Making Friends: the Story behind the Great and Good Friends Exhibition

Curators Trevor Merrion and William Bradford Smith share their experience from this historic project

The exhibition Great and Good Friends: Historic Gifts between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States of America, 1818-2018, brought a selection of official gifts to Bangkok as part of a celebration of 200 years of U.S.-Thai friendship. The exhibition featured rare artifacts, many of which had never been seen before. The curators of the exhibition, Trevor Merrion and William Bradford Smith, share how this historic exhibition came to be and the lessons they learned along the way.

King Bhumibol gifts a model teak elephant to President Eisenhower during a state dinner at the White House in June 1960 (Courtesy of the National Archives, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Photo by Abbie Rowe)

How did this project originate?

The 1818 letter from Dit Bunnag to President James Monroe represents a milestone between Thailand and the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, led by Ambassador Glyn T. Davies, recognized the importance of this letter and envisioned a large-scale exhibition of artifacts from U.S.-Thai history to celebrate the 200th anniversary of first contact between the two nations.

The 1818 letter from Dit Bunnag to President James Monroe (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

How did you become the curators for this exhibition?

When this project was first conceived, we were both working on research projects in Thailand for the Smithsonian’s Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Natural History. This work included publishing articles on traditional musical instruments, khon theater masks, and conducting lectures throughout Thailand.

The Thai ethnology collection at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center is massive, with over 2,000 cataloged entries. We were initially contacted in January 2016 to survey this collection and assess how it might be used in an exhibition. A little over two years later, we opened the Great and Good Friends exhibition, featuring artifacts not only from the Smithsonian, but from the National Archives, ten presidential libraries, the Library of Congress, the National Museum Bangkok, and the King Prajadhipok’s Institute in Bangkok.

Curator William Bradford Smith is interviewed with a number of the presidential library gifts at the National Archive and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
Entrance to the Great and Good Friends exhibition (Street View of the exhibition hosted by Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles)

Why was the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles the ideal venue for this exhibition?

Her Majesty’s museum is located on the grounds of the Grand Palace, one of the most venerable places in Thailand. Many significant moments from U.S.-Thai history have occurred here, so this venue felt like a perfect staging area for the next chapter. Lucky for us, the museum is also a state-of-the-art facility that upholds world-class museum standards, which helped when attempting to bring royal treasures on the other side of the world back to Bangkok.

Gold nielloware from King Bhumibol and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit (Street View of the Great and Good Friends exhibition hosted by Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles)

Why was the focus of the exhibition historic gifts between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States?

We wanted an exhibition that spanned the entire two hundred year friendship. Official gifts were appealing because they appear throughout the history, from the first envoy to today. The more we delved into the circumstances behind each gift, the more storylines we found that revealed unique aspects of this friendship.

Gifts like the golden cigarette case from King Ananda’s regent to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which served as a literal message of peace during World War II, perfectly captured the power of gifts and the themes we wanted to convey.

The golden cigarette case conveyed by way of the Free Thai and Office of Strategic Services network during World War II (Courtesy of the National Archives, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Photo by Burwell Photography)
Curator Trevor Merrion with Royal Thai Embassy Counselor Phisek Panupat in the conservation lab at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland

How has gift exchange between these nations changed over time?

Early gift exchanges were at times awkward affairs because of the cultural divide that existed between a centuries-old Asiatic kingdom and a young American republic. With each successive gift, these exchanges fall more in line with each nation’s customs, offering metaphors for ways in which goodwill and understanding brought the two nations closer. By the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, official meetings with U.S. presidents were familiar affairs, recalling the years of history and tradition that had preceded.

How did you select which artifacts should be included in the exhibition?

We knew early on we wanted to feature the 1856 gifts from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce, which were among the first artifacts cataloged at the Smithsonian. In later searches through collections at the National Archives and the Library of Congress, we discovered many other gifts from King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. The comparisons we could draw between these artifacts and earlier royal gifts helped us illustrate how the relationship had evolved over two centuries.

Beyond gifts, several historical documents, films, and photographs were also included to enrich the stories surrounding these exchanges. Some artifacts also felt essential, like the original 1818 letter from Dit Bunnag to President Monroe, which we were fortunate the Library of Congress was able to loan for the exhibition.

Gold nielloware from King Mongkut to President Pierce, 1856 (Photo by James Di Loreto et al./Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution)
Gold nielloware desk set from King Bhumibol Adulyadej to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960 (Courtesy of the National Archives, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Photo by John Burwell Photography)

What were challenges you faced when developing this exhibition?

The scale of this exhibition was a challenge that made every aspect of the project more difficult. In the end, we featured over 79 artifacts from fifteen institutions in the United States and Thailand. This undertaking - the loans, the conservation, the transport, the production - required many long hours by hundreds of Thais and Americans. For example, the “Chantaboon” woven reed mat from King Chulalongkorn took several months alone to conserve.

As soon as we finished curating the exhibition, we were writing a more extended catalog to tell the complete, unabridged version of our story. The Thai translators were taken by surprise when we went way over our word limit, but after hundreds of hours of research there were just too many interesting stories we wanted to share. This publication also produced some amazing photography thanks to James Di Loreto’s team at the Smithsonian and John Burwell Photography. Some shots would take half a day to get the lighting right and at times we thought we’d never get through all the artifacts by our deadline. In the end however, the stress was worth it because it produced stunning images for the catalog and the Google Arts & Culture platform.

Conservator Kim Cullen-Cobb prepares the “Chantaboon” mat for conservation (Photo by Cole Fiala)
Photographing the Subanahongsa Royal Barge at the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, with James Di Loreto and Kate Sherwood.

After working on this project, what do you find special about the relationship between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States?

There are so many interesting and significant connections between our nations, such as Thailand being America’s first Asian ally in commerce and King Bhumibol being an American jazz aficionado born in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

However, on a more personal level, seeing how this exhibition was received by Thais and Americans alike was an experience we’ll cherish for a long time. When the exhibition opened, it was featured on the front page of most newspapers in Bangkok. We gave Facebook Live interviews with local news anchors and seeing the expressions of gratitude and interest from their followers was extremely gratifying. When we describe this exhibition back in the States, people are always amazed to learn that the histories of Thailand and the United States are so intertwined. These reactions speak volumes to this extraordinary bond between the two nations.

What curatorial lessons have you learned from this project?

This project reminded us of how beneficial it is to display the original artifact in an exhibition. Though the story could be told through photographs and graphic panels, there is no substitute for the real thing. To see King Mongkut’s signature and handwriting in this exhibition really brought history to life for us and we hope it does for our visitors as well.

The conservation and transport of the objects complicates the whole operation, but then that in itself becomes a storyline, as the care taken serves as a testament to the friendship. One lasting impact of this project is that, when the artifacts return to the United States, they will be better conserved and stabilized then they were before. We are proud that this project will help the preservation of these treasures for years to come.

19th century royal letters at the Great and Good Friends exhibition (Street View of the exhibition hosted by Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles)

Any final thoughts reflecting on this project and your experience?

We were greatly honored by His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn royally presiding over the opening of the Great and Good Friends exhibition in March and for having the privilege to personally give him a tour of the galleries.

After many months researching the subject it was a powerful feeling to realize that we were now a part of U.S.-Thai history. We hope this exhibition will do justice to the countless acts of goodwill between our countries that inspired us along the way.

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