Fine Arts Department Defends Controversial Restoration of Chiang Mai Statues


Following widespread criticism over the weekend regarding the restoration of 400-year-old Lanna-style statues at a Chiang Mai temple, the Fine Arts Department has come forward to defend its work. The restoration at Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham involved coating the statues with cement, leading to accusations that the statues now appear entirely rebuilt.

On June 10, Mr. Phanombuth Jantarachoti, Director-General of the Fine Arts Department, addressed the issue in an interview with ‘Matichon’. He acknowledged the controversy, noting that the restoration project has both supporters and detractors. Mr. Phanombuth assured that the department meticulously documented the restoration process at the temple located in Mueang district, Chiang Mai province.

The controversy began when Assistant Professor Dr. Surachai Chongchitngam, a lecturer at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University, criticized the restoration on social media. Dr. Surachai claimed that the application of cement over the statues obliterated their ancient features, thus devaluing these important cultural artifacts. He emphasized the unique historical significance of the Lanna-style sculptures, which differ markedly from those of Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin periods, and argued that they should be preserved in their original state. Dr. Surachai called for accountability from those responsible for the restoration and its funding.

Responding to the criticism, Phra Khru Samuh Boonlert Chaiyavaso, the abbot, and Phra Phira, a monk overseeing the restoration, explained that the initiative followed a visit by the governor of Chiang Mai earlier this year. Noticing the deteriorated state of the statues, the governor coordinated with the Fine Arts Department to undertake the restoration, which was completed several months ago. They clarified that the temple, being listed by the Fine Arts Department, cannot independently perform restoration work and only facilitated the project managed by the department.

Mr. Phanombuth elaborated that the restoration was necessary as the statues were in a dilapidated condition with sand and gravel falling from the stucco. The Fine Arts Department, in consultation with Chiang Mai Province, decided on a restoration method that would protect the original structures while preserving their form. Two options were considered: a traditional restoration, which posed a high risk of further damage, and a more protective method involving a new layer over the original structure. The latter was chosen to maintain the statues’ integrity as a tourist attraction and place of worship.

The department opted for this method after thorough research and careful consideration of the artistic style, ensuring it aligned with historical evidence. The restoration was carried out by skilled local craftsmen and aimed to return the statues to their complete, original state based on traditional art forms. Mr. Phanombuth emphasized that the process was well-documented, ensuring that future generations could understand the methods and reasoning behind the restoration.

Officials and local dignitaries, including the governor of Chiang Mai and representatives from the Fine Arts Department, attended the unveiling of the restored statues. The restoration records are preserved in the Chiang Mai archives, providing a detailed account for posterity.


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