THESIS ABSTRACT 2004
Cultural Controversy: The Case of the Narai Bandhomsindhu Lintel of Phanom Rung Stone Sanctuary in Thailand
What would you feel if the torch of the Statue of Liberty was a possession of a foreign museum? This question was rephrased from the article “Temple Lintel Pits Thais Against an Art Museum” printed in The New York Times, dated July 17, 1988. The Thais compared this assumed situation with the real case of the Narai Bandhomsindhu Lintel of Thailand, which was held at the Art Institute of Chicago for twenty-one years.
The Narai Bandhomsindhu Lintel or “The Birth of Brahma with Reclining Vishnu on a Makara,” is an ornate religious art piece of Phanom Rung Stone Sanctuary in Bhuriram, Thailand. Phanom Rung Stone Sanctuary was mainly built from pinkish sandstone between the 10th-13th centuries. This stone sanctuary, situated on a hilltop site in Bhuriram, Thailand, was once an important place where Brahman priests conducted Hindu religious rites. It became best known in Thailand when the lintel was discovered to have been stolen and displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
It was believed that the two-and-a-half-by-three-foot lintel disappeared from Thailand in the early 1960s. Then, it became an issue in 1972 when a Thai prince, Subhadradis Diskul, visited the Art Institute of Chicago and told museum officials that the lintel was a piece of missing antiquity. The controversy became more intense in the late 1980s. Following long negotiations, the nine-hundred-year-old lintel was eventually returned to Thailand on November 10, 1988.
The appreciation of the exquisite craft of the Narai Bandhomsindhu Lintel by the art collector involved and the museum is admirable. However, the lintel is not just an elaborate artwork—one which could be worth half a million dollars—there is a story beyond the lintel’s beauty. It is a story of a sacred object made by heart and soul, which is priceless. “Like other Asians, the Thais dislike overt confrontation. They prefer to fight their battles quietly, patiently, and with subtlety.” Therefore, it must have been a shock to both nations when there were demonstrations by the Thais in front of the Art Institute of Chicago and also outside the American embassy in Bangkok on the Fourth of July. Furthermore, strong feelings were expressed in a popular song of the time named Thaplang, which means “Lintel,” by the popular group Carabow. The thematic lyrics of the song are “take Michael Jackson back, give Narai God back.” Did this mean that enough was enough in this prolonged negotiation?
This thesis examines the cultural controversy between the Art Institute of Chicago and the Thai government in the case of the Narai Bandhomsindhu Lintel. It is composed of the arguments regarding the significance of the lintel, the questionable legal acquisition of the lintel, the arguments for keeping the lintel specifically in the Art Institute of Chicago, the arguments for returning the lintel to its original site, and the lesson learned from the case of the lintel. This lesson will be applied to the present role of art museums in presenting objects from other cultures. In addition, this thesis aims to act as a reminder of the importance of one’s national history and the values of cultural heritage. The Narai Bandhomsindhu Lintel is, of course, not the last national antiquity that should be returned to its homeland.
Amolwan Kiriwat received her Bachelor of Arts with a major in Dramatic Arts from Chulalongkorn University,Bangkok, Thailand in 1997 and her Master of Arts in Theatre from the University of Maine, Orono, in 2001. While in the MAAA program at SAIC, she interned at Dusit Palace, the Bureau of the Royal Household, Bangkok, Thailand and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Thesis Advisor: Nicholas Lowe Visiting Artist, Arts Administration
Thesis Reader: Sarah Core Peters Adjunct Associate Professor, Liberal Arts