Friday, December 15, 2006

A Museum for Siem Reap?

There is a large expanse of land on the road from Siem Reap towards the Angkor complex which currently has corrugated iron fencing around it and a sign declaring that this is where the new National Museum of Siem Reap will be. The necessity for a second branch of the National Museum explaining the art and architecture of Angkor in particular, next to Angkor itself, is abundantly clear. For years, a massive amount of free-standing statuary has been holed up in the warehouses of the Angkor Conservation Depot, gathering dust, when it should be on show to the increasing number of visitors that flock to the Angkor complex each year. Ah, if it was only that easy.

As far as I can make out, the main museum project is underpinned by private Thai investors in league with the ministry of culture and will be built on the expanse of land I mentioned above. However, the word on the street is that this will be more of a shopping mall with stalls for Cambodian handicrafts and souvenirs, alongwith the odd authentic Khmer sculpture from the Angkorean period! There's a suggestion this 'shopping museum' will open in the Spring or even earlier. This has already caused a storm of protest and a Las Vegas style of museum is not what the purists want, but it will line the pockets of the Thai investors and their cohorts. Its a worrying development, for what could be a major tourist attraction in Siem Reap if handled correctly with income being used to improve facilities and the like, but instead looks to be heading down the 'anything for a profit' approach under the banner of a new museum for a new future. We shall see.

I believe there is considerable unease in the corridors of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, where there are fears that if the museum in Siem Reap comes to fruition then no-one will bother with their museum any longer, especially if they are put under pressure to transfer some of their best pieces to the new museum. I think they, like everyone else, are being kept in the dark about the final outcome. Also on the cards is a private visitors centre-cum-museum to be erected close to the site of Banteay Kdei by JICA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency restoration effort at Angkor. The Japanese team have been excavating burial mounds near the temple site for a while now and want to show off their finds to the public as well as portraying their archaeological work, sometime in the Spring of next year. At the Angkor Conference in Sydney in July, Lydia Mittermayr presented her proposal for a museum in Siem Reap. It combined a display of sculptures alongwith reconstructed temple models to encourage visitors to see the temples in their historical context, as they were originally seen. Her idea also included a view of Angkorean studies starting with early art history and leading on to modern archaeological findings which look beyond the temples and seek to supplement current understanding of what Angkor used to be. Now that's what I call a museum that teaches and fascinates visitors.

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