Weekly Local Biography

  Rebecca Weldon Sithiwong

I am not sure what she thought as she helped pack her bags. She was seven years old and moving with her family from their home in rural Louisiana in the United States to American Samoa. Knowing her now, I think that she was probably full of questions. And having learned a lot about her parents, both of whom were physicians, I’m sure that they tried to answer them.

In his book, Tragedy in Paradise, Dr. Charles Weldon says that he and his wife, Dr. Patricia McCreedy, had decided to find challenging jobs overseas. Stale and tired after years of general practice in “Smalltown”, U.S.A., they thought that they would go abroad for a year or two, then return to the U.S. and find something in a more stimulating environment. I’m sure that none of them knew that this move would turn into a lifetime adventure for their daughter, Rebecca Weldon Sithiwong.

The family spent two years in American Samoa, and the physician/parents were so pleased with their professional successes and the way their children thrived that they sought other, more challenging opportunities abroad. The U.S. government offered them posts in Laos, and they took them. For the next eleven years, Becky and her family lived in beautiful Laos and fell in love with the country and its people. She was 10 years old when the family arrived. She was a college student in Pamona, California, when the country finally fell to the Communists.

Growing up, she attended both French and Lao schools, and learned both languages. Her parents insisted that their children learn the language and culture of their adopted land. She eventually was certified to teach both French and French literature, and she did her master’s level research primarily in French years later. She went to boarding school in Switzerland, then on to college in both Belgium and Paris. She and her brothers were all three in California when their parents finally left Laos in 1974. Becky graduated from Pamona with a degree in anthropology. But her travels and education were far from over.

She went to work for CARE in Haiti, organizing handicrafts cooperatives. She focused on textiles. This was during the period after Jean-Claude Duvalier’s installation as Haiti’s ninth president-for-life. Known as “Baby Doc” Duvalier, he was deeply corrupt but not as brutal at that time as his father had been. Becky lived and worked in that environment for three years.

Then she looked at Southeast Asia again, and went to work with the Good Shepherd Sisters at the Village Weavers in Nong Khai. The Village Weavers is a huge cooperative that sells an amazing collection of beautiful ethnic fabrics. She already had expertise in textiles, and she expanded on it during this time.

She met her husband, Chulaphan Sithiwong, who worked for Thai Airways. They planned for his eventual retirement, and opened the first travel agency and guesthouse in Chiang Rai. They have three children, a girl and two boys. When he retired, he and his family took over running the business and Becky opened the first art gallery in Chiang Rai. It thrived until the devaluation of the baht and the ensuing economic crisis. With bankruptcies growing among the educated and affluent, art did not sell. Always enterprising, Becky contacted AUA and the organization took over the building and opened AUA, Chiang Rai.

Becky went to work for Rai Mae Fa Luang, first as a volunteer and then, in 1998, as Curator. She served as cultural resource consultant to many groups. She took a Master’s degree in Museology in Amsterdam. During her volunteer years, she had learned a lot from the highly skilled director. She took great pleasure in teaching others. Her parents, after all, had spent most of their careers teaching non-professional people and turning them into professionals. By then, her father had retired to Chiang Rai so she was often able to turn to him for advice. She learned to give her staff the international framework for museums and then let them have the leeway to work out any problems. Rai Mae Fah Luang is a working museum. Its collections are constantly evolving. Becky thrives in the teaching, mentoring role. In a world that often overemphasizes advanced degrees and fails to recognize the contributions of talented people who have been trained on the job, she is a strong advocate for her staff.

She is a woman who is passionate about her work. Indeed, as I try to talk about her and her own accomplishments, she refers again and again to her staff and theirs. She considers herself a museology ethicist, concerned about the ethics of developing a museum in a country with limited resources, of being entrusted with priceless religious and other artifacts. She was not raised in a religious home, but she was raised in one that emphasized personal and professional ethics.

She is the consummate researcher. Rai Mae Fah Luang will never be a static museum. Using high-tech equipment, the staff is presently measuring heat, airflow, and humidity inside one building. It is not an air-conditioned, climate-controlled, high tech building, but the teak art pieces on display appear to be in the best environment for their preservation. On the other hand, she is proud of the fact that they do have a high-tech, climate-controlled building that meets international standards for the exchange of art.

She is working on a book with colleagues from other developing nations. Their research is on sustainable museums in developing countries. She points out that in 10 years, 80 percent of the museums in the United States will be in crisis, not able to maintain their buildings or collections. She sadly says that this will mean those museums will have to begin to sell their treasures. There are over six hundred museums in Thailand. Without an influx of resources, all are at risk. She says that the curators must develop “a system of ethics that makes sense in the culture in which we live.” She gives excellent advice.