Khamchanh Souvannalith
Collections Manager, Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre (TAEC)

Tara Gujadhur
Co-Director, Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre (TAEC)

Laos has a rich diversity of cultures, lifestyles, and arts, many of which intersect. The country’s seventeen provinces stretch 1,162 kilometers from north to south, with 6.8 million inhabitants representing fifty officially recognized ethnic groups in four main language families. The majority Tai Lao people, from whom the country gets its name, make up about 53% of the population, with numerous ethnic minority groups comprising the rest.
Laos is well known for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) is a cultural heritage social enterprise in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. It is the only independent museum and resource center in Laos dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of the traditional arts and lifestyles of the country’s diverse ethnic groups. The Centre opened its doors on 5 July 2007. Today, TAEC is engaged in a broad range of activities as described in the following:

The permanent exhibition contains text, photographs, and objects from villages throughout the north of Laos. These exhibits explore the unique cultural aspects of four of Laos’ most well-known ethnic minority groups: Akha, Hmong, Kmhmu, and Tai Dam.

Advocacy and Livelihoods
TAEC recognizes the need to support livelihood development in ethnic minority communities, which represent a disproportionate percentage of the poor in Laos, as well as foster the longer-term goal of cultural pride and identity-building. TAEC’s museum shop, boutique, and online store sell crafts sourced directly from artisan communities, promoting handicraft skills and livelihoods based on traditional arts, thus reducing the need to sell antiques.
TAEC is also involved in the worldwide movement to promote recognition of formal intellectual property rights over traditional cultural expressions for ethnic minority communities, and to educate companies and the public on the dangers of plagiarizing traditional designs. Together with the Lao Handicraft Association, Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative, and Lao Department of Intellectual Property, TAEC has developed a model for stronger legal protections together with the Oma ethnic group.

TAEC encourages Lao communities and youth to learn about Laos’ ethnic diversity by offering free admission to all Lao citizens and running school outreach activities and student tours. TAEC also provides professional development and training for cultural and tourism workers.

Preservation and Documentation
The TAEC permanent collection consists of over four hundred objects from thirty ethnic groups, documented and preserved for future generations using locally appropriate archival methods. The Centre is also responsible for maintaining artifacts on loan from private collections.

TAEC conducts primary research in ethnic communities, developing close relationships to localize and enrich the information collected. TAEC’s own team visits the field periodically to document festivals and special events, gather information on collection objects, and research future exhibit themes.
TAEC’s mission is to promote pride and appreciation for the cultures and knowledge of Laos’ diverse peoples, support ethnic communities to safeguard their tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and promote their sustainable livelihood development.
Working with youth, particularly ethnic minority youth, is an important part of this work.

Main Goals and Activities of UNESCO ICH Youth Forum 2021
In July 2021, TAEC was approached by UNESCO to assist in facilitating the first Laos-based Community Heritage for Sustainability Youth Forum. The goals of this program were:
• To create better understanding of the vast meanings of heritage and ICH;
• To raise greater awareness that indigenous cultures and local ways of living are as valuable to our society as nationally recognized heritage;
• To share knowledge and points of view between international experts and Lao youth who aspire to improve their communities;
• To support Lao youth and local communities in galvanizing project ideas that can sustainably improve or solve livelihood challenges using ICH and existing resources in their localities;
• To provide a platform for communication between Lao youth and agencies on sustainable development in mainstreaming bottom-up project-management ideas by youth and local people.
In total, there were forty-nine participants in the program: twenty-one from Champassak, nine from Xieng Khouang, and nineteen from Luang Prabang. After announcing the selected participants, there was a self-learning phase. The youth received an e-learning package to watch introductory video clips about UNESCO World Heritage instruments and ICH concepts. They had eighteen days to work through this material. Afterwards, the participants took a short quiz developed by UNESCO Bangkok to assess their understanding. This was followed by five days of teaching sessions (15–19 October 2021).
Due to COVID-19, the forum was conducted over Zoom, with the two lecturers, Dr. Paritta Chalermpow Koanantakool and Mr. Chupinit Kesmaneemm, leading the sessions from Thailand. The young participants studied the basics and concepts of ICH, diversity of communities, the meaning of safeguarding, the objectives of working in communities to safeguard ICH, field data-collection techniques, thought-building to create projects for communities, seven tools for community-centered cultural data collection, and how ICH can build sustainability of communities. Each day after the session, the youth were assigned homework to have them think, discuss, share ideas with their own groups, and present to lecturers, mentors, and other groups for feedback and advice.
The participants then prepared for fieldwork. In Luang Prabang, the youth were split into eight groups. Most of them were from different villages. Collecting information during the fieldwork was difficult, because the town was in lockdown during the training period. Six out of the eight groups from Luang Prabang were not able to leave their homes, and thus had to collect information by phone, which limited the number of interviewees and the diversity and breadth of information. However, the youth tried their best to collect sufficient information to input in their presentations and project guidelines. With the information gathered, the TAEC mentors and the eight groups had calls through WhatsApp and Google Meet for guiding, coaching, and supporting preparation of the pitch presentations. Before the showcase day, all of the groups practiced their presentations to the lecturers and mentors for final comments.
On the showcase day, fifteen groups presented their final ICH expression project ideas to the public:
1. Documenting spirit worship ritual in a Tai Yuan of Na Tan village.
2. Documenting patterns of Chiang Muan silversmithing.
3. A study of iron forging for sustainable cultural tourism at Baan Had Hien.
4. Preserving Dok Pok patterns at Wat Chumkhong.
5. Documenting traditional natural-dyed cotton cloth production of Tai Lue women in Nayangtai village.
6. Revitalizing the bamboo basketry tradition in Baan Don Kaew.
7. Documenting pottery knowledge in Baan Chan Nuea.
8. Traditional blacksmithing of the people of Bor Village.
9. Promoting Hmong’s Boon Kin Jiang festival.
10. Realizing Lao house-building tradition in Champasak Old Town.
11. Celebrating racing-boat-making rituals and artistic patterns of Champasak.
12. Transitions of Si Pan Don oral tradition.
13. Learning how to make Hmong Lai skirts in Baan Sai Lom.
14. Documenting Baan Saman’s Mudmee technique.
15. Creating knowledge exchange within the community on the silk-making skill of Baan Sapai.

TAEC has integrated ICH into its work from the beginning. Tara, interviewing Kmhmu weavers. © TAEC

Key Challenges, Lessons, and Opportunities
The program facilitators were extremely impressed with the commitment and work of the youth who participated in the forum. There was a concern that due to the forum being completely online, it would be difficult for the participants to grasp the concepts and remain engaged. However, the groups communicated well in their teams, attended the online sessions, and worked hard on their projects and fieldwork. Two TAEC staff members, Keuay Chanthangone and Khamchan Souvannalith, both experienced in fieldwork and knowledge of ICH, provided mentorship and support to the youth in Luang Prabang. Two other mentors provided support in Champassak and Xieng Khouang. This local coaching and advice were instrumental to the success of the program.
However, the program was not without its challenges. The concept of ICH was new for all the youth, and thus the training material at times could be overwhelming, and the tools and concepts difficult for them to grasp in such a short period of time, especially when delivered online. Participants also had different levels of education, making it more difficult for some of them to absorb what they were taught.
Online training during lockdown was a particular challenge. Some of the participants had no experience with online learning platforms, and a few of the participants from Luang Prabang had little or no experience in technology, so it was challenging for them to use Zoom. Mentors spent quite some time supporting the youth to download the app and setting up pre-meetings with them before actual Zoom sessions. In addition, the internet connection was not always stable.
Throughout the program, the mentors found that WhatsApp, Voice Recorder, Google Meet, and Google Drive were the most useful for working with the youth. WhatsApp was familiar and easy for all of the participants to use, while Google Meet and Google Drive—which had less technical issues than Zoom—were helpful tools for giving feedback and comments.
It was also suggested that if UNESCO offers another opportunity for Lao youth for any sort of training in the future, a longer period of training would be helpful, with a more basic and foundational approach to delivering the information, tools, and materials. Many young people in Laos are active, talented, and motivated, but need help bridging the knowledge gap that may not be present in other ASEAN countries.
Young people are a key part of safeguarding ICH, and this program was a first step to engaging and encouraging youth in this area. Identifying and documenting ICH is a challenge, requiring a great deal of patient awareness-raising and facilitation. It is important to seek out youth that have a special spark that can be developed into a love for working with communities, culture, and heritage, and who recognize the role ICH plays in their identity and life. Youth constitute over half of the world’s population, and ICH depends on their recognition and agency in celebrating their heritage to keep it alive. n

Equipment and materials used for basketry in Done Keo Village. © Duangchai Seangaloun, Vilaisone Thattavong