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Thursday, July 03, 2008

A new museum Puts a Thai Imprint on Angkor

The new Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap has stirred controversy in Cambodia. Above, the exterior of the museum with the "Cultural Mall" on the right.
( John McDermott)

A New Museum Puts a Thai Imprint on Angkor

By Robert Turnbull (International Herald Tribune)
Published: July 2, 2008

SIEM REAP, Cambodia: A common disappointment for visitors to Angkor today is the paucity of sculptural artifacts offered by the site. Without the "furniture" that once graced its magnificent temples, it can be hard to imagine the customs and rituals that animated Cambodia's formidable empire in its heyday.

Of the religious icons that survived looting or appropriation to French museums, many were relocated over decades to Cambodia's National Museum, created in the 1920s by the architect and curator George Groslier. The snag for Angkor-bound tourists in Siem Reap is that the museum is in the capital, more than 300 kilometers, or 185 miles, away.

Now Vilailuck International Holdings, based in Bangkok, has opened what it has opted to call the "Angkor National Museum" only a few kilometers from the Angkor park. Constructed over three years from a Thai design, it is currently displaying objects borrowed from the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

The other source of artifacts is the Conservation d'Angkor, a storage facility of some 6,000 pieces created by the Ecole Française d'Extrème Orient (French School of Asian Studies) in 1908 and currently in the hands of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture. Previously inaccessible, the collection has functioned as a hospital for broken pieces but also contains important Buddhas from several periods, as well as stone steles with invaluable inscriptions.

Thai interest dates to 2001. For 16 years Vilailuck's parent company, the Samart Corporation, has been a major investor in Cambodia in the telecommunications and air traffic control sectors. Charoenrath Vilailuck, the company's CEO, has an acquisitive interest in Cambodia's patrimony as evidenced by his own large collection.

But the new museum has picked up powerful detractors, especially among the tight-knit international restoration community that casts a hypercritical eye over what happens at Angkor.

The name has drawn the most controversy. The vast majority of offerings come either from pre-Angkorian times or from centuries after. Then, as the Siem Reap-based historian Darryl Collins pointed out, an enterprise that is foreign-owned and "primarily interested in turning a profit" can hardly be called national, especially when Cambodia already has a National Museum.

Collins is among those concerned that the new venture will deter tourists from visiting the National Museum in Phnom Penh, with its profusion of Khmer treasures spanning several centuries. For the Cambodian cognoscenti, too, the Angkor National Museum's appearance on the scene seems ominous, especially given centuries-old sensitivities concerning Thai designs on Cambodian patrimony.

Until 1908 Thailand had control not only of Angkor but of large swathes of northern Cambodia. In spite of a 1962 International Court of Justice ruling in Cambodia's favor, its neighbor still disputes the "ownership" of land surrounding the 10th century Preah Vihear temple at Cambodia's northern border and once threatened to veto Unesco's plans to honor the mountain temple with World Heritage Site status, which is still pending. Anti-Thai riots, which claimed the Thai Embassy and several Thai businesses, broke out in Phnom Penh in 2003 after a Thai actress allegedly said Angkor Wat still belonged to Thailand.

The most serious incident occurred in 1999. Large sections of walls with superb bas-relief images of the multi-armed Lokeshvara were looted from the 12th-century Banteay Chhma temple near the Thai border on what was generally assumed to be the orders of a Thai collector. The stolen art was intercepted by Thai police and returned to Cambodia, but suspicions linger.

The museum's design has also provoked some derision. The hint of Angkor Wat's honeycomb towers and its surrounding moats tends to be overshadowed by pink sandstone walls, which clash with its glazed orange corbel-vaulted roofing. It doesn't help that the lion's share of the 20,000-square-meter, or 215,000-square-foot, interior takes the form of retail space or a "Cultural Mall."

"This seems to have been foremost in the mind of the designers, while the collection came second," said Azedine Beschaouch, a special adviser to Unesco's assistant director general for culture and an expert on Angkor.

Anxious to promote the museum as a "learning cultural institute," the Thais are easily stung by such criticism. "We want to educate Cambodian people about their own history," said the museum's managing director, Sunaree Wongpiyabovorn. There are those "who know little about its monuments, and even less of the progress of Buddhism and what led up to it," she added.

Wongpiyabovorn insists there is no fortune to be made from the Angkor National Museum. Given that Vilailuck had to triple its original investment of $5 million due to the cost overruns, the company said it didn't expect to see a profit until at least a third of the 30-year lease has expired; under its "build, cooperate and transfer" contract, the management and financial control of the collection will then revert to the Cambodian authorities and the Ministry of Culture.

Moreover, several complications seem to have left the Thais frustrated, especially with regard to the terms and conditions of the loans. Under the original plan, the Phnom Penh museum's former director, Khun Samen, agreed to hand over as many as 1,000 artifacts - more than 950 hundred of them small 20th-century Buddhas - for the 30-year term, as well as 31 major pieces for a six-month loan.

His successor Hab Touch immediately reduced the 31 pieces to 23. "I am not going to surrender important pieces that should be permanently displayed here for the integrity of the collection," he said.

Another deal signed with the government in 2003 that gave Vilailuck extensive rights to a Conservation d'Angkor collection was threatened when, to the dismay of the Thais, the Cambodian government granted control to a South Korean company calling itself Angkor Treasure. Vilailuck requested that Deputy Prime Minister Sok An "release" the Koreans from the contract. He did, but only on the condition that the Thais agree to compensate the Koreans for an undisclosed sum.

According to Wongpiyabovorn, Unesco "maintains a strong sense of ownership of Cambodia's patrimony." Beschaouch supports the Thai initiative but is impatient about what he called "presentation that cannot claim to reflect international standards in museology." The majority of the wood, stone and silver Buddhas in the gallery of "1,000 Buddha Images," he said, "allude in design to later Ayutthaya-era temples in Thailand and have no aesthetic link with Angkor."

Unesco is engaged with the Angkor museum in improving the situation. But it didn't help that by the time of the grand opening last fall, months behind schedule, not only had most of the Angkor National Museum's artifacts still not been captioned but some copyrighted images had been lifted without permission for display. In the museum's defense, Wongpiyabovorn said that the Conservation d'Angkor's outdated card system of documentation was lost during Pol Pot's reign, leaving many artifacts with few historical records.

Will the museum have been worth the trouble? As it stands today, it will have negligible interest for the connoisseur or serious student of Angkorian art. At $12 compared to $3 for the National Museum in the capital, the price of admission for foreigners is high - the result of high fuel costs for air-conditioning, said the management.

But the museum has its uses. It should be commended for facilitating the display of objects long out of view. And, for a first time, the equinox sunrise simulations over Angkor Wat, the documentary-style videos in seven languages and the like go some way in explaining to visitors the temples' significance.

As for content, the "apsaras" and architectural features like decorated lintels replicate a lot of what is already copiously displayed on site. Yet sculptures from the pre-Angkorian capitals of Sambor Pre Kuk and Phnom Kulen merit attention. The 7th-century Phnom Da Standing Vishnu and the blue-tinted 9th-century Standing Shiva from Prasat Trapeang Phong reveal Cambodia's Hindu and Brahmanist legacy, and there are further galleries devoted entirely to Buddhist Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and to the devaraja, or god-kings, who built these temples.

The museum insists it needs more time to develop its identity. Although its strength may not yet lie in a permanent collection, it aims to create exhibitions that inform and illuminate. The museum's curator, Chann Charouen, who is Cambodian and a former employee of the World Monument Fund, plans to rotate artifacts in a series of exhibitions from the aforementioned collections and from other Cambodian provincial museums such as those at Battambong and Kompong Cham.

It remains to be seen if the museum will embrace the growing scholarship and broad debates that currently characterize Angkorian studies, or be content to target tourists making an obligatory stop and bound inevitably for the inflated knick-knacks of the Cultural Mall.


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