Bangkok is now reported to be the most visited city in the world. If our memory served better, this might also remind of the time when Siam’s capital Ayutthaya was considered the Paris of the East.
Forget today’s headlines of China’s economic explosion fueling growth throughout Asia. Instead, think back to not so long ago when everything Oriental was viewed from the West with mystery and intrigue.
Chicago History Museum’s Special Exhibit “Siam: The Queen and the White City” running now until March 2 will help you feel that lure of exotic Asia as it was felt at the turn of the 20th Century.
More than that, it brings to life how the relationships built during the Columbian Exhibition had impact on all involved and how cultures were brought together as never before.
Consider that only eight years before Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, Gilbert & Sullivan rode the wave of this interest in all things Orient with their musical Mikado, which veiled its critique of British politics in a story about little-known Japan. Here too Americans were awed by the Oriental mystique.
That was about the time when plans for the World’s Columbian Exhibition were heating up. Was it any wonder that Bertha Honoré Palmer would have been drawn to seek out treasures from the Orient for the Women’s Building under her committee’s charge?
At the opening of the “Siam: the Queen and the White City” we experienced the same demonstrations of traditional Thai arts and crafts that were featured in the Women’s Building of the Columbia Exhibition
—embroidery, floral garlands, and preparation of Thai dumpling treats.
A small orchestra playing traditional Thai instruments regaled us.
Every half hour dancers in dazzling costumes performed with ever so subtle movements of fingers, torso and eyes that only the most Avant-garde modern dances of the West begin to approximate.
This was an excellent introduction to the treasures of this exhibit that we all can see.
Consider for example taking a gander of an iridescent metallic beetle wing covered wooden cabinet.
Royal finery with threads of gold and silver will abound. A prized album of photographs of the court of Siam and the Siamese exhibition displayed at the Women’s Building in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition that was presented to Bertha Palmer, President of the Board of Lady Managers, by Queen Savang Vadhana is on display, among many other treasures.
Indeed the bond between the Thai royal family and the Palmer family came to bear on bringing this exhibit to fruition, according to Russell Lewis, Executive VP and Chief Historian of the Chicago History Museum.
Lewis explains, “Our permanent collection incudes this wonderful artifact of a photo album with an embroidered cover made by then Queen of Siam, Savang Vadhana and given to Bertha Palmer as a gesture of friendship. The Thai Consulate in Chicago learned we had this item and became very excited about it a few years ago, such that they invited the great great granddaughter of Queen Savang Vadhana to visit Chicago, where she met the great great grandson of Bertha Palmer, who is one of our Board Members. This visit sparked a lot of goodwill and interest. In 2012 Paris was slated to have an exhibit honoring the 150th Anniversary of the Queen’s birth and the thought was to re-use much of that exhibit and combine it with relevant artifacts from the Columbian Exhibition’s Women’s Building.”
Russell continues, “Visiting Chicago reportedly made a big impact on the Queen and shaped her views on how to modernize Thailand. While here she had studied hospitals in Chicago. When she returned to Thailand, then Siam, she created scholarships for nurses, founded the Red Cross of Siam, established places that could make prostheses, among other health and health education initiatives.”
If you have ever tried to manage the time difference between Thailand and Chicago for your work or travel arrangements you know it’s not easy. Nonetheless Russell reports that preparations for this exhibit had few glitches, in large part due to the army of volunteers mustered by the Thai Consulate.
For most of us in Chicago what we know of Thai sensibilities is largely through the décor of the many Thai restaurants in the city. We are lucky to live in a world class city that enables us to taste Thai delicacies quite easily. If you love Thai food, as so many Chicagoans do, are drawn to the Thai aesthetic or just have an appetite for Chicago history make time in your calendar before March 2 to see the many treasures in the “Siam: The Queen and the White City” exhibit.
Chicago History Museum
1601 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60614
312 642 4600
Monday through Saturday - 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Sunday – 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Visit the Chicago History Museum website for more details.
Curator and installation photos courtesy of Chicago History Museum
Performer and craftswoman photos by Peter Kachergis