Indifference holds action's heritage hostage

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What remains after the 100-year-old Lang House at the Muong Cultural Space Museum in Hoa Binh Province was destroyed in a fire on October 24, 2013

The UNESCO's Cultural Heritage Protection Handbook, Security at Museums, lists water and fire as main threats to museums.
Vietnam's contribution to that list is negligent and irresponsible behavior, which has led to the loss and/or destruction of valuable artifacts.

A spectacularly horrifying example of this happened recently when an entire heritage structure was burnt down.  

On November 2, police in the northern province of Hoa Binh's Police Department began investigating four visitors suspected to have caused the destruction of a century-old Muong ethnic house at around 7 p.m. on October 24.  The four suspects two men and two women- aged 33 to 55 have all been identified provincial officers.

The 150-square-meter wooden structure, called Lang House, stood at the privately owned Muong Cultural Space Museum in Hoa Binh Town. The building and its nearly 200 original Muong cultural relics, which belonged to Ha Thi Loi, a descendant of a top ranking Muong official who ruled the area before 1954, was the last house of its kind in Vietnam. Next to its remnants stand two other typical houses of the Muong people, called Au and No, used by the middle and lower classes. 

Tragically, Lang House was reduced to ashes after the visitors lit a fire to grill corn inside the house without permission from the museum staff, who were busy preparing dinner for them.

The 2-hectare museum, founded in 2007 by retired journalist-painter Vu Duc Hieu, who has spent the last 15 years collecting Muong artifacts and working to preserve the nation's ethnic culture, used the Lang House to serve food for visitors.

When the fire broke out, instead of calling for help, the visitors got "scared" and fled in two cars carrying Hanoi and Hoa Binh license plates. They "even hit one employee who tried to stop their cars", the museum director Vu Duc Hieu said in a statement about the incident.

The museum staff, who were five at that time, tried to extinguish the fire, and firefighters arrived only half an hour after being informed since the road to the museum, which is in the outskirts of the town, was being repaired.

The museum's representative lawyer Truong Anh Tu, told Vietweek that the museum's regulations prohibit visitors from lighting fires, but the employees were busy cooking dinner and were unaware of what was happening.

Doan Thi Thu Huong, deputy director of the Division of Fine Arts and Photography under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said that every Lang house was built with a stove, but this was never lit.  She said it was likely that the fire flared in this instance because of alcohol. "It's just terrible," she said.

Meanwhile, Pham Su, deputy director of the province's Police Department, said that apart from the four suspects, the five staff members have been also summoned for questioning since there is no conclusive evidence since so far on who the culprits were.

In addition, though the fire burned for two hours and only flared up when there were just four visitors inside the house, the practice of grilling corn inside has been engaged in by several groups of tourists previously, the police official said.

He also discounted the "rumor" that the four fled the site when the fire started. 

"So far, according to our investigation, right after the fire flared up, the four visitors don't hesitate for a second to call for help and try to extinguish the fire together with the staff and other local people, and then informed the fire department. Because the fire was very near to the parking area, they had to drive their cars not to run away but to move them to other area," Su told VnExpress on Monday.

"We need to spend more time on investigation in order to determine the culprit," he said, adding that if the violators' actions were deliberate, they would be severely punished. "If that is not the case, a civil sentence is adequate."

The museum, however, believes they have adequate evidence proving the four are guilty. "The truth cannot be concealed, said Hieu, "In addition, this issue speaks of the conscience, responsibility and attitude of those who are government officers. The culprits have to take full responsibility under the law for any damage caused by them."

Irreplaceable heritage

Of course, no matter how severe or light the punishment is no matter what compensation they are required to pay, the heritage is lost forever. And it is not just that the Lang House has been destroyed, hundreds of artifacts, including gongs, hunting guns, and bronze objects like trays and jars have all been severely damaged and cannot be reproduced since the Lang rule in the area ended in 1954.

"What a very sad day for heritage!" researcher Nguyen Duc Tang of UNESCO Vietnam said.

Though Hieu has said that the house can be restored in future since only its roof, walls, part of the top of the pillars were destroyed by the fire.  The wooden floor and the most of the pillars, which according to the director are a significant "leftover" for the restoration, are still in good condition.

However, "It is a serious, sudden loss simply caused by ill-informed actions and attitudes of some individuals after many years the heritage has been kept and protected by the whole community," said the Hanoi native who spent his twenties in the province because of his love for ethnic minority culture. 

Luu Anh Hung, deputy director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, said that it is almost impossible to find another Lang house given that the tradition ended in 1954.

Bui Huy Vong, a researcher of Muong culture, agreed, saying that though the house was small compared to other Lang houses, it was the last of its kind.

"There is no other Lang house now. It is truly sad news for Hoa Binh culture."

In order to promote heritage and culture protection, for the upcoming the 12th Festival of Culture, Sports and Tourism among Northwest ethnic groups in the province this month, the Muong Cultural Space Museum will organize an installation exhibition right on the site of the Lang house.

But for Huong, this does not offer much comfort. She said the house was not merely a heritage structure, but a very dear place where she and other artists had gathered for workshops and meetings since its opening seven years ago.

"It hurts a lot that I will no longer have chance to sit inside the house."

Unlearnt lessons

­While Lang House and the nearly 200 items were fortunately documented by photos, videos and files before the destruction as an important step recommended by UNESCO in its guidebook for museums to protect the artifacts, most of artifacts displayed in other local museums are not documented.

When the Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi replaced its famous stone pillar which was built in 2006 by artist Nguyen Do Cung after the original Dam Pagoda, it did not cause any controversy among local artists and culturists, but what was done with the old reproduction raised hackles. 

The old one was broken to pieces by stone workers during the construction without hesitation. Critics maintained that though it was a reproduction, since the original one no longer existed, the old reproduction should have been considered an artifact and preserved by the museum.

In the south, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts has been criticized for carelessness that caused the loss of a small bowl made of jade, donated by late researcher and antiques collector Vuong Hong Sen together with his house and hundreds of artifacts before he passed away in 1996.

The item, called tham thi tham (grasp all, lose all), which can be filled with water to a certain level, or else it itseft runs out all the water, was lost when the museum prepared the display room for the collection. The staff in charge at that time, according to the museum director Tran Thuy Phuong, forgot to close and lock the room after they left.

"Every museum employee should learn by heart all that is written in UNESCO's guidebook," Le Thi Minh Ly of the National Council of Heritage told Vietweek, "The museums should hold regular training courses on this issue for both staff and visitors."

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