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Bangkok Exhibit Celebrates 200 Years of U.S.-Thailand Friendship

By Larry Luxner  

BANGKOK — In 1862, as the Civil War was raging, President Abraham Lincoln received a handwritten letter from King Mongkut of Siam offering to send a pair of elephants to the United States so they would propagate throughout the American heartland. Lincoln politely declined the gift, replying that steam transportation was far more efficient for his rapidly growing country.

The king’s missive, and Lincoln’s response, are among 79 artifacts now on display as part of “Great and Good Friends” — an ambitious exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of friendship between the United States and Thailand.

A gold niello desk set given to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 by King Bhumibol Adulyadej is part of the exhibit “Great and Good Friends” in Thailand celebrating 200 years of Thai-U.S. relations.

The project, spearheaded by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and the Washington-based Meridian International Center, was inaugurated March 21 at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, located on the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace. It’ll run until June 30, said Trevor Merrion of the Meridian Center, one of two curators who helped put the project together.

“Most of these objects have never been displayed in Bangkok before,” Merrion told the Diplomatic Pouch by phone from Washington. “It was a tremendous undertaking to bring them all to Thailand.”

A letter from Phaja Surivongmontri to President James Monroe in 1818 is on display.

The 200 years of friendship date back to an Aug. 15, 1818, letter written by Phaja Surivongmontri to then-President James Monroe. That was the year Capt. Stephen Williams arrived in Bangkok after a year-long journey from Boston, seeking to buy sugar. The letter proposed continued trade, contact and cooperation — and eventually resulted in the 1833 Treaty of Amity establishing formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Besides the historic correspondence, priceless objects on display include items such as a Malay-style pamor steel kris dagger and satinwood sheath given by King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce in 1856; a silver niello bowl with gold trim offered by King Prajadhipok to President Herbert Hoover in 1931; a cigarette case with the royal cypher of King Ananda Mahidol given to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; and a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej received as a gift from that same king by President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

From left, Terry Harvey of the Meridian Cultural Center; curator Trevor Merrion; U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies; curator William Bradford Smith; and Lindsay Amini of the Meridian International Center attend the March 21 opening of the “Great and Good Friends” exhibit in Bangkok. (Photo: U.S. Embassy Bangkok)

“We had formerly been with the Smithsonian’s anthropology department for nearly a decade. So our familiarity with the collection was a big reason we got involved with Meridian in the first place,” said Merrion, referring to himself and the exhibit’s other curator, Brad Smith. “The project developed over time and ended up including a lot of artifacts other than what was in the Smithsonian.”

The exhibit also borrows from the National Archives, the Library of Congress and no less than 10 presidential libraries. Fewer than half a dozen artifacts originated from Thai institutions.

The title of the exhibit, “Great and Good Friends,” actually comes from the term Lincoln used to address King Mongkut in a letter thanking him for the royal presents he had earlier sent to Washington.

From left, Rasina Bajaj, group editor-in-chief of Media Transasia Thailand Ltd; Vira-anong Chiranakhorn Phutrakul, managing director and consumer business manager for Citi Thailand; Tibor Pandi, country head of Citibank; his wife Agnes Pandi; Jacqueline Davies, wife of Ambassador Davies; U.S. ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies; Courtney Nemroff, counselor for economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy Bangkok; and Ben King, country head of Thailand for Google, attend the March 21 opening of the “Great and Good Friends” exhibit in Bangkok.(Photo: U.S. Embassy Bangkok)

“‘Great’ in a sense quite naturally of King Mongkut’s power, and ‘good’ because King Mongkut [also known as Rama IV] was a virtuous and a noble spirit,” Glyn T. Davies, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, told the Bangkok Post. “We are on opposite sides of the world; it’s not very likely that we should become in contact and become foreign allies.”

The exhibit will be open until June 30. Tickets cost 150 baht for adults and 50 baht for students 12 to 18; children are 12 are admitted for free.

This portrait by Rembrandt Peale of George Washington, dating from 1856, was a gift from President Franklin Pierce to Thailand’s Second King, Pinklao. It is on loan from the National Museum in Bangkok.

Merrion said the exhibit can handle up to 300,000 visitors during the three months it’s open.

“It’s at the Grand Palace, so there’s already a high level of visitors. Furthermore, there are going to be class tours of the exhibitions and other programs of that nature,” he said. “It’s the flagship of the embassy’s 200th anniversary celebrations, so a great deal of effort is being made to make the Thai public aware of it. We’re pretty optimistic we’ll get close to 300,000 visitors.”

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.



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