I have never been in Yangon without students and colleagues with me. Because I came ahead of the others in order to participate in commencement, I have a couple of days to see parts of the city I have not visited before. I will try not to get into any trouble!
Yesterday morning I went to the historic Strand district, which lies along the Yangon River. There you can see the major customs house, the port authority, colonial era hotels, and huge ships who make their way inland to Yangon. Visions of the arrival of the Judsons went through my mind as I saw the bustle of people in the various shipping areas, albeit two hundred years later. The boats are a bit bigger, and I saw none with sails—just big smokestacks and sonar.
I spent this morning at the National Museum and found it refreshing to encounter the history of this land presented by its own cultural historians. From the early centuries of the Common Era to the present, artifacts of art, musical instruments, traditional ethnic dress, and ancient ornaments filled the five-story building. In addition, mapping the discovery of prehistoric fossils, including early forms of humans, enriched the holdings.
I found of great interest the Showroom for the Cultural of National Races, an attempt to acknowledge the ethnic diversity of the nation. The ceremonial dress, unique instruments such as harps, flutes, and drums, and cultural artifacts filled discrete sections of this display area. Because MIT/Central students come from all over the nation, this helped me understand better their pride in their contexts and customs, as well as the wonderful crafts they shower on their guests.
As might be expected, the religious history figures prominently, and one whole wing is full of varied expressions of the Buddha. Presented in various media, the figurations of this spiritual teacher remain at the heart of the lived religion of about 92% of the population. It is all the more remarkable that Christian churches continue to flourish where the cultural disposition is decidedly pro-Buddhist.
Established in 1952, the museum opened in 1996. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar Ministry of Culture operates it, and there are definite political goals at work in sections of the collection. One section is full of pictures of political leaders; another contains graphics of projected economic improvements, e.g., offshore drilling; and another section is full of flags of the nations of Southeast Asia, which Myanmar aspires to engage in development initiatives.
Tomorrow holds more opportunity for cultural learning. I think a boat ride on the river is in order if I can arrange it. Hopefully, I will not head out to sea.
Molly T. Marshall