Museums learn to think outside the box
|Drawing the crowds: The War Remnants Museum is one of the ten most attractive spots in Ho Chi Minh City according to tourists who have visited the city. — VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Vu
by Trinh Nguyen - Luong Huong
The War Remnants Museum is filled with the fragrance of grass and rice, punctuated by the lingering smoke of cooking fires. Foreign visitors watch on as old women - one time guerrilla fighters - cook the rice which will then be shaped into balls.
There in the museum they can also try various kinds of foods eaten during the war years, liked baked sweet potatoes for soldiers who went out to crawl among deadly munitions, or dried banana skins - a rather unusual ‘specialty' consumed by revolutionary prisoners of war.
Such aspects of the recent wars in Viet Nam are easily overlooked but are now experienced at one of the most popular museums in Ho Chi Minh City.
"We invited former prisoners to come over and make dry provisions from banana peel, and one time guerrillas to make pressed rice balls and baked fish," Huynh Ngoc Van, the director of War Remnants Museum tells us.
The event of sharing food with the veterans in a cosy fire-side chat is considered a unique specialty by the museum. "While making food, these former soldiers also tell stories about the miserably hard war days," she says.
This special event focusing on the stories of soldiers' food has attracted a large number of foreign visitors to the museum in order to experience what has been termed 'heritage tourism' - a type of interactive exposition that many museums now offer.
"The museum's revolutionary war banquet ended with no leftovers, and with 500 foreign visitors all left feeling quite satisfied," Van adds proudly.
|Enlightening: Young visitors try walking on stilts at the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
Growth of opportunities
There are 134 museums at national and provincial level nationwide in Viet Nam, including specialised and private museums, in addition to over 3,000 historical relics sites to be visited.
In direct relation to the fast increase in the number of museums is the number of visitors, which illustrates not only the popularity of the institutions but also highlights how museums remain an important part of society, not only culturally but also economically.
According to Nguyen Van Cuong, the director of the Viet Nam National Museum of History, museums, together with cultural and heritage tourism, contribute significantly to the tourism industry. He believes the relationship between museums and tourism is a strong and sustainable one.
"The museums and their artefacts not only preserve the essence of the past, but also attract both domestic and foreign visitors, contributing to the growing industry," he says.
He believes museums help to express and maintain national pride in traditions, culture and history. According to many tour agencies, museums and relics sites are considered the most attractive destinations for tourists, especially foreign ones.
"Most domestic and foreign travel agents have led their customers to the War Remnants Museum," says museum director Huynh Ngoc Van.
"And many tourists have confirmed that they have visited the museum more than once," she adds.
However, currently not all museums and places displaying relics have been able to manage the demand on their collections.
The Viet Nam National Museum of History preserves the largest number of precious artefacts in the country, over 200,000.
|Fun for the family: A young tourist makes a Vietnamese traditional toy at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.
Even though the objects are beautiful, the way of displaying them is still boring, so keeping the exhibitions fresh and rotating the objects from the storages vaults to the display room remains a challenge for their staff.
Then there are days when special objects are displayed the halls are packed with crowds, further deterring tour guides from leading their groups through the doors of the museum.
"That explains why many tour guides hesitate to lead the tourists to the Viet Nam National Museum of History," says Luu Duc Ke, the director of Hanoitourist Travel Company.
Viet Nam has just had three museums ranked among the most attractive in the world, namely the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, the Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum and especially the stand-out Vietnamese Women's Museum, which is rated as one the 25 most attractive museums in Asia.
Despite these accolades the museums and heritage tourism operators have not co-ordinated with one another in a mutually beneficial way, so there remains a glaring opportunity left unrealised.
Heritage tourism is gradually becoming another string to Viet Nam's tourism bow. According to Vu Manh Ha, vice director of the Viet Nam National Museum of History, co-operation between the museums and tour operators offers opportunities for visitors to learn about Viet Nam's culture and history, but he sees it as a mutually beneficial relationship for all parties involved.
Ke agrees, adding: "Viet Nam's museums contain many rooms with many objects, which take up to several hours to contemplate. But tour guides allow only two hours, even one hour, so it is important that the tours are tailored specifically to these groups of tourists."
"After each tour, feedback is sent to us, then the travel agents and museums will discuss this with each other," Ke adds.
To turn museums into key destinations on any travel itinerary - and importantly for tourists in general - it is necessary to know the potential heritage treasure preserved within museums, this includes renovating museum lay-outs, displays, content, as well as their services.
Ha says the museums in Viet Nam are trying to innovate and upgrade the displays in order to attract more visitors, this includes building a pilot 3D museum.
"The visitors come to the museums not only to contemplate and study the exhibits but also to enjoy an atmosphere with interesting information booths, souvenir shops or restaurants. They will not consider trips to museums that may be a tedious activity," he says.
|Another world:Many precious items are being preserved at the Vietnam National Museum of History. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
But the most important factor is that the museums have to possess a key point that can draw the attention of the visitors, like a themed exhibition or collection.
For example, the War Remnants Museum has held many special exhibitions with probing and interesting content, such as the exhibition highlighting women's activities during wartime and love in a time of war.
"In 2007, the Love During War exhibition, brought in 160,000 visitors in over two months, and early this year, the Children During War exhibition attracted 265,000 visitors after five months," says war museum director, Van.
Tour guides play an important role in helping visitors to comprehend the museum's content and to get a more thorough understanding of the cultural context that the artifacts come from. Not only understanding their own history, culture and society, the guides also have to be fluent in the foreign languages and confident at conversing with a wide range of peoples.
This is why the Viet Nam National Museum of History has paid special attention to the training of its curators. So far 20 people have been selected from specialised universities to work in the museum.
"When they start to work in tourism, they will certainly have opportunities to widen their specific knowledge through interacting with the working environment," says Cuong, National History Museum director.
Another important aspect of spreading information and popularising the museums is the use of the internet. The Viet Nam National Museum of History website has had over 8 million hits.
The museum produces leaflets and post-cards to show off its unique artefacts, like its collection of colourful glaze porcelain, as well as publishing its own scientific research.
"In the years to come, the museum will improve advertising, and will especially co-operate more closely with top-notch Viet Nam travel agents to broadcast its image both on both the domestic and international front," Cuong finishes.
He is confident that museums are moving in a positive direction and are taking into account the needs of its changing audience.
"The collaboration between museums and heritage tourism is a sound direction for our development, it confirms the role of the museums and works to achieve our goal of turning them into desirable spots for visitors taking a journey to discover the country's history and culture." — VNS