Thai-owned museum weathers criticism

Thai-owned museum weathers criticism


A bit gun-shy following media barrage, Angkor National Museum tries to dress up its image


Angkor National Museum executive director Chhan Chamroeun.

IT'S midmorning Monday and the P'Chum Ben festival crowds are pouring into one of Siem Reap's largest and most contentious commercial ventures, the Angkor National Museum.

Many of the Cambodian visitors are dressed traditionally and have come to the museum after their early-morning visit to a pagoda. Kids stare with wide-eyed wonder at the sheer modernity of this large, sprawling complex.

The visitors are here mainly because of a festival promotion that waives the US$3 entry fee for Cambodians on the proviso they donate unwanted clothing, books and other goods for five local orphanages.

As they pass through a small theatre that features a slick short film introducing the museum's displays, they enter a prayer area where a lone female figure kneels, clutching burning incense, intently praying and reverentially touching her forehead to the floor.

She is obviously fervently Buddhist, and she is the museum's managing director, Sunaree Wongpiyabovorn. Perhaps she's praying for guidance because she is about to engage the enemy, the media, in the form of The Phnom Penh Post.

It's taken over three months for her to agree to speak to the Post, and she is quick to decline being photographed, saying she wants to avoid "the flames of publicity".

She admits she feels that she's been burnt by the media, and since its inception the museum has endured a withering blast of bad press, culminating in a savage indictment in the International Herald Tribune on July 2.

She casts her eyes down and mutters, "The journalists who come here seem to only want to write negative things." She bites her lip, and adds, "The International Herald Tribune article was the worst."

And indeed it was. The Tribune accused the museum of misappropriating the names "national"  and "Angkor",  of being purely profit-driven, of being crass with a design that has "provoked some derision".

Criticism from expats

But the most trenchant criticism, almost exclusively from expatriate quarters, smacked off racism, attacking the museum over its Thai ownership.

But Sunaree has bigger problems to face other than just a bad press - she does need to turn a profit. The project is owned by Bangkok-based Vilailuck International Holdings, and its parent company is the Samart Corp, a major investor in Cambodia.

It opened well behind schedule, its display inventory is still incomplete, and reportedly the company had to triple its original investment of $5 million due to the cost overruns.

It has 30 years to make a profit because then its lease expires and management and financial control of the collection will revert to the Cambodian authorities and the Ministry of Culture.

To achieve budgetary goals and to overcome the "flames" of a bad press, Sunaree has embarked on a marketing blitz never before seen in Siem Reap.

About a hundred tuk-tuks are innovatively decked out with the museum's advertising material, and before that campaign was rolled out, almost all of Siem Reap's tuk-tuk drivers rolled into the museum for a party held for them.

Groups of traditionally dressed Khmer beauties wander the Pub Street precinct leafleting, and strategically-placed audiovisual stands spill the Angkor National Museum spiel at the touch of a button. The museum is also embracing expatriates with events such as art and photography exhibitions.

But it's not all about marketing. Chhan Camroeun, the museum's executive director, is responsible for the artefacts, and he said that most of the objects on display have been borrowed from Cambodian museums, collections and repositories, where they were locked away in dusty confinement.

Now they are on display, guarded by tight security, and serve as an introduction to Cambodia's history and culture, encouraging people to delve deeper.


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