefacts and photographs from Thailand: EA212. It was curated by Associate Professor Emeritus at Aarhus University, Mikael Gravers, during an ethnographic fieldwork that took place from October 1970 to July 1972 in Ban Rai district, Uthaithani province, mid-west Thailand. Our intern, Iana Lukina, has interviewed Mikael about the theoretical and practical thoughts behind collecting at the time when the fieldwork took place and the concrete practice of collecting things for a museum. Thus, this blogpost will take you behind the scenes and will introduce you to the person behind the collection.
Background: The fieldwork Mikael Graves stayed in one of ca. 10 Pwo Karen villages north of Ban Rai town. His two student colleagues from Copenhagen, Anders Baltzer Jørgensen and Kirsten Ewers Andersen stayed in the forested western part of the province. They were the first Danish students to obtain a grant from the Danish National Research Council supported by their supervisor, Professor Johannes Nicolaisen, Anthropology, Copenhagen. He was the first Danish Professor of social anthropology and a great mentor for the three students. Gravers studied the ethnic identity of the Pwo at a time of profound changes and pressure from Thai authorities who banned their swidden agriculture and suspected they were potential communist guerillas. He spent much time investigating the Karens’ religion, its cosmology, rules and rituals. He participated in ceremonies and worked in the rice fields. He had his own bamboo house – but had his meals with his Karen mentor and his family, as a one-man household was not sustainable according to the villagers.
Mikael Gravers in front of his Karen house.
Iana: From where did you collect the objects, a temple or local people brought it to you, or some craftsman made it for you?
Mikael: What I did, when I came to the village, was to tell them about this collection […]. “Well, that’s a very good idea Mikael, we will try to help you.”
But then I asked: “What about this pot here, can I take this pot back to Denmark?”
“Oh, not really our broken and dirty pot here. Let’s see, we will find something for you.”
“Can I have this instrument for weaving cotton?”
“I think you should have a better one.”
And it went on like this.
“Okay, what about the girls, women dresses, beautiful red colour dresses?”
“We don’t want to have our old dirty clothes on exhibit in your country, so we will weave something new for you. You just go and buy the cotton and some wool for the patterns.”
Likewise, with the pearl necklaces, I bought some pearls and they did it for me. There was another problem: a man should never touch a woman’s skirt.
“Well Mikael, it will itch all over your body if you touch one.”
“Okay, okay, I will not touch it.”
But it was not just about itching; they believed that the male potency would disappear totally if you touched. There were these kinds of restrictions or problems. So, for a long time I didn’t collect anything. But when we approached the time where I was going to leave, they said: “Oh, wait a minute Mikael, we better start getting the things for you.” And they came with a lot of things, all kinds of utensils, tools, traps for catching rats in the house or traps for wild chickens, hunting equipment, guns, lots of Karen bags and clothing. I tried to pick everything I could get my hand on and also get more than one copy of each to give the variation. Nothing was too big or too small for me.
EA212-1: Model of a Karen house.
Iana: How did you carry all the collected stuff down the mountains? (it was a 6 hour walk to get to the bus)
Mikael: Well, we hired an ox cart. We put it on that one and took it down to the main road and then a car came and collected it. We went to Bangkok. And went into the Danish East Asiatic company, it is not existing anymore, it was a very big thing at that time. They had a huge office in Bangkok and they had promised to put the collection in boxes and bring it back to Denmark free of charge. But when they saw that there were guns, old guns, an old gun from Burma, British guns and another one was homemade, and crossbows, they said, ‘We are never getting these arms through the port control here.’ And I said: ‘They are not functioning anymore’. They actually told me to go to another company and I said: ‘No, come on, you can fix this’. And another person took over and it went smooth. I was just unlucky to bump into someone who probably thought: ‘Let’s get rid of this anthropologist and his problem’. It was shipped to Denmark in boxes made of red iron tree. […] And it [the collection] arrived at the custom building in Aarhus after I returned, and at that time, the man who took care of the storage was a retired police officer and he was very skilled in getting this through the custom, because he talked it down. He said: ‘This is just rubbish, broken pieces, nothing of value’. It was very difficult for me, because for me, this was really a treasure. So, when the customer officer found a Buddha bronze head, this was my personal one, and took it out and said: ‘You said it was only broken pieces, okay, this head seems to be cut off.’ ‘No!’ I said – ‘It’s not cut off – it’s a new copy.’ But the former policeman gave me a push and whispered: ‘Stop this’. The whole exercise here was to get the boxes through without paying any duty. Then we unpacked the boxes, not in the museum, but in the place where they use gas to kill insects and there were cockroaches and a scorpion in the collection. So, the policeman jumped up on a chair, he was so scared when he saw this. He had never seen a collection with so many animals coming out because the boxes were not closed in the port area before they were loaded. So, they were killed and the whole collection was gassed.
Iana: Are you generally satisfied with what you have collected? Do you think the idea of presenting the daily life with the collected objects worked out?
Mikael: I think so. Today I am very happy about it. At some point I thought ‘can it really be used for anything in the future?’. There are so much information connected to every tool and every item in this collection. [This information] really gained meaning in relation to this community and to the cosmology of this people. In that way material culture can not only tell us a story in itself, but it can expand the story or the narratives you have about the origin of this society, the religious ideas, the cosmology. Also, about social changes.
Mikael: The Karen men were using a skirt (a longyi) from Myanmar, and I also used one. But at that time, in Denmark, you shouldn’t do that because that was like a trans dressing. So, our secretary came to my place with some mail to me a few days after I came back. All my clothing was being washed and I actually didn’t have so much so I used a longyi on that day and I had my Karen male silver necklace on. And she [secretary] literally backed down the stairs and just gave me the mail. When I came out to Moesgård, she said: ‘Well Mikael, it’s okay you dress like that, but please don’t do it in public, I don’t want to see it’. So, I stopped that.