Recently I was fortunate enough to travel to Myanmar (formerly Burma) as part of the first international course run by the Australian National University’s Centre for Art History and Art Theory. I joined 17 other art history students who were primed to learn more about Asian art. Our experience actually led to something much more lasting and demonstrates the importance of ANU’s support for more in-country study opportunities in this wonderful country.
On my last day of the trip I found myself in Yangon’s international airport quietly reflecting on the exhausting but exhilarating couple of weeks. It was obvious from looking around the departure lounge that the number of tourists in Myanmar remains relatively small, especially when compared to neighbouring countries like Thailand. But given the recent opening up of Myanmar to tourism, this will surely change. Despite the heat, the unsealed roads and the lack of creature comforts, Myanmar has a multitude of sparkling pagodas, ancient temple ruins and unspoilt landscapes that stay with you long after you leave. We were lucky enough to see many.
Shwedagon Pagoda, a glistening gold monument erected to house relics of the Buddha, is a place for the bucket list. Construction started in the 6th century and Shwedagon is a living monument which is constantly evolving and remains central to Burmese identity. The pagoda is surrounded by an ever changing mass of chaotic, busy buildings and shrines. It heaves with people from all over Yangon and further afield who pilgrimage to give offerings in exchange for merit to serve them in the next life. But it is a strangely calming place where time seems to slow down, the busyness of everyday life a world away.
Just as awe-inspiring is Bagan. A ruined ancient city that rivals the Angkor Watt as a place where one is able to glimpse life in the 9th – 13th century. Over 2,200 temple and pagoda ruins stretch out over the plains, which when seen from a height is a journey back in time. Despite its status as an important archaeological zone, it has not been immune from attempts at ‘restoration’. Such attempts, however well-meaning, are not always a seamless integration that fit sympathetically with the ancient city. We saw some fairly dodgy attempts to concrete over walls and stairways, presumably in an attempt to preserve and make safe these places for visitors, but which may actually work to destroy parts of the buildings.
And this is where the real importance of the ANUs support for students to study in-country in Myanmar comes into play. While the aim of our trip was certainly to increase our own understanding of Burmese art, what actually happened was something far more exciting. We opened up a dialogue with people working in heritage management and museum practice in Myanmar.
We met with students from Archaeological schools, representatives from the World Monuments Fund, staff from museums and many others. We engaged with and learned from people working to preserve the cultural heritage of this amazing place. Some students even plan to focus further studies on art and culture in Myanmar, an interest that could only have been sparked by experiencing Myanmar on the ground. Given the number of tourists knocking on Myanmar’s door, this interest and dialogue must be developed to ensure future generations can experience this truly wonderful place.
Students would like to thank Dr Charlotte Galloway for her tireless hard work and commitment to putting together this memorable experience.