The afternoon my project begins to take flight, I’m in an administrative office of Chiang Mai’s Highland Peoples Discovery Museum, gathered with several members of its staff before a bookcase. A young woman named Aim pulls a volume off the shelf, lays it on the table before the group, and taps on three words emblazoned in gold across the cover. “Yes!” I say in excited recognition, “the Tribal Research Institute!” Aim nods and, in Thai too quick for me to catch, lets the others know what we’re looking for.

I met Aim the week before, during my first visit to the museum. She had been my guide through the elaborate exhibits dedicated to northern Thailand’s traditional ethnic communities—the Karen, the Hmong, the Akha, to name a few. After the tour had concluded, I spent an hour inquiring with Aim and other museum staff (in a patchwork of Thai and English, frequently threaded together with the help of Google Translate) about a certain archive of books, photographs, and audiovisual recordings that I wasn’t sure existed. Unsure themselves, the museum staff told me to come back the following Monday.

Today, I learn that the archive does indeed exist. On the table before me—in a growing pile of books, photo albums, and cassettes—are some of the first pieces of recorded information about the highland peoples of the surrounding area. They had originated with the now-defunct Tribal Research Institute, an organization dedicated to working with these communities. Its library, I had read, was transferred to the museum after the Institute was dissolved in 2002.

I let loose a sigh of relief. In the weeks since I had first learned about the archive, I had hoped for this moment, the beginning of my efforts to ensure the collection’s continued existence through digital preservation. I had high professional expectations for myself, and today was the day I would begin to meet them.

I had not, however, expected the moments of connection I would come to share with the museum staff. In subsequent trips to the library, after a morning reviewing books and albums for digitization, I would be invited to share lunch beside the lake with Aim and the others. The staff and I would play our music on a speaker, sharing in the melodies and rhythms, if not in lyrics. Phi Nong—the woman who ran the museum gift shop—would tease my lack of proficiency in Thai as she filled my hands with candies whose names I couldn’t pronounce. One day, having failed to understand Aim’s warning that a gate would be closed early, I found myself trapped in the museum courtyard; I resorted to jumping over a nearby fence, legs aflutter. It was not until Phi Nong’s cackling reached my ears that I was made aware of my audience.

I had suspected, even through uncertainty, that the Highland Peoples Discovery Museum held the archive of valuable materials that I hoped to digitize. What I did not know was that it also contained such rich opportunities for friendship, connection, and laughter.

by Noah Perales-Estoesta on February 21, 2022