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Phanombut Chantarachot on Controversial Restoration of Wat Umong’s 500-Year-Old Sculptures

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The centuries-old sculptures of giants at Wat Umong in Chiang Mai have recently sparked considerable public debate. The before-and-after photos of these ancient artworks, displayed by the Fine Arts Department, have been met with both commendation and criticism. The images unveil the significant changes made during the restoration, which some argue may have done more harm than good. (Photos: Fine Arts Department)

The restoration endeavor aimed at these 500-year-old sculptures, standing two meters tall, was undertaken by the Fine Arts Department, which has since faced a barrage of backlash. Critics accuse the department of making a mess of the historical treasures located in the tambon Suthep of Chiang Mai’s Muang district. Mr. Phanombut Chantarachot, the director-general of the department, defended the restoration efforts on Tuesday, asserting that the work adhered to set standards designed to maintain the sculptures’ original features as closely as possible.

Mr. Phanombut emphasized that the decision to restore the sculptures was initiated by the 7th Regional Office Fine Arts in Chiang Mai. This restoration was not merely about cleaning and bolstering the existing structure but also involved recreating absent components, such as the giants’ arms, to ensure the sculptures’ integrity. Given that Wat Umong remains an active site frequently visited by tourists and Buddhist devotees, maintaining the sculptures’ visual and structural presence was deemed essential.

Nonetheless, images circulated by the media reveal a stark contrast between the original and restored versions of the sculptures, triggering a wave of discontent. Among the critics are the lecturers from Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, who have voiced their dismay over what they describe as a careless restoration process.

The restoration process was set into motion after a visit by Chiang Mai governor, Nirat Phongsitthithawon, to the temple in April of last year. It was during this visit that he observed the deteriorating condition of the sculptures and subsequently alerted the Fine Arts Department. Despite the noble intentions, the aftermath has raised essential questions about the balance between preserving historical integrity and modern restoration techniques.


  1. Sara M June 12, 2024

    This so-called ‘restoration’ looks more like vandalism to me! They should have preserved the original without making such drastic changes.

    • Isaac June 12, 2024

      I totally agree. It’s heartbreaking to see such historical treasures being altered this way.

      • Mark June 12, 2024

        But if you leave them as they are, they may crumble entirely. Restoration is necessary sometimes.

      • Sara M June 12, 2024

        I understand the need for restoration, but there’s a difference between preserving history and rewriting it.

    • PhD.Art.History June 12, 2024

      Restoration often requires this kind of intervention. The Fine Arts Department likely followed international standards.

  2. Tommy June 12, 2024

    The new sculptures look so cartoonish! How can anyone think this is okay?

    • Elsa June 12, 2024

      That’s exactly what I thought. They don’t even look like they belong to the same era anymore.

      • grower134 June 12, 2024

        Could it be that they used modern techniques to restore, and that’s why the difference?

      • Elsa June 12, 2024

        Possibly, but modern techniques shouldn’t sacrifice historical accuracy.

    • Savitree June 12, 2024

      They might have had good intentions, but the execution was definitely questionable.

  3. K. Johnson June 12, 2024

    The decision to restore these sculptures was necessary, but the method? Highly debatable.

    • Sophia June 12, 2024

      Indeed. There should be more oversight and consultation with experts before making such decisions.

    • K. Johnson June 12, 2024

      Absolutely. Transparency and collaboration are key in such delicate projects.

  4. Erik June 12, 2024

    I believe the Fine Arts Department did a commendable job. It’s easy to criticize from the sidelines without understanding the complexities involved.

    • Yuki June 12, 2024

      But don’t you think the drastic change in appearance raises questions about the process?

      • Erik June 12, 2024

        It does, but unless you are an expert, it’s hard to judge fairly.

      • Tommy June 12, 2024

        You don’t need to be an expert to see that the sculptures have lost their original charm.

  5. Amara June 12, 2024

    The sculptures look rejuvenated. Maybe we just need time to get used to the new look.

    • Gabe June 12, 2024

      Time won’t change the fact that they lost their historical essence.

    • Lisa W June 12, 2024

      I think what matters is preserving the intent and spirit of the artwork, and if the new look aligns with that, then it could be seen as a success.

  6. Dr. Thongchai June 12, 2024

    As an art historian, observing conservation standards is crucial. Was there a peer review by experts in this case?

  7. Juno June 12, 2024

    Why couldn’t they leave well enough alone? These restorations often do more harm than good.

  8. Pat June 12, 2024

    Without the restoration, the sculptures could have deteriorated even further. Maybe this was the lesser of two evils.

    • Jasmine June 12, 2024

      I agree. It’s better to save what we can rather than let it turn to dust.

    • Juno June 12, 2024

      I get that, but there had to be a better way than making them look like toys.

  9. Liam J June 12, 2024

    I’m more concerned about the lack of transparency in such projects. Where was the public consultation?

  10. ArtGeek94 June 12, 2024

    Photos don’t always tell the whole story. The on-ground reality might be different.

    • Maya S June 12, 2024

      Pictures can be deceiving, but in this case, the contrast is quite evident and concerning.

    • Tommy June 12, 2024

      Seeing is believing. These pics are enough to make anyone upset.

  11. Noah June 12, 2024

    It’s understandable why the department decided to restore, but their methods could use improvement.

  12. ArtLover June 12, 2024

    The sculptures look more like Disneyland attractions now. What a tragedy.

  13. Kim June 12, 2024

    I feel like something is lost when historical artifacts get modernized like this.

  14. Roger June 12, 2024

    Everyone seems to be focusing on the negatives. Maybe there are benefits we aren’t seeing.

  15. Nina June 12, 2024

    What about the historical and educational value? Has it been compromised with this restoration?

    • Roger June 12, 2024

      Potentially, but preserving the sculptures physically might outweigh the downsides.

    • Nina June 12, 2024

      It should be a balance. Both aspects are critical to the legacy of these artworks.

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