Linking the Lao Loum Diaspora in
Northern Illinois with Cultural Conservation Practice in Vientiane
Alan Potkin*, Mr. Chaleunxay Phommavongsa,** and Catherine Raymond**
*Team Leader, Digital Conservation Facility, Laos
**Founder, Black and White Studio, Vientiane; Principal consultant, Digital Conservation Facility Laos
***Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Art History, Northern Illinois University
As increasing wealth is generated within the Lao PDR, and also flows there from outside, the traditional meritorious reconstruction of Buddhist Vats and sacred sites has been accelerating everywhere around Vientiane. The aggrandizement of so many temples, to the delight so many people in the bans, has clearly sometimes come at a cost of disposing of undervalued assets —not all of them material. The uniquely Lao “cultural capital” recently lost ranges from the superb Phralak Phralam frescoes demolished with the old Vat Oup Mong vihaan, to an obscure religious cult necessarily weakened by the proud refurbishing of Vat Chan on the Old City waterfront: formerly the stark and austere royal seat for propitiating Lord Sikhottabang’s well-deserved curse.
The conservation of Vat Sisaket —Vientiane’s sole religious monument in more-or-less its original condition— is a special case in that the local abbot and the ban cannot rehabilitate the cloistered museum complex on their own initiative: a mixed blessing, as the surrounding improvements are plentiful. But the will and the resources to reverse officially Sisaket’s appallingly rapid deterioration are barely mobilized.
Existing Lao PDR legislation and decrees on archaeological and historical preservation require formal authorization by the Ministry of Information and Culture prior to the demolition or the rebuilding of major structures older than fifty years. In principle, the decisions on what to protect and why, draw upon specialized knowledge —inside and outside the government— of art and aesthetics; of history and religion; and of touristic development and practical conservatorship. How effective are these laws in actuality, how well-used is the available expertise, and how can the constituencies for cultural preservation be mobilized and strengthened?
We could now only guess the significance of remittances from overseas Lao in the redevelopmentof temple compounds in the mother country, especially when new vats are springing up across the Lao loum diaspora. As Lao immigrants in North America both resist and embrace assimiliation****, what are their views on the transformation of the Buddhist cultural landscape back in Vientiane? Are some Lao becoming more sentimental, more preservationist towards previously-devaluated relics of “underdevelopment”?
During the weeks before the FICLS, in cooperation with the Lao loum communities of Burlington, Elgin, and Rockford IL USA we will have installed interpretive materials and conducted workshops in one or more nearby vats, and will present our methodology and findings to this Conference.
**** “The process in which one group takes on the cultural and other traits of a larger group”, (Microsoft Word dictionary).