D issent, distrust and plenty of intrigue. Little has been simple in the planning
of an unprecendented overseas showing of some of Cambodia's finest historical artifacts.
Imran Vittachi reports.
A MAJOR exhibition of Khmer
antiquities in two prestigious
art galleries in the West - featuring the first-ever overseas showing of Jayavarman
VII sitting in a state of resplendent meditation- is in danger of collapsing.
Political rivalries and controversy over whether several prized and symbolic artifacts
should leave Cambodian soil threaten to undermine the deal.
More intrigue has been created by a petition opposing the exhibition written by an
apparently unknown group which claimed that the objects are to be sold overseas.
The petition - which one minister likened to the rhetoric of the Khmer Rouge - elicited
a communiqué from His Majesty the King, who asked the Prime Ministers to respond
to the group's allegations.
Under an agreement signed by the government last August, 96 objects, mostly from
the National Museum in Phnom Penh, are to be displayed in successive exhibitions
in France, the United States and possibly Japan.
The organizers of the show - due to open at the Musée du Grand Palais in Paris
in February 1997 and the National Gallery of Art in Washington in July 1997 - are
now threatening to call it off unless the problems are resolved quickly.
According to Khamliene Nhouyvanisvong, the UNESCO Resident Representative in Cambodia,
the French Ambassador - accompanied by Nhouyvanisvong and the American and Japanese
Chargés d'Affaires - delivered an ultimatum to the government in a Feb 12
visit to Foreign Minister Ung Huot.
Nhouyvanisvong said Huot was told that "some sort of authorization [to export
the art pieces] should be given very soon, otherwise the organizers would have to
cancel the exhibition."
According to one report - unconfirmed by the French Embassy or the Royal Palace -
the French Foreign Minister also broached the matter in a recent audience with King
Norodom Sihanouk in China.
Meanwhile, Nhouyvanisvong confirmed that a delegation from the Reunion des Musées
Nationaux (RMN) - which, with the Musée Guimet and the National Gallery of
Art, is organizing the event - visited First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh
in France on the day Ung Huot received the ultimatum. They sent him the same message.
By the UNESCO man's account, Ranariddh assured them that his government stood by
its commitment and told them to "go ahead" with the exhibition.
But, at press time, the future of the exhibition still remained unresolved. A final
go-ahead could not be confirmed by Ranariddh's office, the French or US Embassies,
or the organizers.
Under the Aug 1995 agreement, 150 ancient Khmer pieces would be displayed together
in the unprecedented overseas exhibitions.
Ninety-six of the artifacts would come from Cambodia - including many of the National
Museum's objects currently on display - and the rest from museums or private collections
The artifacts from Cambodia - some of which will be restored in France before the
exhibitions - are likely to be out of the Kingdom for more than a year.
Other artifacts at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, those not included in the exhibitions,
will be restored by foreign experts in a special laboratory being set up at the museum.
The art deal has brought to the fore simmering tensions over who is in control of
Cambodia's arts and culture. The agreement was signed by Vann Moulyvann, a Minister
of State and vice-president of the recently-formed Supreme Council of National Culture,
in the absence of Minister of Culture Nouth Narang.
"He was not invited," said Narang's deputy, Under-Secretary of State Michel
Tranet. "Vann Moulyvann signed in our place without asking our opinion."
Narang would not comment on whether he was shut out of negotiations leading up the
exhibition deal, but confirmed he had no knowledge of the Feb 12 meeting with Ung
Both Narang and Tranet said they favored the idea of holding the exhibitions - and
the international recognition they would bring Cambodia - but had some reservations.
Key issues include the size of the exhibition - Tranet complained that the National
Museum would be "stripped bare" - and whether the most notable artifacts
should leave Cambodia.
"We are very proud to see our objects gain exposure abroad," said Tranet.
"But, as Cambodians, we cannot lend all these pieces."
Most important for Tranet and Narang is the question of seven pieces - including
revered statues of the King Jayavarman VII, Boddhisattva, the Nandin ox, and a Guardian
of Banteay Srei temple - which they see as having spiritual, rather than material,
While foreign art experts connected to the exhibitions are adamant that these objects
need to travel abroad to be properly restored, Narang and Tranet are not so sure.
"Jayavarman VII is a statue that represents for us something very unique,"
Narang said, "I do not think it is appropriate to restore it elsewhere."
Michel Tranet is so convinced that the objects in question can be restored here "without
difficulty", that he co-chaired a four-man special commission - authorized by
Nouth Narang - to assess the travel worthiness of the seven pieces.
"We systematically studied the pieces," said Tranet. "Then we decided
to ask the two prime ministers not to allow these objects to go abroad."
While the ministry was undertaking its assessment, the strongest opposition to the
exhibitions surfaced in a petition from a mysterious French-based group calling itself
the Committee for the Defense of Khmer Culture.
The Jan 9 petition, addressed to the French Prime Minister and the Director-General
of UNESCO, erroneously claimed that the 150 artifacts were to be "sold"
The petition, which was signed but did not state the person's name, was anti-Vietnamese
and anti-colonialist in its tone.
It said that the Cambodian people wanted to "conserve their ancestral culture,
their national heritage, to protect the Cambodian race and Cambodia itself against
the risk of disappearing like in the South of Cambodia (Cochinchine) and Champa,
and especially during the period of the creation of an Indochinese federation."
No-one contacted by the Post said they knew of the committee or its members. When
Nouth Narang was shown a copy of the petition, he said it was full of the kind of
rhetoric used by the Khmer Rouge.
The petition reached King Norodom Sihanouk via his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni,
Cambodia's representative to UNESCO. The King responded by issuing a Jan 30 communiqué
to the Prime Ministers asking them to "immediately and quickly" examine
the petition's allegations and to issue a public statement in response.
Within days, Narang signed a letter to the Prime Ministers urging them to set up
a high-level government commission to consider which objects should be included in
Narang's Feb 3 letter expressed his ministry's concern over the seven objects in
question. He referred to Cambodia's cultural heritage law, passed last December,
which he believed allowed for a veto to prevent such pieces from venturing abroad.
In a Feb 21 letter to the Prime Ministers, Narang reiterated his reservations.
Meanwhile, the staff of Vann Moulyvann, who signed the original deal, and the exhibition
organizers have been unrelenting in defending the merits of art expo.
"Until now, Cambodia was a lender of antiquities, not a co-organizer,"
said Ang Choulean, special advisor to Vann Moulyvann. "For the first time, Cambodia
is a partner in such an enterprise."
Choulean said every object in the National Museum of Cambodia which needed repair
would be restored. However, priority would be given to those artifacts which go to
France, the US and possibly Japan.
The extended journey overseas of the national treasures would have positive spin-offs,
he said, such as showing a "serene image" of Cambodia abroad.
"The absence of these pieces will be compensated by the good publicity that
this will generate for Cambodia."
Ang Choulean rejected the suggestion that Vann Moulyvann had usurped the power of
the Ministry of Culture in signing the deal. Under the cultural heritage law, he
said, the ministry was "an instrument of application of all decisions"
made by the Supreme Council of National Heritage.
Helen Ibbitson Jessup, guest curator of the National Gallery in Washington, said
all the Cambodian pieces would return to the country in much better shape.
She said many of the objects - particularly the iron ones which were corroding -
were in dire need of repair, and risked falling apart for good if not restored soon.
Much time, planning and money had already been put into the project, which was a
four-year one costing more than a million dollars, she said.
About $500,000 would be spent on conserving the objects, and another $1 million in
French aid would be spent to construct the restoration lab at the National Museum
in Phnom Penh.
Insurance, shipping and other costs for the overseas exhibitions would total at least
$1 million. French-American teams of professional art inspectors have flown in to
certify the state and travel worthiness of the objects.
Roland and Benoit Coignard - the father and son team sent to set up the restoration
laboratory at the museum - were convinced it was out of the question to restore the
seven disputed objects in Cambodia.
Roland Coignard said the artifacts were in a poor condition and would require a high-tech
"Gammagraphy" X-ray before they could be restored.
The plan was to X-ray the pieces in a special laboratory at the French Atomic Energy
Commission in Paris. To import this equipment into Cambodia would be extremely costly,
said Benoit Coignard.
He also suggested that if the equipment was brought to Cambodia, there would be a
danger of radioactivity, creating a grave health threat to people living near the
"An area of 100 square meters would have to be evacuated," he maintained.