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The National Museum of Cambodia

by Charles C. King

The Cambodian National Museum is a must-see item for tourists in Phnom Penh. In 2007, 140,000 people visited the musueum's 1,877 displayed items. According to Hab Touch, the museum director, it is the the world's largest exhibit of ancient Khmer artifacts, and there are 12,320 more pieces in the basement waiting to be categorized and displayed.

Bronze statue at the Cambodian National Museum. Photo by Charles C. King. The museum is divided into several categories, including prehistoric items, stone, bronze and wood sculptures, ceramics and ethnographic objects from the prehistoric, pre-Angkor, Angkor and post-Angkor periods. The stone and bronze sculpture collections are considered among the finest in the world. Among the most spectacular stone works are the remarkable Hindu divinities of eight-armed Vishnu represented as the supreme god, surrounded by his avatars from Angkor Borei, the heartland of Funan (1st-6th C) in present day Takeo province that exemplifies the pre-Angkor style known as Phnom Da. Other exceptional works include the representations of Harihara, and the goddess Durga in her aspect as Mahisasuramardini from the northern group at Sambor Prei Kuk as well as the famous Harihara from the Prasat Andet temple in Kompong Thom province, and the female figure of Devi from Koh Krieng in Kratie province. While stone sculptures are renowned in the collection, works in bronze also illustrate the superb expertise of Khmer craftsmanship in metal production during the pre-Angkor and Angkor periods. A large 11th century bronze sculpture of Reclining Vishnu from West Baray at Angkor is undoubtedly one of the monumental masterworks of Khmer statuary.

Many significant examples of Buddhist images are also on display. The group of Buddhist statues from Vat Romlok, Angkor Borei is one of the most important representations in the history of Khmer Buddhist art.

The 90-year-old red sandstone building, designed by George Groslier, sits next to the Cambodian Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, not far from where the Tonie Sap River merges with the Bassac and Mekong rivers. The museum is built in a square around a serene courtyard with fish ponds, red lilies, and dragon flies resting on the closed lotus blossoms. The entry to the museum shows the 10th-century sandstone Garuda, while the customer service desk provides a good collection of photography books and guidebooks about Cambodia. Outside, there are two refreshment stands where one can rest in the shade of the palm trees and view the images that the early Cambodians tried to create from their imagination. Never having seen a lion, they created their own images of mystical guardians.

According to information supplied by Director Touch "The Museum is better described as a building enlarged from Cambodian temple prototypes seen on ancient bas-reliefs and reinterpreted through colonial eyes to meet museum-size requirements. "The foundation stone was laid on Aug 15, 1917 and completed in about two and half years. The dedication was held on the Cambodian New Year Celebration of April 13, 1920. Nineteen twenty-three saw two wings added. Administration of the Museum was ceded by the French government in 1951 just before Cambodia gained independence from France in 1954. The first Cambodian to direct the museum was Chea Thay Sing in 1966. It was closed from 1975-1979 during the Khmer Rouge regime. For years the building was infested with bats, and until 2003 it housed the world's largest bat enclave inside a man-made structure.

All gate revenues are turned over to the Ministry of Finance. Yearly budget demands are helped by UNESCO, grants from other countries (including the United States and Australia), and the Cambodian Government. When asked what his top priority would be Touch admitted that he would like to bring the museum to an international standard. He is most proud of the recent completed ceramics display where the wall was repaired, lighting installed, and labeling upgraded. He said that the building needs some major repair, improvement of current display through lighting and mounts, and better visitor services. My personal inspection of the premises revealed façade cracks in the front of the museum, while the rear of the building showed peeling paint, a broken stone bench. Inside, some walls were marred by unpainted patches.

The entry does not offer ramps or elevators for the handicapped. A visitor from Canada, using his black silver tip cane to maneuver up and down, despite the effort remarked, "I have never seen anything like it. The prehistoric tools were impressive." An Australian visitor similarly commented that "the inside was shoddy but the statues incredibly impressive."

The museum is working on their own website of 100 hundred pages with links to Museum History, Collection, Khmer Art History, Exhibitions, Projects and Activities.

Heightening the awareness of the value of Cambodia's artifacts is critical. Despite governmental and other agency information and advertising, "the illicit trade in artifacts and looting is very difficult to control, especially along the Thai border," lamented Director Touch.

According to Heritage Watch, www.heritagewatch.org, an estimated $20 million of Cambodia's heritage has been sold since 1988. At least 90% of material sold on the antiquities market is illegally acquired, and an estimated $1 million worth of Khmer antiquities are traded through one auction house a year. Heritage Watch has began a national radio and TV campaign targeting both those who loot and buy antiquities. Heritage Watch has published children's books and a comic book on heritage theft, organized grass-roots training sessions in rural villages, and established a national hot-line to report thefts. The group has also attempted to educate tourists about the consequences of buying looted art, undertaken rescue excavations at threatened sites, and monitored the trade of antiquities through international auction houses and the internet. The group has also organized a petition to request that the governments of Singapore and Thailand sign the 1970 UNESCO Convention. This would help stop illicit antiquities from being shipped from Bangkok and Singapore.

The problem, however, will not be easy to solve. While visiting Cambodian in 2005, I witnessed a farmer who sold two pieces of pottery he dug up while digging a fish pond on his property. A third piece was shattered. He sold the smaller bowl for $15.00 and the four inch bowl for $25.00. When queried about the national policy of selling such objects he said "I am poor and need money for my family to survive."

Director Touch, meanwhile, continues to work on improving the museum. He has been a Deputy Director at the museum for 11 years and became Director in June 2008. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, in 1980 he majored in earth sculpture at the Royal University of Fine Arts. He received a master's degree in ancient building conservation in Poland and returned to Cambodia in 1995 working in the Ministry of Culture.

Touch stated "the building is old and we need to improve in many areas. We do not have room to display what is stored, and we continue to accept statutes for safe keeping from provincial temples so they will not be damaged or looted. We are improving a little at a time." I last visited the museum in 1995, and it has improved. At that time the museum was dark, smelled, and had dead flies in all the cabinets.

"We have several project where we need qualified volunteers and monetary assistance." Touch says. "UNESCO is helping with the collection Data Base Museum Survey and the US is sponsoring the National Museum Collection inventory Project (CIP). But the work is slow. I hope that the people will read this, especially in the United States, and understand that we need qualified skilled persons in many fields to assist the museum in becoming a world class museum."

The museum is open from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm, seven days a week, with a charge of $3.00. For $1.00 one may take pictures in the inner courtyard but photos are not allowed in the museum "because we cannot control the copyright, many use the pictures for commercial reasons," said Touch. Tour guides are available in Khmer, English, French, Japanese, and Vietnamese for a recommended fee of $5.00, or one may buy a guide book for $3.00. The exhibits are labeled in Khmer, French and English.


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