Living Heritage & Informality: Looking at Rattanakosin Island

I have always been interested in contested spaces where tourism is being promoted.  For me, the most interesting portion of the final day of lectures at CODI surrounded the topic of living heritage.  The final group of BUDD /UDP students presented their findings on Rattanakosin Island — a site where living heritage was central to the question of reaching scale.  The presentation outlined how there has been a decline in ancient craft making, where crafts are still being produced but in much smaller scales.

When I asked the community leaders, “What are your ideas for promoting a living heritage? And what are your ideas for promoting tourism within your community that would strengthen your cultural identity, as opposed to weaken it?”  After a lively discussion amongst themselves – this was their response:

“Poor communities are like hidden diamonds in the slums.  Finding and discovering these diamonds is important.  It is also important to carry out research with those other communities who also rely very heavily on tourism. We are very aware of how valuable our uniqueness is.  It is important that we go and look at our markets and pick out what we like about what they are doing and pick out what we don’t like about what they are doing and incorporate that into our development process.”

It was so moving for me to hear how informed their response was to these very complex challenges.  In the future development of the area it would be interesting to see how informality or informal enterprise could be represented in this idea of living heritage.  What would this mean for the place and how could informal productivity present a way to safeguard their heritage? Oftentimes, tourism can be problematic because it falls short of representing the specific identity of the place.  In many cases, communities focus more on external pressures and ideas of what visitors may want or may find attractive in order to promote themselves. In consequence, cultural identities are easily eroded and the relations between local and visitor can easily become problematic.

In looking to the future planning of the place, not only in terms of space but also in terms of cultural identity it would be interesting to consider what living heritage will mean for Rattanakosin Island.  Futher, it would be important to learn how other communities have developed positive ways of promoting their culture and their livelihood.  In a time where ancient crafts are diminishing it is more crucial than ever to find ways to safeguard communities from turning away from ancient skills and sacred traditions.  With that being said, it is important to clarify that I am not proposing some nostalgic return to past ways of life but rather to find a balance between the cultural identity of the place and the contemporary needs that are emerging.

Monk Bowls, photo by Su-Ann Tan

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