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Smithsonian funds new lab

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The National Museum has acquired a full-time archaeological team to restore and conserve its large ceramic collection in an on-site conservation lab

Heng Chivoan

Tep Sokha, a conservator at the new ceramic lab at the National Museum, sorts through fragments of ancient Cambodian ceramics on Monday.

CHAP Sopheara is putting Cambodia's history together piece by piece - literally. As one of the National Museum's new stellar ceramics conservators, she will be responsible for dusting, arranging and gluing together the fragments of history that the country almost left behind. The process is slow, she says, but rewarding.

"If we conserve the past and restore it to its former shape, it can stand up again," she said.

As part of a new joint project with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, the museum will now be housing a full-time archaeological team to work on restoring and conserving the museum's large ceramic collection in an on-site conservation lab.

Hab Touch, director of the museum, which has developed and refined its extensive ceramics collection to make it the biggest in Cambodia, said the laboratory was in operation but would not officially begin work on the ceramics collection until October.

It is the latest of many US-sponsored heritage donations and is likely to be part of an ongoing exchange between the two countries.

In August the US donated US$45,000 to help the National Museum rebuild its library and preserve its collection of rare books. It also contributed $15,000 to a metal conservation lab earlier this year. 

Embassy spokesperson John Johnson said that it was a no-brainer to fund Cambodian heritage.

"Cambodia has such a rich heritage," he said by phone Wednesday. "Anything we can do to preserve it is important."

If we conserve the past and restore it to its former shape it can stand up again.

The project will be managed by Paul Jett, head of the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research (DCSR) of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and will receive extra support from the Global Heritage Fund and Friends of Khmer Culture.

According to Tep Sokha, another conservator, the laboratory will take in trained archaeologists from the original conservation lab at the Royal University of Fine Arts  so as to increase the space and ability for the museum to take in students for training in conservation.

An unrivalled collection

"It is certainly a positive development that the National Museum has established these laboratories," director of local conservation NGO Heritage Watch, Dougald O'Reilly, said in an email.

"[The laboratories] have a long history now of excellent work and training activities. I have worked closely with the ceramics restorers and can say their work is of the highest standards," O'Reilly said.

"It will hopefully result in a greater number of prehistoric artifacts going on display in the museum."

Bonnie Baskin, who developed the original laboratory at the Royal University of Fine Arts and trained the conservators, said the lab would be driven by dedication.

"I am intensely proud of the lab," she said via email, adding that the Cambodian conservators were outstanding, as there are "few people in the world with the intense interest in ceramics and conservation [that they have]". 

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