Australian museums have a long record of developing productive mutual relationships with kindred institutions in the Asia-Pacific region. The National Museum of Australia has also developed contacts that have resulted in a valuable project with the Luang Prabang National Museum of Lao in 2011, the initiative of National Museum of Australia photographer George Serras. Here he provides a short introduction to a rich archive of images documenting his experiences.
In 2007, Mrs. Vanpheng Keophanna (now director of the Luang Prabang National Museum in Lao) visited the National Museum of Australia on a two-month internship, part of her two-year International Museum Studies program at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Aware of the value of international co-operation, she was keen to establish a relationship between her museum and ours. This partnership was also strongly supported by many within our museum, including staff of the Centre for Historical Research and Carol Cooper, the National Museum's manager of registration at the time.
From this encounter grew a desire to offer support to a museum working under the all-too familiar constraints of a developing nation. After many months of planning, in January and February 2011, at the invitation of Mrs Keophanna, I travelled to Lao on a two-month voluntary assignment to the Luang Prabang National Museum. I travelled on leave, under the auspices of Australian Business Volunteers, with some material support from the National Museum of Australia's Centre for Historical Research. The visit had several purposes. Most importantly, I was to help to photograph the fragile collection in Luang Prabang and to provide photographic training to five of the museum's staff, using equipment donated by the National Museum of Australia. I also began the digitisation of the museum's large photographic collection (consisting of approximately 60,000 photographs), drafted a strategy to re-house the photographic archive and to introduce a pest management process for the museum's photographic archive.
I travelled to Lao with my family and, as well as working hard with Lao colleagues, also lived with them, learning something of the language and culture of what I came to regard as a very beautiful country. The experience demonstrated that the greatest or most profound benefits of international collaboration between museums come not through the amounts of money expended, but through the closeness of personal contact between colleagues in different countries. As my images show, living and working in Luang Prabang was not a matter of arriving at work and retiring to an air-conditioned house. My family and I lived with Lao people who became our friends and teachers; an experience of great significance for us.
My images of my time in Luang Prabang provide a portrait of a museum struggling to preserve the material culture of a nation that has suffered greatly and faces challenges into the future, but also a record of a cherished time in which both Lao and Australian partners learned a great deal from each other, to mutual benefit.
Click on the link below to access the gallery of pictures.