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Exhibit brings stone-faced ‘ambassadors’ to New York

The entrance of the exhibit Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century in New York
The entrance of the exhibit Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century in New York. AFP

Exhibit brings stone-faced ‘ambassadors’ to New York

Centuries- old Vishnu and Buddha statues, including one still revered by villagers, are among the Cambodian national treasures on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

More than 150 artefacts have been loaned from the region for Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, Fifth to Eighth Century.

The exhibition, which opened last Monday, has been described as “a monumental show in every sense of the word”, by The Wall Street Journal.

Displayed alongside the first internationally exhibited Myanmar artefacts are 20 pre-Angkorian stone and bronze statues sent by the National Museum of Cambodia.

“We consider them our ambassadors,” said Kong Vireak, director of the museum.

The statues are mostly from the Kingdom of Funan’s later years in the fifth to seventh centuries.

With its power concentrated in southern Cambodia, Funan was the nation’s first known civilisation to have been directly influenced by India.

Examples of both Buddhist and Hindu artefacts are present at the exhibit in New York.

Among the most unusual objects to be sent to New York is a stone statue of Buddha recovered from Angkor Borei in Takeo province, which is thought to have been Funan’s centre of power.

Unlike most artefacts that come to the museum, Vireak said this particular statue has been continuously worshipped by local inhabitants since it was sculpted in the fifth or sixth century. Signs of lacquer from the 14th and 15th centuries are present, as is restoration work conducted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“When we took it to the museum, the community asked us to make a copy, otherwise they could not allow us to take that statue to the museum because they continued to worship that statue,” said Vireak.

“Even today, sometimes villagers come to our museum to see that statue because they still believe the spirit of that statue will help to protect their community.”

While Vireak said he is pleased to see ancient Cambodian art shown abroad, there is a limit to what they can send.

The air freight company dictates that they can only ship objects in a vertical position at a maximum height of two metres, excluding anything that must be stored horizontally unless the recipient museum is willing to pay for a charter flight.

Vireak added that the museum will not put an object at risk if there is any reasonable doubt of it surviving the transfer.

The most precious national treasures, such as original statues of Jayavarman VII, founder of the Khmer Empire, are simply too important to leave the Kingdom.

“Some objects represent the soul of Cambodia, and it means those objects have to be in Cambodia,” said Vireak.

The exhibition, which runs until July 27, also features treasures from Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Myanmar has also sent artefacts to the Met, which marks the first time the former pariah state has lent its artefacts to museums abroad since emerging from isolation.

Nancy Beavan, a researcher with the University of Otago in New Zealand who is leading an investigation into ancient burial jars in the Cardamom Mountains, said the exhibit would help promote both the National Museum and Cambodian heritage abroad.

“I think that while a vast majority of Americans may have a better idea of what Egyptian and Chinese art . . . is, the Met exhibition and the pieces loaned by the National Museum will certainly help to raise the profile and appreciation of Khmer culture and history in the US,” Beavan said.

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