Kong Vireak, the former head of the Royal University of Fine Arts, was recently appointed director of the National Museum – replacing Hab Touch, who was in the job for 20 years. Sylvain Gharbi spoke to him about his plans to revamp the museum.
How did you become the director of the National Museum?
I have a background in archeology. As deputy director and then director of the Royal University of Fine Arts I conducted research work on Khmer culture.
The restorers of ancient artifacts and members of the Association of Friends of Khmer Culture are friends of mine. I have also and always maintained good relations with these people. The Museum is not a new place to me.
With this combination of elements in addition to my professional career path and the various projects I was involved in, when senior officials at the Ministry of Culture made a formal offer, it seemed like a natural thing.
This is a great honor from the Ministry for entrusting me with this responsibility.
As Cambodia opens up to the world and embraces development, how does this impact the National Museum?
We have a lot of foreign partners, museums, organizations and NGOs in Japan, Europe and America. We have made agreements to foster partnership with important players in the global art world. We exchange exhibitions, showcase Khmer art throughout the world and gain visibility, which entices people to visit our country and our galleries as well.
We are, however, back on the map of the international art market. Khmer art sells at very high value worldwide. This brings a lot of problems. The National Museum fights crime against our heritage, the spoilage of our temples and historic sites to the fullest extent of our means.
What exhibitions are in store in 2013?
Next year we will send a series of Khmer bronze statues to the Metropolitan Art Gallery in New York. We are also collaborating with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.
I have requested the Cambodian authorities grant us permission to send a series of Khmer art statues to Musée Guimet, a museum of Asian art in Paris. I still need to finalise the last details for this exhibition.
How do you see your role and that of the museum?
I strive to carry out our main mission: looking after art objects. We have an educational role in relation to the general public. This is an aspect the Museum stands for that I want to perpetuate as curator. We inform Cambodians about Khmer culture, about their culture, the culture of their land.
Not only is my role about conservation and protection but it also entails support and promotion of our culture. It is interaction-based. We support it and get support for what we do as well.
Is there a specific contribution you want to bring to the museum?
I have an idea in mind.
I would like the Museum to have an association or a Society of Friends of the National Museum of Cambodia, for people to collaborate with us in the acquisitions of new collections. Other important international museums have such organisations.
Among all the exhibitions you are planning, can you single one out?
In the beginning of January 2013, we will be organising a temporary photography exhibition about life in the Mekong region.
UNESCO is the main organiser.
The Museum of Hanoi, the Paske Museum, the Preah Sihanouk Museum in Siem Reap and our National Museum will join this co-project and have their own part of the work in selecting the appropriate pictures for display.
What does the future hold for the museum?
We function on slim budgets and have, therefore, little money compared to our real needs. We depend a lot on funds from overseas.
Despite all these donations from generous friends involved in the art world, we need to find our own resources. This is an essential task for more direct and reliable sources of revenue.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sylvain Gharbi at email@example.com