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Museum's bats poised for last flight

Museum's bats poised for last flight

IN 1917, when Georges Groslier decided to build the National Museum to gather and

protect Cambodian precious artifacts, he certainly did not foresee that bats would

choose the large red-brick building as their home.

But today, the battle between aesthetes and ecologists is over. "We must have

pity on ourselves first," Nouth Narang, the Minister for Culture and Fine Arts,

said.

Drastic measures will be taken to get rid of the bats.

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts is currently negotiating with different French

organizations to find ways to modernize the museum and better protect and display

the valuable Khmer statues. The bats will lose out.

Every evening when the sun sets, a cloud of bats leaves the building towards north

and east and returns at dawn, after their nightly search for insects and fruit.

During the day, they rest under the dark roof of the building, dropping their excrement.

"There must be about a ton of it every month. Have you seen the surface of the

ceiling?" said an exasperated Bertrand Porte, restorer of statues at the National

Museum.

The damage caused by the crepuscular flying mammals' droppings on the artifacts is

again a matter of emergency. A secondary ceiling below the roof, built in 1995 by

the Australians, can no longer prevent bat excrement and lice from falling on the

museum's visitors, staff and statues.

The problem is particularly bad during the rainy season, explained Porte. "The

water percolates through the ceiling, saturating with bats' guano and drops on the

statues". The acidity of the mixture causes a lot of damage, he said.

During then-Paris mayor Jacques Chirac's visit to Cambodia i January 1994, he decided

to help raise some funds for the preservation of Khmer art.

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts is now negotiating with L'Association International

des Maires de France (The International Association of Mayors in France). The AIMF

is considering a $40,000 project to repair the museum's roof and replace the secondary

ceiling.

Hab Touch, deputy director of the museum, explained the urgency of the situation:

"We need to work on this problem as soon as possible. The exhibition Angkor

and Ten Centuries of Khmer Art will come back to the museum on March 15." The

unique exhibition of the best Khmer work from the Guimet Museum in Paris and the

National Museum will return from Osaka in Japan, having travelled around the world.

"The statues will have to remain in their boxes if nothing is done to protect

them. Not only is there the ceiling problem, but the statues risk damage during the

reparation work," said Porte, who helped restore the famous statues before their

world tour.

If the negotiations succeed, as Nouth Narang expects, Anakot Phnom Penh Construction

Enterprise (APCE) will repair the roof and replace the dark wooden secondary ceiling.

Wire mesh will be placed over all the holes between the roof and the ceiling to stop

the bats from entering the building once back from their nightly expeditions.

The bats will have no other choice but to take refuge in the shade of the leaves

in the city's sugar palm trees.

It is not a tradition in Cambodia to preserve bats in public buildings. The bat colony

is a legacy of the Pol Pot regime; they were not there before, at least not in such

numbers. Over the years, they bred in the quiet of the roof cavity. Their population

is now thought to be as high as 2 million.

Their existence creates a unique eco-system. Their droppings are considered one of

the best natural fertilizers. In the markets, 200 gram packets can fetch 1500 riel.

In 1995, the Tropical Medicine Division at Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne recommended

museum workers be vaccinated against rabies and bubonic plague. Lice in bat fur are

a health problem for both visitors and staff.

In 1993, Greg Richards, an Australian bat expert from Canberra, identified four species

of bats, one of them never before documented. It was decided then to protect the

species.

But Hab Touch says now: "We have to look at our priorities: the bats or the

statues? The building wasn't made for those bats and besides, we are not going to

kill them."

The secondary ceiling was also a problem. It didn't properly reflect light, so will

be replaced by white gypsum board.

Since its construction in 1917, the National Museum has hardly been renovated. The

lighting is still the same as it was 60 years ago. In June, after spending a fellowship

at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Hab Touch came back enthusiastic. "We

want the same for us, for our museum."

Espace-Culture, with a budget of $1 million, is expected to oversee the presentation

of its art. The administration will be managed by Cambodians.

"We are still discussing the details and conditions for the agreement, but in

one or two months, it should be finished," said Nouth Narang.

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