Monday, October 22, 2007

New technology helps National Museum

A current project close to my heart is the Inventory Project currently being undertaken at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. I'd love to spend some time behind-the-scenes at this museum but so far my requests have fallen on deaf ears. However, this article from the Asian Art newspaper by Sarah Murray in October 2005 gives more detail on this vitally-important project.

National Museum Inventory Project, Phnom Penh

It is early morning at Phnom Penh's National Museum and a gentle breeze blowing in from the Mekong fills one of the museum's larger offices with cool air. Here, ranks of the copied heads of Angkorian statues share space with gifts from various countries and institutions. There's a fan donated by Unesco, a couple of antiquated air-conditioners - a 'Don de Dr Wolfgang Felten' - and a fridge given by the National Gallery of Australia. These days, however, no one pays much attention to these objects. For staff members are focusing on a far more important donation: a set of computers. They may look like ordinary computers, but these machines - along with a larger server and digital cameras - are behind the small revolution that is taking place at this august institution. For since last autumn, through funding from Shelby White and the Jerome Levy Foundation, this technology has enabled the museum staff to start registering every item in the collection and recording it via digital photographs. Identification tags are added to the objects and their condition and locations are recorded. Hab Touch, deputy director of the museum, believes the inventory project represents a major step forward for the institution, which until now has had an incomplete knowledge of what is contained in its collection - and of what is missing. 'We've never used technology like this before,' he says. 'We've been waiting for the funding for a long time and now we have it, we can really get started.'

It is an extremely ambitious project. For this is one of the world's most extraordinary collections Khmer arts. The creation of Frenchman Georges Groslier in the 1920s, the museum began life as a collection of more than 1,000 objects. Today that number has expanded to about 14,000 and the collection is growing at a rate of more than 300 objects a year. In number and quality, the pieces on display here are unmatched elsewhere in the world, including sculptures in stone, bronze and wood from the pre-Angkorian period of Funan in the 4th century through to works from the post-Angkorian period in the 14th century. Also on display are ceramics, dance costumes, a royal barge and items from military and court life. And more of the collection lies in the basement. But it is not just the collection that makes the National Museum such an unusual institution. Characterised by a profusion of red hues, the building itself is one of the city's most unusual and elegant structures. The form and layout was greatly influenced by Angkor. And while most of Phnom Penh's French colonial architecture is a golden yellow, here walls the colour of dark red wine are topped by earthy terracotta tiles and crowned by delightful dancing curves of the pagoda-style roofs. Inside, the best known piece is the serene 12th-century sandstone head of King Jayavarman VII, the great god-king, who ruled Angkor from 1181 to 1219 and was responsible for many of site's the architectural wonders. His rule marked the highpoint of the Angkor Empire and of the Khmer civilisation. Jayavarman's head, with its serene smile and gently smiling lips, is an image of extraordinary grace and beauty. But there are dozens of other gems too, such as the 7th-century statue of the horse-headed Vaijmukha, one of the personal favourites of Bertrand Porte, the Frenchman in charge of restoration and conservation at the museum. 'And what you see here is in the galleries represents only half of the museum's collection,' says Porte. 'There is so much more in the basement.'

As the morning goes on, more visitors arrive. A group of excited young monks in Saffron robes line up to have their picture taken in front of the museum. The galleries fill up with everyone from foreign tourists to schoolchildren and devotees, who come to the museum to worship the sacred figures within. But here in the office, with its dark 1960s wood panelling and strip lighting, all is silent as the project team workers concentrate on the task at hand. One of their tasks involves scanning older photographs and information cards. For while this is the first time an electronic system has been used, this is by no means the first effort to catalogue the museum collection. As well as Groslier's original card catalogue, during the 1950s, French curator Jean Boisselier created a new registration method for all the pieces in the collection. Decades later, another system was introduced in an attempt to get the collection back in order after the years of neglect suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime. 'The problem is that the catalogue systems are physically dispersed and there are completely separate inventory systems from different periods,' explains Darryl Collins, the art historian who is managing and training the inventory project team. 'You have got the systems of Groslier and Boisselier, a 1970s Khmer system and a 1990s Khmer system. So there are four parallel systems through which the collection has gone through at different times. The trick is to make all this available so that modern database systems can search and correlate the numbers.' Once this is possible, says Collins, the museum will be able not only clarify what has been lost from the collection - and many objects disappeared during the 1980s - but it will also prevent further losses. Much progress has been made since the project began. With the cataloguing of the bronze collection almost complete, the team will soon be moving on to one of the other large sections - probably stone sculptures.

The importance of cataloguing systems - whether electronic or otherwise - in stemming theft is demonstrated by the story of two statues that were discovered in the 1990s by police in a private home. 'The police brought them to the museum for identification and the original numbers were still on the bases,' says Collins. 'They are now here and have been restored. But the point is that the museum was able to formally claim them simply by use of the original cards, the photographs and the matching numbers. So we want to be in a position to do this with every piece in the collection.' As well as securing the collection, the inventory project will help reduce wear and tear on the collection - whose descriptions and photographs will reduce the need to access the actual object - and assist researchers, who until now have found it difficult to trace the history of an object in the collection. 'Once this inventory project is complete we can begin to provide some sort of service,' says Collins. 'Then there's the possibility of eventually having a website.' The inventory project may even help the museum recover some of its lost objects. When in 1993, Unesco published a list of 100 missing items, the museum, with the help of the International Council of Museums and Interpol, was able to recover eight objects that had been illegally exported. 'When we have finished this project, we may do a similar thing,' says Collins. 'So it will ultimately identify the gaps in the collection.'
Link: Asian Art newspaper.

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