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Phanombut Chantarachot Defends Controversial Restoration of Ancient Sculptures in Chiang Mai

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The Fine Arts Department found itself in hot water yesterday as it defended its recent restoration of 500-year-old giant sculptures at a Chiang Mai temple, following an outcry from the public.

Phanombut Chantarachot, the director-general of the department, stepped into the spotlight to address the criticism. He emphasized that the restoration of the two-metre-tall plaster giants at Wat Umong in tambon Suthep, Chiang Mai’s Muang district, was meticulously executed to adhere to preservation standards. “We aimed to retain their original essence as much as possible,” Phanombut explained, defending the decision to remake the long-missing parts like arms rather than merely cleaning them up. After all, Wat Umong is not just a historic site; it’s an active temple that regularly opens its doors to countless tourists and devout Buddhists.

The director-general’s comments were a direct response to a wave of media scrutiny, spurred by photos of the restored sculptures that depicted them looking strikingly different from their previous appearance. The uproar grew louder when lecturers from Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts chimed in, criticizing what they referred to as a “careless” restoration effort.

The controversy got rolling after Chiang Mai’s governor, Nirat Phongsitthithawon, flagged the deteriorating state of the sculptures while visiting the temple in April last year. His observations put a spotlight on the urgent need for intervention, prompting the Fine Arts Department to take action.

Phanombut was quick to assure the critics that the restoration process was anything but hasty. “The 7th Regional Office Fine Arts in Chiang Mai conducted extensive evaluations before embarking on the restoration journey,” he said. Their approach took into consideration not just the aesthetic but also the historical and cultural significance of the sculptures. And yet, despite the best of intentions, the end result seemed to have miffed the art aficionado community.

Among the valid concerns was the drastic change in appearance. The once weathered and timeworn giants now stood with a fresh, almost new glow, sparking debate about the fine line between restoration and refurbishment.

Onlookers and art critics alike have questioned whether the department’s work may have inadvertently erased the authenticity that gave the giants their charm. “Restoration is not just about making something look new; it’s about honoring the journey of time,” one art lecturer noted. Others echoed this sentiment, lamenting that modern-day techniques seemed to have overshadowed the historical spirit embedded within the ancient structures.

But Phanombut didn’t shy away from these jabs. He passionately defended his team’s work, asserting that preserving cultural heritage is a delicate balancing act. “We were conscious of not overstepping. Our aim was to breathe life into these sculptures without stripping away their soul,” he added.

Despite the outpouring of criticism, Phanombut remains optimistic. He believes that in time, both locals and tourists will come to appreciate the restored giants. “Any change, especially in something as venerated as ancient art, will naturally invite scrutiny. But we stand by our work. Our goal has always been to safeguard our heritage for future generations,” he concluded.

It’s a saga that underscores the complexities involved in preserving history. Whether the restored giants at Wat Umong will stand the test of time—and public opinion—remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: Phanombut and his team have stirred a conversation that goes beyond art and taps into the heart of how we treat our historical treasures.


  1. ArtLover78 June 11, 2024

    I think the restoration was beautifully done. These sculptures needed care, and now they look amazing!

    • history_buff June 11, 2024

      But don’t you think they look a bit too new? Kinda defeats the purpose of a ‘restoration’, don’t you think?

      • ArtLover78 June 11, 2024

        Proper restoration often involves making things look renewed. It’s better than letting them crumble.

      • Sophie M. June 11, 2024

        I’d rather have slightly overdone restoration than see these ancient sculptures fall apart. There has to be a middle ground.

  2. CultureCritic June 11, 2024

    This is a classic case of overzealous restoration ruining historical authenticity. We’ve erased a piece of history.

    • Pradit June 11, 2024

      I agree. The new look strips away the authenticity. They should have left them more weathered.

      • historical_enthusiast June 11, 2024

        Exactly! The weathering is part of their story. Now they look like cheap replicas.

      • CultureCritic June 11, 2024

        Seems like more people agree on preserving the ‘weathered’ look than giving them a fresh coat of paint.

  3. BuddhaBeliever June 11, 2024

    As a regular at Wat Umong, I support the restoration. It’s more respectful to the temple and its worshippers.

    • Piyabutr June 11, 2024

      Respectful? How can erasing hundreds of years of history be considered respectful?

      • BuddhaBeliever June 11, 2024

        Respect comes in maintaining and caring for these objects. Neglect would be even worse.

  4. Joe June 11, 2024

    I bet the tourists love it! Who cares about authenticity when it looks shiny?

    • Sarah T. June 11, 2024

      That’s a bit cynical. But honestly, many tourists might not even notice the difference.

    • Joe June 11, 2024

      They just want something ‘Instagrammable’. Sad, but true.

  5. Dr. Ajarn June 11, 2024

    The so-called ‘restoration’ is a desecration! It’s an educational disgrace!

    • student_of_history June 11, 2024

      Wow, harsh words, but I get where you’re coming from. Wish they’d consulted more experts.

    • Thai123 June 11, 2024

      Desecration is a strong term. They were falling apart before the intervention.

  6. Ling June 11, 2024

    I support Phanombut’s efforts. The sculptures now look closer to what they might have originally been.

    • ArtifactProtector June 11, 2024

      But we’re not supposed to make them look ‘new’, they’re supposed to carry their age.

  7. AncientArtFan June 12, 2024

    I prefer seeing the giants in a more ‘lived-in’ state. Those new looks feel artificial.

    • CuratorKim June 12, 2024

      Totally agree. Old sculptures should show their age and history clearly.

    • Alex Q. June 12, 2024

      There’s a balance between maintaining and making something look fake. This restoration missed it.

  8. WatDevotee June 12, 2024

    Wat Umong is an active temple and needs to show respect to worshippers. This restoration was necessary.

    • LeafyGreens June 12, 2024

      Active or not, the temple’s history is more important than modern aesthetics.

  9. SculptureFanatic June 12, 2024

    Honestly, people are overreacting. Most restorations modernize aspects of ancient art!

    • MeetupGuru June 12, 2024

      Not if it erases what’s unique about them! This isn’t an art gallery, it’s history.

      • SculptureFanatic June 12, 2024

        History? These are stone statues, they can be updated to survive!

  10. Mario P. June 12, 2024

    This whole issue just highlights how we don’t really know how to treat ancient artifacts. It’s a mess.

  11. Kimmy June 12, 2024

    In Europe, they face the same problems. It’s hard to find the right balance without offending someone.

  12. ArchaeologistAbe June 12, 2024

    The level of meticulousness required in this kind of work is often underestimated. Respect for Phanombut’s team.

    • givingback June 12, 2024

      It’s easy to critique but harder to actualize the ideal restoration. Kudos for their effort.

  13. Hannah J. June 12, 2024

    The bright white plaster just doesn’t blend well with the old stone. Visually jarring, in my opinion.

    • Kohei June 12, 2024

      That’s a valid point. Maybe they could have used techniques to better match the old material.

  14. OldSoul June 12, 2024

    I miss the authenticity. The new look strips away centuries of history.

    • Billions44 June 12, 2024

      It’s a travesty. You can’t just ‘modernize’ our past.

  15. templewalker June 12, 2024

    I visit Wat Umong frequently, and the new look is refreshing. It feels more cared for now.

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