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Sanctuary for art and animals

Sanctuary for art and animals

T he National Museum of Cambodia is a haven of aesthetic pleasure and calm, with

its treasures displayed around a peaceful courtyard.

The Khmer-style,

terra-cotta building just north of the Royal Palace is built on the former Royal

cremation site.

It was designed by the archeologist and painter George

Groslier during the French protectorate and named initially after the Governor

General of Indochina, Albert Sarrault. It was officially opened by King Sisowath

in 1920.

The museum incorporated the School of Arts, formed earlier, and

the doors and wooden shutters - painted inside with captivating figures from the

Ramayana - were made by teachers and students.

The design on the two

front doors, weighing over a ton, is from the 10th century temple of Banteay

Srei.

Director Pich Keo, who trained at Angkor Conservation under

Groslier's son, Bernard-Philippe, estimates there are 5,000 objects in the

museum but not all can be displayed through lack of space.

They range

from sixth to thirteenth century sculptures, to ceramics, royal barges,

palanquins and 19th century dance costumes. Sections are divided into

archeological and ethnographic works.

Just through the main doors is an

exquisite bronze - "Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta".

The 11th

century fragment, seven feet long, depicts Vishnu reposing on his right arm,

beaming a serene expression as he contemplates the cosmic ocean of Hindu

mythology before the creation of a new world.

Tcheou Ta Kouan, the

Chinese envoy who chronicled Angkor in 1296, described the bronze lying in a

lakeside temple saying "from his navel, water flowed continuously."

The

piece had been lost until 1936, when a Siem Reap resident had a prophetic dream

that led to its being excavated from the Western Mebon, the temple in Angkor's

Western Baray.

A sandstone statue of Jayavarman VII, creator of Angkor

Thom and the Bayon, shows how Khmer sculpture combined concentration of strength

with a refined and sensuous form.

His face, with perfectly chiseled

features and eyes closed in meditation, radiates serenity while the ample body

held in the lotus position suggests the physical prowess of this great 12th

century King.

Khmer sculptors gave a human personality to their rulers

and gods. In his book, Voyage to Cambodia, Louis Delaporte describes them as the

Athenians of the East.

During the Pol Pot era, many sculptures were

vandalized, the jewelry collection disappeared and the building fell into ruin.

UNESCO, AIDAB and the Australian National Gallery in Canberra helped by

restoring the roof and basement.

Currently, New Zealander Nicky Smith is

cataloguing the entire collection and organizing the sale of T-shirts, funded by

Telstra, to provide additional urgently-needed funds for the institution's

on-going rehabilitation.

Much still needs to be done, says Pich Keo, who

spent three years working at the Hermitage and Pushkin museums in the Russian

city St Petersburg before becoming director two years ago.

A staff of 50

work constantly in the dark corners and dusty cabinets, improving signs on

exhibits, although most visitors must bend low to read them.

The

collection continues to grow as artifacts are excavated or donated. The

government's policy against exportation of art treasures has resulted in several

important pieces being unexpectedly donated to the museum after being seized at

the airport

The museum is also unwittingly conserving nature as it has

become home to millions of tiny, rare bats. Their flight from the rooftop at

dusk is an extraordinary sight, but their smell, insists Keo, is "repulsive".

Bat-biologist Greg Richard from Canberra is carrying out research and

has installed trays to collect the ton of guano they shower monthly on visitors

and statues.

The museum sells the stuff as fertilizer for 500 riels a

kilo which is just enough to buy cleaning equipment to clear the next ton.

"Actually," confided Pich Keo on the subject of bats "they're delicious

with a cold beer."

Their twittering is the only sound in the palm-shaded

courtyard where visitors can sit by the lotus ponds and contemplate the Leper

King from Angkor, enshrined in the center.

His name came from his

lichen-covered body, now cleaned. He was probably a god of death, but now reigns

over new order and life in the museum, where the brilliance of Cambodia's

ancient culture restores the sensibilities jarred by the bustle of the

contemporary one.

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