Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Patra Maharaj Thai Banknotes
The exhibition is at the Somdej Residence at the Bang Khun Prom Palace. The Currency Museum is in the adjacent building.
December 13, 2011 1:00 am
Thai kings' portraits first appeared on banknotes in 1934 - several decades after paper money was introduced here - and that royal presence continues today.
While the monarch has ever since taken pride of place on the notes, the surrounding patterns and notation is constantly in flux, as is the imagery on the bill's reverse, which usually features architecture, landscapes or scenes of cultural interest. His Majesty's personal projects have been depicted since 1992, illustrating his effort to improve people's wellbeing.
This deep connection between the monarchy and our paper money is evident in the Bank of Thailand exhibition "Patra Maharaj Thai Banknotes", organised for the King's birthday and continuing through January 13.
"The main concept is 'The Sustainable Happiness of Thai People Originated from Behind the Picture'," says Amara Sripayak, the Planning and Budget Office's deputy governor.
"Viewers will appreciate the great mercy of the King, who has worked very hard to build real happiness for Thai people."
"From His Heart to the People" includes a large mirror engraved with the same portrait of His Majesty that appeared on banknotes commemorating his 84th birthday. Along the side are passages from his 2008 speech to BOT executives, when he instructed them "to manage the national fund and not spend all of it".
In "The Unique Banknotes of the Ninth Reign" you can view an archive of royal projects as depicted on bills of various denominations, including one that showed in detail how a commemorative banknote was printed.
The third zone, Bank of Thailand Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul points out, offers a wider view of the King's efforts during his 65 years on the throne, from water management and soil conservation to protecting the environment in other ways.
Other royal projects illustrated on the bills have included a plan for diverting freshwater from Narathiwat's Khlong Sungaipadee and the Pasak Cholasit Dam.
The illustrations are doubly impressive considering the craftsmanship required in modifying photos and artwork for use on counterfeitresistant paper currency. Drawings must now be blended with computer graphics, rather than on printing machine as in the old days.
Artist Prasit Chanitrapirak says each piece takes him nearly four months to complete, but the achievement leaves him quite proud. "It's hard keeping my hand so steady all the time, but I have no intention of making a mistake!"
The prototypes for each series, normally kept in a vault, are on display in Zone 2, while Prasit demonstrates his technique in Zone 4.
Nearby him are specimens of banknotes along with rare pieces, such as notes bearing the "lucky number" 9. You won't often see so many different types of circulated notes with just 9s in the serial number. The Bank of Thailand had commercial banks withdraw these notes for safekeeping.
The fourth zone is a double treat for collectors. Also on view are banknotes bearing the signatures of various finance ministers and Bank of Thailand governors, and if they were in office just a short time, those notes are worth far more than the face value.
Collectors hunt them down, along with the signatures of renowned figures, such as Puey Ungpakorn, one of the most successful BOT governors, who served for 12 years.
My favourite item in the exhibition is a Bt1,000 note issued more than half a century ago. That was a lot of money back then, when a bowl of noodles cost less than Bt10. Thailand had never seen such a high denomination.
The Finance Ministry ordered these notes in 1949 and 500,000 were printed by 1952 - only for authorities to balk at the risk of inflation and have the whole shipment incinerated. Except for this miraculous survivor.
In the end, Bt1,000 notes didn't appear until 1996.
The show further reveals that, despite Thailand having paper currency since 1902 and having gone through 15 series, the Bank of Thailand only established its own printing house in 1969. Before that, all of the printing was done in England, Japan and the US, and then later by the Royal Thai Army's mapprinting unit.
Without the keen enthusiasm of a collector, I was able to tour the exhibition in half an hour, but even in that short period I learned a great deal about the inseparable connection between kings and banknotes.
And I came away with a deeper appreciation for the bit of paper we toss around with so little thought every single day.