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A still frame from the Hmong folktale animation © LPFF and TAEC

Integrating ICH into Museum Work at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, Luang Prabang, Laos

Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre

The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) was launched in July 2007 to promote understanding of Laos’ ethnic diversity and advocate for the survival and transmission of Laotian cultural heritage. It is the only independent museum and cultural heritage center in Laos dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of the traditional arts and lifestyles of the country’s ethnic groups.
Currently, the Centre features exhibits, two brick-and-mortar fair trade shops with handicrafts produced by rural artisans, a small library, café, and kids’ activity area. The Centre received over 27,000 visitors in 2017 and has rapidly emerged as a regional leader in cultural heritage management and community development.

As an independent organization, TAEC receives no funding from the government. The Centre was started with seed money from private donors and two foundations. Now, the Centre’s admission fees, tourist-related services, and café and shop income cover day-to-day running costs, and the organization operates as a social enterprise, with all profits invested towards its mission.

TAEC and ICH

Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is an important way of engaging with audiences and working outside of the museum. TAEC integrates ICH into most aspects of its work, because it is not a traditional museum with traditional museum assets and resources. For example, TAEC did not begin with an endowment or collection. The team curated most of the collection, many from communities whose members gave us detailed contextual information about how an object was made, was/is used, who made it, and what materials were used. Thus, most of the objects displayed in the museum are not antiques, and very much rooted in their cultural context. Pieces chosen for display tend to have interesting stories, showing how they’re a product of the communities that produced them and illuminating the culture from where they came.

Women and Folktales Project

Last year, TAEC finished a project called Women and Folktales documenting ethnic minority stories as told by women in their native language. Women are important storytellers and bearers of cultural heritage in Laos. However, their voices are rarely heard outside their communities, due to their traditional home-bound responsibilities and their lack of confidence in participating in public forums. At the same time, traditional folktales and legends are in danger of dying out, as an older generation passes on and young people prefer entertainment from television and the internet.

With this in mind, the Luang Prabang Film Festival and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre launched the Women and Folktales Project to empower ethnic minority women in Laos and document and disseminate traditional stories using film. Funded by the US Embassy Vientiane, the project filmed seven women, from Hmong, Kmhmu, and Tai Lue villages around Luang Prabang, recounting nineteen traditional folktales in their native languages. These films were translated into Lao and English and subtitled and are now archived within the digital libraries of LPFF and TAEC.

Three of these folktales, one from each ethnic group, were turned into animated shorts with the creative input of the storytellers. “The Dog and Her Three Daughters” (Hmong), “The Spider Man” (Kmhmu), and “What the Buffalo Told the Humans” (Tai Lue) are traditional, yet vibrant, cartoons that are used by TAEC’s Education and Outreach Team in local primary schools, exposing a whole new audience to the diverse ICH of Laos. These films and stories can be seen on the TAEC YouTube page along with other educational content.

Conclusion

TAEC has integrated community collaboration and ICH into almost all aspects of its operations. Community artisans regular visit TAEC for residencies and to develop new handicraft products. Primary research is conducted in communities for current exhibitions, and profiles, oral histories, contemporary photographs, video, and audio soundscapes are used in the museum to provide intangible cultural context for the themes and objects. TAEC’s school outreach team visits schools and provides free museum activities to engage children in cultural issues and broaden their awareness and appreciation for their heritage and identity. Projects such as Women and Folktales are other efforts to work with communities to document and safeguard ICH. Working effectively with these source communities is time-consuming and costly, due to their remoteness, cultural distance, language barriers, and economic situation, and documenting intangible cultural heritage is not easy. However, when representing ethnic cultures, it is vital to be engaged with ethnic communities themselves, in documentation, development of cultural identity, and self-determining activities. More information about TAEC and their work is available on the Centre’s website.

Tara Gujadhur, Co-Director, Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre

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