T he National Museum of Cambodia is a haven of aesthetic pleasure and calm, with
its treasures displayed around a peaceful courtyard.
terra-cotta building just north of the Royal Palace is built on the former Royal
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
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
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.
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".
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."
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
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
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
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.
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 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
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
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