A controversial international exhibition of Khmer treasures risks being scrubbed
if a decision is not made within four weeks, according to a French art restorer connected
to the exhibit.
"Time is becoming tight, because there isn't even a year left before the start
of the exposition," said Bertrand Porte, a visiting official from the Réunion
des Musées Nationaux, who has spent the past month at the National Museum
of Cambodia waiting for official word to start restoring selected artifacts.
"I remain optimistic, but if this decision isn't made by the beginning of May,
there will be no expo."
The show - set to open at the Musée du Grand Palais in Paris in February 1997
and the National Gallery of Art in Washington in July 1997 - has been mired in a
political dispute over whether the most venerated Khmer antiquities should leave
On Mar 9, First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh finally intervened in the
matter to break the deadlock between Van Moulyvann, Minister of State and Vice-President
of the Supreme Council of National Culture, and Nouth Narang, the Minister of Culture
and Fine Arts.
He sent them a letter in which he questioned the necessity to dispatch and restore
three of the most cherished symbols of the Khmer heritage: The Nandin Ox (7th century),
the Garuda Guardian of Banteay Srei (10th century, and Jayavarman VII seated (12th
"Can the Kingdom do away - even temporarily - with works of art which are the
most significantly sacred symbols of its national identity?" the First PM asked
in his letter.
Both Moulyvann and Narang answered Ranariddh's letter within a week but since mid-March
there has been no further word from the Prince.
Ly Thuch, Director of Ranariddh's Cabinet, said the Prime Minister "should be
making an official statement in the days to come."
Moulyvann, in his Mar 14 reply to Ranariddh's letter, was adamant that the Ox, the
Guardian, and Jayavarman VII were the centerpieces of the Paris and Washington exhibits.
"This exposition will play a primordial role in the challenges which face Cambodia
today. We want to prove to the world that Cambodians are the inheritors of a great
"The exposition would be made bland if these pieces are not are not included
Narang, on the other hand, in his Mar 11 reply to Ranariddh, was equally insistent
in saying that the absence of these objects would not diminish the quality of the
"It would be entirely possible to make doubles of these works," he wrote
Narang again questioned the need to send them abroad in order to be restored: "There
state would make their transportation abroad a delicate operation, even though the
significance of the necessity to restore them abroad has not at all been proved."
Under an Aug 1995 agreement signed by Moulyvann and the exhibition's Western organizers,
150 art objects -from museum collections in Cambodia, France, and the United States
- would be reunited and displayed together.
The government will lend 96 artifacts, which are likely to venture abroad for a year.
In return, the Westerners have promised to restore most of the pieces that they are
Narang and his deputy, Michel Tranet, have lined up against Moulyvann to argue that
the most precious of the objects should be sent overseas because of their delicate
state and symbolic value.
UNESCO's resident representative, Khamliene Nhouyvanisvong, from Laos, struck a conciliatory
note on the debate:
"We Asians live by our myths and beliefs. These objects are considered by the
Cambodian people to be sacred and irreplaceable. We have to give Cambodians something
to believe in.
"Who would be ultimately responsible if these pieces were damaged? The Royal
"Do we stop the exposition just because three pieces are missing? Even without
these pieces, there would still be plenty of pieces left from the Khmer heritage
to show off to Westerners."