The private Bangkok Dolls Museum has been around for 58 years, yet few Thais even know of its existence. And that isn't likely to change now that modern digital "toys" have run off with the attention of youngsters.
It's a shame, because the thousands of fabric dolls on view at the museum on Soi Ratchataphan (also known as Soi Mo Leng) can be seen as miniature ambassadors for the craft heritage of Thailand, and they really are charming.
Now, though, four young women - all interior-design students at King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Lat Krabang - are hoping to draw in the kids by making changes inside the single-storey wooden building, which shares the same compound as the former residence of the museum's late founder, Khunying Tongkorn Chandavimol, a truly dedicated doll-maker.
Orrakarn Hnunpanichponk, Boonchanok Pornpipatpong, Cattleya Heng and Dounnapak Charoenchaiyong have been making improvements to brighten up what was a gloomy museum that had never before undergone renovations.
"We didn't know about the museum either!" says Orrakarn. "But we found this hidden gem while surfing online for information about Thai museums for the Young Muse Project. Museum Siam organised the competition for creative young people to get them interested in museums.
"The dolls here are perfect in every detail, very lifelike, and with gorgeous dresses, but unfortunately the place has been neglected, so we decided to try and breathe new life into it."
Their proposal won them first prize in the Young Muse contest and a Bt200,000 grant to turn it into reality over the course of six months. Among the many changes they've made is a welcoming entranceway where you can get your photo taken with Bangkok Dolls Museum sign as the backdrop.
A new wooden cabinet holds dolls that have their origins in literature, such as the Buddha's incarnations from the Vessandorn Jakata, Phra Abhaimanee and Phra Puen Phra Pang. Glass display shelves and text cards have been added, the dolls have been rearranged in categories, and the backs of the existing glass cases have been given a fresh coat of paint.
"Only about 40 per cent of the museum has been renovated due to the limited budget," says Boonchanok. "We wanted to change the lighting design too, but there just wasn't enough money. And unfortunately we discovered that termites are threatening the structure - they could possibly ruin the place within 10 years."
Khunying Tongkorn learned to make dolls at Tokyo's Ozawa Doll School in 1955, spurred by a friend's complaint that the Thai ones on view at a doll show at the United Nations in New York were poorly crafted. She was determined to bring Thai dolls up to international standards, opening the museum in 1957. She died away five years ago, age 94, and her youngest son Arbhas is now running the place.
Tongkorn studied old books and temple murals and visited various museums to discover what was required for an authentically Thai doll. Predictably, but quite engagingly, most wear ornate costumes from khon, the classical masked theatre, representing characters from the Ramayana. Tightly stitched clothing on wire frames allow for accurate posing.
Their Majesties the King and Queen often used to select dolls from the museum to present as gifts to visiting dignitaries. You can see a photo taken on their first state visit to the US in 1960, showing them presenting "Hanuman and the Princess" dolls to the stars of the Broadway hit "My Fair Lady".
Another of the improvements made has dolls rearranged to show the steps in their creation. These are on display next to the museum's original collection, including the first one Tongkorn made, depicting a lady of the Ayutthaya Period, although her face looks Japanese since that's where the body came from. There are also "European Woman", which she made at the Ozawa school, and "Princess Doll", which she gave to the Queen in 1956.
In an adjacent room, craftspeople are making new dolls in a sort of assembly line. "Every detail is done by hand," says Akom Thamniyom, one of the artisans. "Take a close look at the fingers - to make the hand look realistic we have to cut thin wires into five pieces, then roll them in cotton and insert them through the palm. And then we sew between the fingers with an actual sewing machine."
The posing is just as painstaking. The idea is to make the male khon dancers look dignified and the females graceful. Hanuman's monkeys are supposed to look naughty and restless, while the demons reflect their exceptional strength in their posture.
Forty-four of these characters in various poses and costumes now confront one another in a large display case, Rama's troops marching into battle against the demon king Thosaganth. This is the set that won first prize at the International Folklore Dolls Biennial in Poland in 1978. Another group illustrating the 22 fundamental poses in Thai classical dance have also been given a new display.
Elsewhere there are dolls in hilltribe outfits and the national costumes of other Asian countries, hand puppets, cuddly dolls, and commemorative figures like the Porntip Nakhirankanok doll that celebrated Miss Thailand 1988's crowning as Miss Universe. Bangkok's bicentennial in 1982 is marked by two angels guarding a gateway. Tongkorn's personal collection of antique models from around the world is also on view.
"We had about 30 artisans when my mother was alive, but only 10 now," says Arbhas, 65. "Fortunately, though, one of them is a highly skilled 65-year-old who worked with my mother right from the opening, so she's able to pass on the knowledge to younger craftspeople.
"Very few young people want to do this work because there's so much fine detail and you have to be very even-tempered. And we don't get many Thai visitors either, despite not charging any admission fee. Most of our visitors come from Europe."
Arbhas' plans to add more text labels in Thai and English and setting up a security system might take time, he says, because income rarely meets monthly expenses of around Bt100,000. Dolls are sold "wholesale" from Bt400 to Bt3,500 for a set of three at the museum, and are also available at King Power duty-free shops, the handicrafts store Narai Phand and several hotels in Bangkok, Hua Hin and Phuket.
"These dolls are priceless treasures, a reflection of my mother's meticulous craftsmanship and some of the country's finest artisans," Arbhas says. "I can't make anything as exquisite as my mother did, so my duty, as long as I breathe, is to make sure they survive and to maintain this place as a knowledge centre for the whole country."
A VISIT OVERDUE
The Bangkok Dolls Museum is at 85 Soi Ratchataphan (Soi Mo Leng) off Ratchaprarop Road in Bangkok. It's open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 to 5, with no admission charge.