Cleaning encaustic tiles at Tourist Burma (Photo Credits: TJ Webster)

Our Clients Talk: Turquoise Mountain

For this month’s community interview, we sat down with Turquoise Mountain Myanmar Director Harry Wardill to talk about the Foundation and its work in Myanmar and the rest of the world.

Tell us about yourself.
I am the Director for Turquoise Mountain Myanmar, and came here to set Turquoise Mountain up at the end of 2014. I am a structural engineer by training and first worked for Turquoise Mountain in Afghanistan in 2009 and 10 where I led a number of restoration projects in the old city to house the National Institute for Traditional Arts and Architecture.

When we started here to Myanmar, the office was in the front room of our house near to the Chauk Htat Gyi pagoda (large reclining Buddha). Since then, due to an expanding office (and family!) we have moved Downtown to an historic building in Chinatown, beautifully restored by the media company Bridge.

Tell us about Turquoise Mountain around the world and in Myanmar.
Turquoise Mountain was established in 2006 at the behest of HRH The Prince of Wales, and we now work in Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Middle East.

Turquoise Mountain’s aim is to preserve and regenerate historic areas and communities with a rich cultural heritage and to revive traditional crafts, to create jobs, skills and a renewed sense of pride.

Since 2006, Turquoise Mountain has restored 113 historic buildings, trained over 5,000 artisans, treated more than 100,000 patients, graduated hundreds of talented artisans, and generated over $5m in international sales from customers like Kate Spade 5th Avenue to London’s 5 star Connaught Hotel. Turquoise Mountain has also curated major international exhibitions around the world, from the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, to the Venice Biennale.

In Myanmar, we completed our first building restoration project at 491-501 Merchant Street in April 2016. This was undertaken in partnership with the Yangon Heritage Trust, and opened by the newly appointed NLD Yangon Chief Minister. This project secured the future of the historic building and the home for the 80 or so tenants within, as well as training 250 people in traditional building skills.

We are currently working with the Regional Government to restore the Former Tourist Burma building, with works underway on site. This will secure public access to a large part of the building, upgrade the public realm around it as well as training hundreds more people during the works.

In crafts, we have started in jewellery and established a workshop in Yangon creating fine handmade gold jewellery using traditional techniques. To date we have created 7 lines of jewellery with international designers, and also established a successful apprenticeship programme, including 3 young women – some of the first female goldsmiths in Myanmar. As a social business, all profits are reinvested into the business and its social mission. We have begun work in textiles, having produced a fashion line with a UK designer.

They Aung - Fish (Photo Credits: Sai Htin Linn Htet)

They Aung – Fish (Photo Credits: Sai Htin Linn Htet)

What is The Artisan Toolkit and what does it aim to achieve?

The Artisan Toolkit is a practical guide to building a business, designed for craftspeople and makers. It is based on a toolkit that was made for Afghanistan, and was adapted specifically for the Myanmar craft sector, and launched in September of this year.

The objective of the Toolkit is to help artisans access markets, so they can grow their businesses. It does this by providing artisans with the knowledge and tools to overcome common business challenges and improve practices in key business areas, from production to marketing to design. The Toolkit has been written from a buyer’s perspective, so artisans can better meet buyer’s expectations, particularly in international markets where demand for handmade, unique craft products is increasing. It aims to help artisans grow their businesses and the Myanmar economy.

What has your key achievement in Myanmar been?

On the building side it has been fantastic to see a ‘community’ of engineers, architects and crafts people come together around the effort to restore historic buildings. Having started our second project it is great to see the increased knowledge, skills and professionalism of this community since starting the Merchant Street project back in 2015.

In crafts, it has been the establishment of an economically sustainable social business based around the jewellery project. This secures the future of the project, and its ability to grow, reinvesting profits in to furthering the social mission.

What accomplishment are you personally most proud of?

The Living Restoration exhibition we put on at the end of the Merchant Street project was a great end to the project. It really captured the life and community within the building, and through a series of different events – from puppet shows to debates – we managed to get a diverse group of people to engage with the project and its aims.

What is the importance of “investing in historic areas and traditional crafts” for the country?

The artisan sector can be a route to employment and sustainable livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people in Myanmar. According to a recent UNFPA census around 12% of employed persons (2.4m workers) are employed in the craft sector, with women playing a key part in this industry. Not only is there great potential across the sector for improved earnings, but Myanmar’s abundance of high-value raw materials, master-craftsmanship and design heritage equips it to be a leading producer of luxury products. However, years of isolation, conflict and domestic poverty have eroded technical and business skills, and severed connections to local and export markets.

Yangon today is still endowed with spectacular architecture from its grand colonial buildings to its gold- clad pagodas, wide streets, a waterway, and a reputation around the world. However, Yangon has been exposed to global markets almost overnight, and many of the original properties are now being demolished to make way for modern buildings. In an environment where legislation is still being developed and market forces prevail, new development is happening abruptly, often distorting urban fabric and uprooting the local community. If Yangon continues on this path it will be an unsustainable city as has already happened to many of its sister cities across Asia.

Yangon’s rich heritage remains one of the best surviving examples in the world, representing a valuable asset for the city – used thoughtfully this can be utilised to provide valuable amenities for the growing urban population, whilst at the same time driving sustainable economic development of one of Asia’s poorest countries.

Merchant Street, Carpenter Working on Eavesboard (Photo Credits: TJ Webster)

Merchant Street, Carpenter Working on Eavesboard (Photo Credits: TJ Webster)

How different are your operations in Myanmar compared to other countries Turquoise Mountain operates in?

Each geography we work in has a different set of challenges and opportunities, and as such our projects have adapted to respond to these. But what has been good to see as we expand into new places, is that the model we use elsewhere forms a great base to build off, and we can utilise the depth of experience we’ve gained and the networks we’ve built when starting out in a new geography.
What does the future hold for Turquoise Mountain in Myanmar?

Our focus and priority at the moment is to complete the Tourist Burma renovation to the highest standard possible, whilst delivering the effective training needed to ensure that it can be replicated in the future. We would obviously love to restore more buildings in the future, specifically building a project that attracts some private ‘social’ investment to prove the economic viability of these projects and something that dovetails with our work in crafts to form a creative hub.

In crafts, we hope to build on the success of our jewellery project with our work in textiles, and then expand in to other crafts, focusing on building the sector and sustainable livelihoods for Myanmar artisans.