Workshop in Southeast Asis gives conservators the skills to safeguard archaeological sites
September 24, 2007
LOS ANGELES—The temple complex at Vat Phou sits on a terraced hillside overlooking the ruins of a once-great Laotian city from the 12th century. Pilgrims visit the site daily, climbing a plumeria-lined path to worship at a temple where the ornate carvings combine both Hindu and Buddhist imagery. Tourists come too, mostly from nearby Thailand, to visit this magical place.
The site lies within a vast cultural landscape that comprises—in addition to a temple—a sacred mountain, significant vestiges of the Khmer Empire, and several villages undergoing important economic changes. This cultural landscape is located at the point where Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand come together. These three countries—along with southwest China, Vietnam and Myanmar—comprise what is known as the Greater Mekong Subregion by virtue of the common history each country shares with the Mekong River. It is an economically poor region, but it is culturally rich in archaeological heritage, with sites such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Vat Phou in Laos, both on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Currently, the area is experiencing increasing development and tourism, which is putting pressure on its historic sites.
From the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI)’s point of view, the challenges posed by these conditions help make the region a prime location for conservation education initiatives. The GCI recently chose Vat Phou as the location for its first education workshop in the region, designed to teach regional professionals from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar how to better preserve and manage historic sites.
The workshop, scheduled for March 9–22, 2008, will be taught by a team of international experts, including those from the GCI, Laotian and Italian archaeologists already at work on the site, conservators from the region, Indian and French architects, and others.
“We wanted to target Southeast Asia because of the heightened tourism, regional development, and loss to historic sites that has occurred there. And we wanted to reach beyond national boundaries and do something regional in focus,” said Jeff Cody, an architectural historian and senior project specialist at the GCI. “When we got to this site, it immediately fit the bill.”
The cultural significance of the place was an important reason why the GCI chose Vat Phou as the workshop’s location. Another reason was because of the brick and stone used at Vat Phou, which are similar to materials used elsewhere in the region, so the conservation problems and strategies will apply to other sites. The area’s vast cultural landscapes, lack of infrastructure, increasing pressure from tourism, and regional development are emblematic of the challenges faced throughout the Greater Mekong Subregion to balance economic well-being with cultural site conservation.
Most importantly, Vat Phou presented the opportunity for healthy collaboration. “The GCI looks for international partners who share our values and commitment to conservation and who can bring something to the table,” said Cody. In Vat Phou the GCI partnered with the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture, SEAMEO-SPAFA (Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation; Regional Center for Archeology and Fine Arts), and the Lerici Foundation from Italy, which has been conducting archaeological research for 15 years at Vat Phou and other sites in the region.
With the workshop, the GCI’s goal is not simply to conserve Vat Phou, but instead to use it as a practical field case study for young professionals charged with overseeing similar sites throughout the region.
“We want to focus on education and provide something sustainable,” said Cody. Twenty-five participants will be brought together to form teams, conduct a series of exercises together, assess the site, and propose conservation and management strategies. In the process, participants will develop a professional network that cuts across rigid national boundaries. “Our intention is to act as a healthy catalyst,” said Cody.
The GCI works to conserve historic sites all over the world, from Mayan pyramids to the Hominid Trackway in Tanzania. But more than simply shoring up structures, the GCI builds the capacity of governments to conserve their heritage.
“Education plays a part in every field project we undertake,” said Cody. “Education pays off even more than the conservation of a structure. We want this to be a stimulating, inspiring two-week experience that will teach a process of problem-solving participants can apply at sites at home.”
This two-week workshop is intended as the first step in a series of activities designed to assist local conservation professionals to elevate the quality of their practice so that the sites they protect can play a key role in sustaining the economy, culture, and society of the region well into the future.
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