The Most Mysterious Book in the Archives …

Far and away the most mysterious and (from a twenty-first century Westerner’s point of view) exotic book in St. Michael’s Archives is this one:

photo of spine of book on 'Siamese Dancing'

The title page is elegant:

title page of book on 'Siamese Dancing'

Fortunately, in very faint pencil on the inside flyleaf, there is some information in English:

inscription in 'Siamese Dancing' book

The Art of Siamese Dancing with a Preface by H. R. H. Damrong Rajanubhab of Siam illustrated with 190 plates 1924

Aside from the Prince’s four-page preface, there is little prose in the book: it contains mostly photographs, drawings and formal plates. Perhaps one of these gentlemen is the Prince.

photo of two men at a desk in 'Siamese Dancing'

Born in 1862, Damrong was the son of King Mongkut and younger brother of later King Chulalongkorn of the Kingdom of Siam. Tutored when he was a boy by royal “professors,” Damrong was subsequently largely self-taught; his brilliance was universally recognized. When he realized as a young man that soldiers whom he commanded and court bureaucrats whom he regularly dealt with were all poorly educated, Damrong founded the Suan Kulap (Rose Garden Palace) School; established in 1881, the school would ultimately become the nucleus of the Ministry of Education.

As the king’s brother, Prince Damrong modernized Siam’s provincial administration, developed a national system for managing natural resources, and instituted protocols of both law and education that made Siam a “modern” country in late nineteenth century southeast Asia.

Encouraged to resign from government work by his young nephew, King Vajiravudh, in 1915, Damrong then devoted himself entirely to historical scholarship: he was determined to capture and maintain records of cultural materials once preserved only in oral traditions, focusing especially on literature and the arts. He founded both the Siam Society and the National Library. After the 1932 revolution, Damrong went into permanent exile in Penang, and, by the time of his death eleven years later, he had written close to one thousand books and articles about the history and culture of Siam.

In some sections of the The Art of Siamese Dancing, Damrong seems to highlight the careers of individual dancers.

dancer in 'Siamese Dancing'

In other sections of the book, he apparently focuses on particular dances.

two dancers in 'Siamese Dancing'



For almost every object – plates, textiles, water-bottles, chalices, documents, photographs … and books – contained in St. Michael’s Archives, we either know or can guess at its association with the church. For every single thing, there seems to be some discernible reason for its presence in the Archives. … Not so with this book.


Here is an archivist’s request.

As you make your New Year’s Resolutions, following up on plans – that several of you have told me about! – to declutter, clean out closets and give your St. Michael’s memorabilia as donations to St. Michael’s Archives, make sure you describe what you’re giving!

If there’s a story to tell, write it on a card or type out the information … If you’re giving photos, date them, identify the occasion and the people … All these details will enrich the historical value of your gift, adding to its usefulness, not just now but in the next century and the one after that as well.


dramatic dance moment from 'Siamese Dancing'

Happy New Year!

December 1, 2018