Wat Po Veal was once home to one of the Kingdom’s finest museums. Now its collection is locked away collecting dust, its history unknown to the public or even the resident monks
The door of Wat Po Veal museum is jammed and the lock is stiff. It takes Hin Nuon, the nun who holds the keys, a few moments to force it open.
On first entrance, the interior is anticlimactic. The vihear, a large temple building normally used for ceremonies, looks like a storeroom, sheltering broken temple regalia and shelves upon shelves of paperwork.
But pushing past the haphazardly stored goods, the room reveals itself like a strange Narnia through the back of a cluttered wardrobe.
Propped up against the stained walls, or piled on the partially tiled floor, are a collection of almost 300 ancient artefacts: stone lingam and yoni statues, chunks of bas relief carvings, Angkorian busts and the vast wooden pediment of a 19th century temple.
Hin Nuon is 65 years old and has lived at Wat Po Veal for the past five years. It’s a large, active pagoda – the monks recently opened their own radio station, and foreign tour groups frequently roam the grounds.
But few visitors think to ask what’s in the locked vihear, and Hin Nuon wouldn’t know what to tell them if they did. “I don’t care about it so I haven’t tried to find out,” she says. “It’s the history of people who lived here a long time ago.”
Aladdin’s cave abandoned
Sat in his office overlooking the leafy, well-kept grounds of the National Museum, director Kong Virak nodded his head slowly as he listened to a description of the decrepit interior.
“Everyone knows the situation of Wat Po Veal,” he said. “The condition is a shame. We know that we have to move forward.”
Virak confirmed that the apparent value of the collection dotted around the vihear was no illusion.
After the artefacts housed in Phnom Penh’s National Museum, and those stored in Siem Reap, Battambang is home to Cambodia’s most significant museum collection, roughly half of which remains locked in the forsaken vihear at Wat Po Veal.
The others are housed in the Battambang Provincial Museum. Initially conceived of in 1968 as an overspill for Wat Po Veal’s burgeoning collection, the Provincial Museum has fared well by comparison: it is open to the public, and a major project was recently launched to renovate its collection.
On his laptop, Vireak pulled up a photo of how Wat Po Veal’s vihear once looked. The black and white image showed the upstairs of the two-storey building – a room lined with neat white columns, with exhibits presented in glass-fronted cabinets.
While tremendous effort is still needed to improve the situation of Wat Po Veal’s collection, conservationists are currently focusing their energy on a different, but equally pressing concern: the question of the museum’s missing objects.
In a book due to be published next month – after which it will be circulated to international auction houses, customs offices and Interpol – researchers have compiled a list of 67 objects they believe to have gone missing from Battambang: 38 from Wat Po Veal and 29 from the Provincial Museum.
Initially, there were 68 objects, but one has since been located, although not yet returned. The list was established by comparing items in the existing collections to the detailed inventories compiled by Madeleine Giteau in the 1960s.
The push for repatriation comes under the framework of UNESCO’s 1970 convention against the illicit trafficking of controlled goods, as the missing objects are believed to have left Cambodia illegally during the political tumult of the 1970s.
Darryl Collins, who worked as a consultant on the catalogue, said he hoped the publication would “ultimately prompt restitution to these two extremely important Battambang collections.”
Historical precedent gives him reason to be optimistic. In 1993, the publication of the catalogue 100 Missing Objects: Looting in Angkor led to 10 objects being returned from the United States, Germany, France and Switzerland.
Anne LeMaistre, UNESCO representative in Cambodia, said she believed consensus was turning increasingly in favour of repatriation, particularly following the well-publicised 2013 Sotheby’s case in which a statue of a Hindu Warrior was pulled from auction at the last minute and returned to Cambodia.
“[The Sotheby’s case] has been our thread. We are just pulling it and we are getting back [more] pieces,” she said.
“People feel good when they do it and can see that this is a trend. It’s fantastic.”
Today, the top floor is inaccessible. But picking one’s way around the objects that litter the ground floor, it’s possible to discern traces of the museum as it once stood. On some partition walls, the neatly stencilled chronological labels of the exhibits are still legible.
Elsewhere, there are inscriptions daubed in faded Khmer calligraphy: “Don’t make problems” and “Don’t take stuff from here,” they warn.
A tale of two art lovers
The museum, Virak explained, was a labour of love crafted by two very different, but complementary, personalities.
The collection began in 1926, at a time when farmers were frequently digging up ancient objects while ploughing their fields.
Sick of seeing the antiquities being abused (larger statues were sometimes broken down to use as knife grinders by villagers) the venerable monk Iv Tuth set out to tour the province, and requested that any unearthed antiquities be deposited at Wat Po Veal.
Beyond knowing that the statues were beautiful, the monk had little sense of their value.
“He just loved the objects and wanted to keep them and display them, not with the purpose of conservation,” Virak explained. “It’s completely different from the European [model].”
At first, the monks propped the objects up around the temple. In the 1950s, overcrowding prompted the construction of the two-storey vihear where the collection remains to this day.
The transition to a modern museum came in the early 1960s, when the French art historian Madeleine Giteau heard of the collection.
Giteau was a significant figure in Cambodian museology: a student of the celebrated archaeologist Jean Boisselier, she served as the last French curator of the National Museum from 1956 to 1966.
Speaking last week, Cambodia’s long-serving UNESCO representative Anne LeMaistre broke into a smile as she remembered the formidable Giteau, whose funeral she attended in Paris in 2005. “She was great,” said LeMaistre, “A very respectable woman, with a very strong character and absolute ethics and rigour regarding Khmer arts.”
Giteau took Iv Tuth’s ad hoc collection in hand. She catalogued it, and reordered it chronologically, opening the two-storey vihear as a public museum in 1965.
“She was an excellent curator because everything she was doing in terms of inventory was so precise, so rigorous,” said LeMaistre.
But Giteau’s rigour, and Iv Tuth’s passion, were no match for Cambodia’s increasingly turbulent politics.
As war descended on Cambodia in the 1970s, Wat Po Veal’s collection was broken up. Conservationists transported its bronzes and other precious items to greater safety in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Some exhibits were looted, while others – no one is sure how many – were buried in the grounds of the museum. As recently as 2011, the head of a statue registered in the Wat Po Veal inventory was dug up five kilometres from the temple complex.
The large stone relics that remain in the museum stayed because transportation proved too difficult for both looters and conservationists.
According to locals, the museum was used to store cotton under the Khmer Rouge, which led to occasional fires in the building.
“The whole country was turned upside down,” said Darryl Collins, an art historian based in Siem Reap who has taken part in research into the Wat Po Veal collection.
“Wats ceased to function and monks [were] forced away; with porous borders, the ‘deva and devi’ were spirited away leaving a devastated Wat Po Veal museum in ruin,” he said.
From 1979 to 1985, the museum remained in an area under the control of the Vietnamese military.
LeMaistre, who first visited Battambang via helicopter in 1993, said that even then the museum was inaccessible.
Shortly after her visit, LeMaistre flew to Paris and met with Madeleine Giteau, who by that point was too old to return to Cambodia. “She was very worried,” recalled LeMaistre. “She knew what had happened.”
A conservation black hole
In the 35 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge, some rudimentary efforts have been made to improve the state of the museum.
The rubble has been cleared from the floor, and the collection has been catalogued and crosschecked against the original inventory to establish what has gone missing.
But the possibility of reopening the museum remains a dim prospect.
“I don’t think Cambodia can invest in all museums at the same time, frankly,” said LeMaistre.
“We can advocate for its reopening, but we need to give Wat Po Veal the [right] conditions for its reopening – a proper budget, investment in it.”
One current advantage is the recent announcement by the Battambang provincial government that it wants Battambang to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage city.
“If they want to do that then they have to work a lot with pagodas, museums, the old buildings around [the city],” said Virak. “If they really want that project to happen, they have to recognise Wat Po Veal.”
Virak added that the question of ownership presented a slight complication. “[The provincial department] has a key, but the pagoda also has a key and the pagoda just uses the free space to put some things – like storage,” he said.
“The monks want to keep it, but they have no skill in conservation – it’s all covered in dust.”
Virak believes that with funding as scarce as it currently is, the solution to the museum’s plight must lie in part with the pagoda itself.
“You can see the monks can find a lot of money to build pagodas, so why not renovate Wat Po Veal with part of the money fundraised by these monks and part of the money from government and [other] assistance?”
At Wat Po Veal, the monks said they were keen to see the museum reopened, but felt that the decision was out of their hands.
“It’s up to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to decide about this,” said head monk Suon Chhoeun.
Chhoeun said he was aware of the vihear’s significance, but couldn’t recall the details of its history, venturing only that it had been built during the French Protectorate by a monk who “liked old things”.
For LeMaistre, it’s a shame that the work of the energetic Iv Tuth remains almost entirely unknown to the public, or even to the monks who now inhabit his temple.
But she is still grateful to Iv Tuth for having had the foresight to begin the collection in the first place. “Thanks to him, he found a lot of objects that could have disappeared at the time,” she said.
Reflecting on her vast knowledge of Cambodian antiquities, LeMaistre concluded that the story of this strange, shuttered museum stood out as something unusual.
“I think it’s quite unique.”