By Jennifer Schuett
Situated in the heart of Burma, Mandalay is the country’s last royal capital, a bustling economic hub in the Indo-Pacific region and the site of an Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) project. Through the AFCP—an initiative sponsored by the Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs—the United States is able to demonstrate American leadership in the preservation of cultural heritage. While most AFCP projects are country specific, the project in Mandalay, conserving the only remaining teak structure from the last royal palace, has gone far beyond preserving Burmese heritage. The initiative has opened doors for university students, built connections between member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and expanded horizons and ties with the United States.
The World Monuments Fund (WMF) began conservation efforts at the Shwe-nandaw Kyaung monastery, a famous Burmese teak landmark, in 2014, and in 2017 it introduced a student internship program to equip young engineers and architects with specialized skills, including documentation drawing and condition mapping. The internship program exceeded all expectations when students were able to use their new skills at the site in Mandalay to do hands-on conservation of the decorative wood elements of the monastery, completing the cycle of preservation. The success of this initiative captivated public attention and prompted other opportunities for the students, including a project preserving a private collection of 19th-century teak furnishings acquired from the royal court of King Mindon Min.
Expanding beyond their hometown, the students were able to organize a visit to WMF’s other AFCP-funded projects in Thailand and Cambodia. For most, it was their first trip aboard an airplane and their first opportunity to connect with ASEAN peers who share a passion for conservation.
The ASEAN connections didn’t stop there. In 2019 experts from three AFCP-funded projects—a structural engineer from Cambodia, conservators from Thailand, a civil engineer from southern Burma and Mandalay stonecutters—all joined forces to conserve the staircases at Shwe-nandaw Kyaung. Having their expertise allowed the students to be trained on stone conservation, which eventually led the students to take the lead in conserving the base of the monastery.
While the project at the Shwe-nandaw Kyaung monastery began as a cultural preservation initiative, the success went beyond restoring teak, brick and mortar. It has opened doors for youth who are hungry for opportunities and are now passionate about and skilled in conservation. It has also forged ties between conservationists throughout the ASEAN region, which will benefit future endeavors.
Jennifer Schuett is a cultural affairs officer at Embassy Rangoon.