My visit to the National Museum in Yangon, capital city of Myanmar, was a game of two halves.
The first half was pleasant but not particularly memorable. Once I’d passed the entrance gate, with its attractively tiered and pagoda-like top, I found myself outside a hulking concrete building – one that in Britain would probably stand on a college campus built in the 1960s and house a clutch of lecture theatres. The grounds around the museum building are dotted with statues and, because photography is forbidden inside, these were the only exhibits I could take pictures of.
In the building itself, the first exhibits are contained in an entrance hall. The most interesting of these for me was a wooden carving, nearly a metre high, of two ‘gong strikers’: two stripped-to-the-waist guys carrying a stick between them with a large gong hanging from it. The gong was the only component not made of wood – it was metal and no doubt was a real gong that matched the carving’s scale and had been bought in some music shop – and unfortunately it still had a little price-label stuck on its surface, which reduced the work’s impressiveness.
Beyond the hall is a section devoted to Myanmar’s ‘epigraphy and calligraphy’, where there are teak pillars and a huge bronze bell, although I wasn’t sure what these had to do with either epigraphy or calligraphy.
The chief exhibit on the ground floor, however, is the Lion Throne – used for “judicial affairs at the supreme court of the Myanansankyew Golden Palace in the Yadanabou Period (AD 19th century)”. It was taken to India in 1902 but Lord Louis Mountbatten returned it to Myanmar in 1948. It’s a masterwork of carving, adorned with spine-like pinnacles, lotus-flower scrollwork and many little compartments housing peacock, hare, elephant and lion figurines. An information panel states that only “the Royal Monarch himself” was allowed to ascend the throne “because it was the symbol of judicial power during the reign of the Myanmar monarchs.” Though the reign of those monarchs is long over, the rules obviously still apply – a sign underneath warns museum visitors that “(a)scending the Royal Lion Throne is strictly prohibited.”
Elsewhere, the ground floor exhibits some ‘state attire’, i.e. ceremonial robes and garments once worn by the country’s royalty. Though charming, these look slightly fusty now. Also on display are dolls’ house-sized models of the buildings at Mandalay Palace; and in another location a model of the State House that was designed by the Victorian architect Hoyne Fox, was completed in 1895 and thereafter accommodated Myanmar’s colonial rulers. Actually, the State House model is splendid – it looks like the best dolls’ house ever. However, the real thing no longer stands in Yangon, for the State House suffered earthquake damage during the 1970s and was later demolished.
The first floor contains a room devoted to natural history and the ‘Myanmar Prehistoric Period’, of which my lasting impression was of some large toothy jawbones. I preferred two attractions outside the room, two huge tree-roots that were carved and enamelled over, their surfaces patterned with leaves, petals, flowers and swirls and populated with sculpted rabbits, owls, monkeys, squirrels, birds, elephants and humanoid (possibly supernatural) figures.
When I reached the second floor I discovered the entrance to a section dedicated to ‘Myanmar Performing Arts’ and suddenly the museum became interesting for me. Here I found an array of musical instruments, including indigenous drums, lutes, banjos, violins, flutes, gongs and xylophones; a harp shaped like a boat but with a big curved-back prow, from which the strings extend; and a zither fashioned to look like a crocodile, with the strings stretched across the scaly, knobbly ridge on its back.
This section also contains a selection of masks, many of them monkey-like and grotesque – the one purporting to represent the Hindu god Hanuman looks especially monstrous. And there’s a gallery of puppets hanging inside a glass case that lines a whole wall. These consist of animal puppets (elephants, tigers, horses, dragons) and human puppets (kings, princesses, clowns, hermits) and a few that worryingly combine both animal and human traits.
But while I was feasting my eyes on the riches offered by this part of the museum… A power cut occurred and the lights went off. And they stayed off for the rest of my visit.
The performing-arts room had windows along one wall and their blinds were pulled down. As soon as the electricity stopped flowing, only a faint yellowy light managed to percolate through the blinds. Shadows suddenly filled the room and the exhibits became sinister, the curved frames of the harps looming like serpents, the outlines of the puppets resembling corpses on a gallows. And so began the second half of my visit to the National Museum – to borrow a title from Stephen King, The Dark Half.
Another room on the same floor was dedicated to ‘Traditional Folk Art’ and I was able to discern most of the things on display there: carvings, toys, dolls, utensils, tools. Unfortunately, when I went to the third floor, I found it had a gallery of Burmese art where, without the lights, it was impossible to see anything after I’d walked a few yards past the doorway. Likewise, there was a display of Buddha images on the fourth floor but it was much too dark now to make them out.
The fourth floor was also home to a room called the ’12 National Objectives and Nation-Building Endeavours Showroom’ – an Orwellian title that reminded me I was in a country run by a military dictatorship (though hopefully one that’s in the process of relinquishing its hold on power). I didn’t feel like venturing inside so I don’t know if the power outage would have prevented me from seeing its contents or not.
And that was it. My visit to the National Museum wasn’t a waste of time, but if I could have that afternoon again, I’d make a beeline to the Lion Throne and then run up to the performing-arts bit. And after that I’d try to fit in as much of the upper floors as possible before the lights conked out.