Saturday, January 24, 2009

The repeat visit

Yesterday we had a couple of hours to spare so I took J to the museum.

We took a leisurely two hours to wander through the dusty halls of what is reputed to be the among the finest collection of bronze and stone statues in the world this time taking the time to read the labels and inscriptions.

Behind what is left of a huge 11th century bronze sculpture of a reclining Vishnu from the West Baray at Angkor is a room of old photos. Here, we discovered with delight, pictures of the opening of the museum in 1920 Phnom Penh. It has stood the test of time quite well considering the years of war it had to endure. The fact that the photos (in fact anything to do with culture, history and religion) exist is incredible as much was purposefully destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during their terror reign between 1975 and 79. Until 2003 the building's high ceilings were infested with the largest bat enclave inside a man-made structure in the world.

As with nearly everything here (except for the personal pockets of a select few) the museum suffers from a lack of funding. All gate revenues ($3 USD for foreigners, Khmer and school groups are free) are turned over to the Ministry of Finance. Yearly budget demands are helped by UNESCO, grants from other countries and the Cambodian Government. The building needs fairly major surgery but there have been recent upgrades to labelling, new lighting installed (they were marking the ceiling for more the day we were there) and a recently completed ceramics display. They are also working on their own website with links to Museum History, Collection, Khmer Art History, Exhibitions, Projects and Activities.

Increasing the awareness of the value of Cambodia's artifacts is important as the illicit trade in artifacts is still very much alive and well in Cambodia especially along the porous and largely unprotected Thai border.

Heritage Watch estimates $20 million of Cambodia's heritage has been sold since 1988 alone. Sadly they say at least 90% of the material sold on the antiquities market is illegally acquired. There are quite a few stalls in the old market in Siem Reap that proudly sell antiques (at much higher prices than the generic reproductions they also peddle) and after visiting the museum and seeing what is in the glass cases I am inclined to believe these are, in fact, what they say and they are, indeed, pilfered from temple sites.

The problem is not an easy one to solve in a country where poverty seems endemic. There is a long history of temple looting, no complete inventory of as many as 1200 temple sites and little money to devote to education or the actual protection of the relics. Even local and military police are in on the act. Alison, a graduate student who spent last year doing research for her PhD on Cambodian archeology, has written about this article too.

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