CUL­TURAL CRU­SADE

Discover Cambodia - - CONTENTS - Words by Paul Mil­lar Pho­tog­ra­phy by Merja Ye­ung

The na­tional mu­seum's di­rec­tor on pre­serv­ing a King­dom

A TREA­SURE TROVE OF AN­CIENT ARTE­FACTS AND CUL­TURAL CU­RIOS, CAM­BO­DIA'S NA­TIONAL MU­SEUM IS AN IM­POR­TANT SITE FOR ANY VIS­I­TOR TO THE COUN­TRY. WE MEET THE MAN AT THE HELM OF THIS AU­GUST IN­STI­TU­TION, MU­SEUM DI­REC­TOR KONG VIREAK “My mes­sage for the Cam­bo­dian pub­lic is to visit the mu­seum, to learn their own cul­ture and to en­joy”

For many vis­i­tors to Ph­nom Penh, the Na­tional Mu­seum of Cam­bo­dia, an oa­sis of ex­quis­ite calm and an­cient cul­ture in the heart of the cap­i­tal’s tourist hub, is a nat­u­ral stop on any trip to the city. De­signed to echo the ma­jes­tic tem­ple com­plexes glimpsed on the faded bas-re­liefs of Angkor Wat, the mu­seum houses art and arte­facts stretch­ing back more than a mil­len­nium to the dawn of Cam­bo­dia’s on­ce­flour­ish­ing em­pire.

But for its di­rec­tor, Kong Vireak, the wind­ing path through the carved doors of Cam­bo­dia’s na­tional mu­seum took him along a less straight­for­ward route.

“It was ac­ci­den­tal,” he ad­mits when asked the prove­nance of his pas­sion for the na­tion’s an­tiq­ui­ties. “Most of the Cam­bo­dian peo­ple in my generation, we were not think­ing of what we would be after high school… when we fin­ished high school, we had to look for a univer­sity – and at that time, there were not many pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties so we had to find any­thing that we could.”

Chuck­ling, he re­veals that if his house had not been within walk­ing dis­tance of Ph­nom Penh’s Royal Univer­sity of Fine Arts (RUFA), his life might have turned out very dif­fer­ently.

“My house was just a hun­dred steps from RUFA, from the Na­tional Mu­seum, so it was much eas­ier for me. I took the en­try exam for RUFA. I had no ori­en­ta­tion be­fore that. I ac­ci­den­tally fell into ar­chae­ol­ogy. After that, of course, I fell in love with cul­ture, with art his­tory.”

Al­though he was ini­tially trained in ar­chae­ol­ogy, Vireak was cap­ti­vated not just by the ru­ins of Cam­bo­dia’s an­cient em­pires, but also by the lost cul­tures that had shaped them. Upon grad­u­at­ing, Vireak trav­elled to France to study an­thro­pol­ogy be­fore trav­el­ling back to his home­land to work on ex­ca­va­tion sites at Siem Reap’s Angkor com­plexes. After five years in the field, Vireak re­turned to his alma mater to teach classes in an­thro­pol­ogy and re­search an­cient Kh­mer cul­ture. In a few short years, he was made deputy di­rec­tor and then di­rec­tor of RUFA be­fore be­ing ap­pointed di­rec­tor of the na­tional mu­seum in 2012. Since then, Vireak has over­seen the mu­seum’s steady tran­si­tion into a mod­ern in­sti­tu­tion lead­ing Cam­bo­dia’s ex­plo­ration of its an­cient her­itage.

“Now we are in­te­grated into the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, so we have to be flex­i­ble and adapt to the new strat­egy – the new def­i­ni­tion of mu­seum,” he said. “Of course, the ba­sic def­i­ni­tion of mu­seum is a place to col­lect, to pro­tect, to con­serve the safe­guard­ing of ob­jects, arte­facts with artis­tic value, cul­tural value, an­tiq­ui­ties – but now we also have a main role in ed­u­ca­tion through ex­hi­bi­tions, per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion dis­plays, and through spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions.”

Dur­ing his time at the mu­seum, Vireak has wit­nessed West­ern na­tions re­turn al­most half a dozen sa­cred stat­ues that were looted from the re­mote Koh Ker tem­ple site in Cam­bo­dia’s north­ern forests decades ago. In Jan­uary 2016, the last of th­ese relics in the hands of a pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion, a 10th-cen­tury sand­stone sculp­ture of the war­rior-king Rama – the sev­enth in­car­na­tion of the Hindu god Vishnu – was re­turned to Cam­bo­dia from the Den­ver Art Mu­seum.

For Vireak, the repa­tri­a­tions are a sign of a new way of think­ing within the walls of the West’s great mu­se­ums.

“I can­not blame the old generation,” he said. “Be­fore, peo­ple in Europe, the rich aris­toc­racy, they wanted to col­lect ex­otic ob­jects and arte­facts. But I can imag­ine the later generation, the younger generation of peo­ple, they have more feel­ing to [ask]: ‘Why should we take some­body’s cul­ture?’ Cul­ture is some­thing that we can ad­mire, but we can­not steal.”

Per­haps it is for th­ese rea­sons that Vireak re­mains most moved by the re­claimed sculp­tures of Koh Ker – even more so than the ex­quis­ite statue of King Jayavar­man VII in med­i­ta­tion, the last great god-king of the Kh­mer Em­pire and one of the mu­seum’s most pop­u­lar works.

“Of course, Jayavar­man VII – no one can deny the beauty of it as an idol, a sym­bol of the Na­tional Mu­seum, but I my­self per­son­ally have fallen in love with the stat­ues of Koh Ker.”

It is this pas­sion for his na­tion’s an­cient beauty that Vireak hopes the mu­seum will kin­dle in the Cam­bo­dian pub­lic, whether in the sweep­ing gar­dens of the mu­seum’s grounds, in the still waters of the cen­tral court­yard, or in the enig­matic smiles of the sculp­tures that have watched em­pires crumble.

“The mu­seum is more than a build­ing with arte­facts,” he said. “The mu­seum can be a school, and also a place to en­joy. So my mes­sage for stu­dents – for the Cam­bo­dian pub­lic – is to visit the mu­seum, to learn their own cul­ture and to en­joy.”

In charge: Kong Vireak was ap­pointed di­rec­tor of the na­tional mu­seum in 2012

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cambodia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.