Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, affectionately known as the "Met", share a common bond an obsession with the Met's art store and the thousands of affordable reproductions - ranging from ancient to modern - on sale there.
The success of the Met store has become a model for many museums all over the world in their efforts to make art understood and appreciated by the widest and most diverse audience through its astonishing range of merchandise adapted from antique masterpieces.
Here in Thailand, the usually quiet Bangkok National Museum, opposite Sanam Luang, is also trying the same tactics. From its new Thai National Museum Shop, you can buy a goldplated ring adapted from earrings made in the Dvaravati period of the sixth century AD, or a silver bangle with an engraved design based on the Thai inscription on the stele of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great.
These are among 30 jewellery designs from a collection by Pornpilai Meemalai and four of her fellow graduates of the Department of Jewellery Design at Silpakorn's Decorative Arts Faculty where Pornpilai works as a lecturer.
The shop is a collaborative project between the museum and Prapavadee Sophonpanich, who owns the Met Store's Bangkok outlet in Siam Discovery Centre.
In this initial phase, the store is focusing on jewellery, which Prapavadee believes will more easily attract attention and is a practical way to make art part of everyday life.
Pornpilai and her designer team are given free rein of the museum to allow them to identify the masterpieces that best lend themselves to adaptation. So far, ancient gold ornaments, royal utensils and inscriptions have been their main sources of inspiration.
"Initially, we homed in on the remarkable jewellery in the museum and other treasures whose art forms best reflect our culture and the artistic skills of craftsmen in ancient times. Most of all, our designs must be suited for reproduction as commercial art," says Pornpilai.
The star fruitshaped earrings of the Dvaravati period are among her favourite items.
"They have an organic and freeform design that reflects the influence of nature on accessories created in that period. The earrings have a three dimensional form that looks solid when viewed from afar, but are actually hollow and fashioned from a single sheet of gold that's rolled up and welded," she explains.
Young designer Jakkaphan Keeratinun has adapted the ornament as a set featuring pendant, earrings and ring in 24kgold plate and silver. The black refined Thai silk necklaces for the pendants are handmade by Phonthip Tangviriyamate, who sells her own creations at Phonthip Jewellery in Siam Paragon's Code 10 Zone.
"It's a great experience working on this project. The chance to examine these priceless treasures has inspired me to learn more about art history," says Jakkapan, 27. "I tried my best to make the pieces in the set look as solid and heavy as the original ornament, while keeping the details along the ridges. But I turned over the shape of the star fruit for the ring and gave it an infinity form."
The gold plaque embossed motif of the pikul (Spanish cherry) flower has also been selected for its beautiful design and meaning. In 14th century Ayutthaya, these fragrant Thai flowers were used as offerings in the ceremonies to lay the foundations of holy places.
Pichai Kaikiew has come up with pikulmotif necklaces as well as dangling and button earrings by overlaying thin silver sheets in a threedimensional form. Linking the chain for necklace requires painstaking effort, as it is formed from about 400 sheets in different nine sizes.
The traditional motherofpearl inlay on the manuscript cabinet built in Ayutthaya during the 1700s has also inspired the designers.
The individual element is very small and lacquer - embedding involves many applications. Each intervening space must be filled with a mixture of lacquer, tree gum and pounded charcoal obtained from burnt coconut shell - known as rak samuk. The shell used has particularly a rich opalescent lustre. This laborious technique is rarely used nowadays though the Fine Art Department's craftsmen still practice this old technique and make it for the museum's motherofpearl jewellery of choker and ring - both bearing the element of Singha decorated on the manuscript cabinet.
"Visitors always come to see the inscription stele from the era of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, which proves that we've had our own written language since the Sukhothai era. We've taken some phrases and words for our bangle, ring and cufflinks," says Pornpilai.
The silver and niello bangle formed from a rolledup silver plate is engraved with famous phrase on the stele saying "…there are fish in the water, there are rice on the field, Sukhothai is a fertile land", while the onyx ring and quartz cufflinks on silver rhodium plate are embossed with the word "Ram".
Another interesting piece is the pendantcumlocket, which is based on an Ayutthaya period octagonal box from the royal betel set.
"The royal utensils made by highlyskilled goldsmiths are beautifully crafted," says Jakkaphan. "The gold betel set shows us that it was customary in that period to chew areca nut wrapped in betel leaf. The offering of a betel set was also a sign of goodwill to guests of the royal court."
Visitors to the shop can also choose from a Tab Suang set featuring a 24Kgoldplated necklace and pin based on a gold chest ornament worn in Ayutthaya period and an embossed horse set with pin, hair clip and earrings adapted from the gold pieces depicting the animals of the mystical Anodard pond in the 14th century.
And even if you're not buying, why not take a shortcut through your art studies with a browse through this welcoming new shop.
>>Thai National Museum Shop at the Bangkok National Museum, Na Phrathat Road, is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 9am to 4pm. Call (02) 221 2536.
>>You can shop the merchandises online by visiting www.ThaiMuseumShop.com. Part of the proceeds will go to support the museum and its educational activities.