Walking into Michel Tranet’s house is like stepping into an era past—well, a few dozen eras actually.
At the ground level, his Phnom Penh home looks positively 12th century. The broad stone foundation is decked with carvings, and the window spaces, as is typical of Angkorian temples, are largely taken up by stone balusters.
Atop this foundation, the house leaps 700 years into the future, imitating the look of a 18th or 19th century rural pagoda. Stone gives way to rich, dark wood, with the cavernous, almost barn-like main room and lofty balcony roof supported by simple wooden columns.
An archaeologist, historian and former senior Ministry of Culture official, Tranet has stuffed every centimeter of his home with cultural curiosities ranging from 4,500-year-old ceramics to a jawbone from around 300 BC to the kind of modern day replicas one can buy in any gift shop.
A physically expressive talker with a slightly frenetic enthusiasm for his collection, Tranet said that his intention has been to create a place where the general public, particularly students, can gain insight into the full breadth of Cambodian culture through the ages.
“The idea is I want to keep the collective memory of the nation,” he said in a recent interview. “This is the first time that anybody has had this idea—to create a private museum. I plan it to be a place where people can also do research.”
Though it won’t be open to the public until perhaps next year, Tranet’s Museum of Ethnology, as it will be called, bears certain similarities to Bangkok’s Jim Thompson House in its mishmash of traditional architectural styles, impressive private antiquities collection and garden atmosphere. And while the Thompson House has a more splendid garden and arguably finer pieces in its collection—not to mention a cafe and gift shops—Tranet’s simpler setting has far more pieces on display and presents a more comprehensive picture of Cambodia’s artistic legacy than the Thompson House does of Thailand’s.
The Buddha sculptures alone serve as a micro-version of Tranet’s vision for the museum. Set throughout the exterior and interior of the house, the statues are a mixture of copies and originals that reflect a large number of styles over the ages. When possible, Tranet acquired an original sculpture: There are renderings from the early part of the last century, at least one from the 17th century and even a beautiful 6th Century stone piece from the Funan era. But in the interest of presenting as many styles as possible to the public, Tranet has purchased high quality copies to fill the gaps.
The main room of his home alone is filled with ornate wooden display cases packed with ancient bronze bells, earrings from prehistoric times, small figurines spanning millennia, sculptures in stone, bronze or wood, and even aging silks that have retained much of their brilliant coloring.
But the whole of the upper house pales in comparison to that which is contained within the Angkorian style foundation. Walking through ornately carved wooden doors, visitors are greeted with a densely packed treasure trove of pieces ranging from ancient rings to old draft carts.
This basement collection contains pieces that one cannot find in the National Museum, at least not in such numbers. Of particular note are a number of tiny primitive figurines ranging from about 2,500 BC to the time of Christ. The small bronze and stone pieces are a far cry from the sophistication Cambodian artists would show a few hundred years later and serve as a vital, if frequently overlooked, glimpse at the distant origins of Khmer art and culture.
And while the museum does not have a wealth of Angkorian sculpture like the National Museum, it does have a number of artifacts from the ancient Funan era (1st to 6th century) site of Angkor Borei in Takeo province. Highlights among those pieces include a number of detailed stone heads that are strikingly Western in style, more reminiscent of Greco-Buddhist art from ancient Afghanistan or northern Pakistan than the Indian-inspired designs of later centuries.
Throw all of that in with a few quirky folksy pieces, a healthy dose of Brahmanistic sculpture and some intricately glazed 12th century pottery, and it becomes readily apparent that both Khmers and foreign tourists alike could benefit from more displays of this type inside Cambodia.
This is not to say the Museum of Ethnology is not without its faults. For the time being, the house’s main room lacks proper lighting, which given its massive size and near black walls, it becomes difficult to even see all the way across, let alone view the artworks. Mosquitoes seem to be fond of the collection as well, as they are present in large, hungry numbers. Also, many of the items have not yet been properly organized and nothing is labeled. And situated on Street 329 in the maze of small side roads in Tuol Kok district, it is not a particularly easy or convenient place to get to. It is certainly off the beaten path for most tourists, which could limit its appeal to foreign visitors.
But how does one even begin to amass enough antiquities to start a museum? Tranet said that most of what he has put on display simply came from local markets.
It was this unregulated sale of Cambodia’s cultural heritage, he says, that spurred him to create a showcase of his own.
“In the poor countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos—all these countries are victims of cultural destruction and artifacts being sold off,” Tranet said. “So my goal is to preserve the culture for future generations to see.”
Born to a French father and a Khmer mother in 1954, Tranet left for France in the early 1970s to study ethnography and archaeology, earning a doctorate in 1981. He returned to Cambodia just ahead of the UN-organized 1993 election and began working at the Ministry of Culture, first as a secretary of state and then as an undersecretary. He currently works as a professional lecturer at a number of local universities.
In 1998, he began putting together his house/museum, buying a small banana patch on which to build it. Over the years, he slowly pieced together the building, he said, collecting wood for his antique-style house by buying pieces of old houses—often riverbank homes that had collapsed or were about to collapse.
The artifacts he was able to afford by selling properties in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap that had greatly appreciated in the hot real estate market of the past few years. All that remained was to scour the markets.
“I did it little by little, piece by piece, depending on the money I had,” he said of his antiquities buying.
Tranet said that much of what is in the market are reproductions, but he is confident that given his expertise, he can pick out the genuine from the fraudulent, and usually determine a piece’s age and place of origin. In the event that he believes a piece to be particularly important, but out of his price range, he has examined and extensively photographed store merchandise for use in later research projects.
His collection growing, Tranet applied to the Culture Ministry for permission to open a museum, receiving the go-ahead in 2005. As part of that permission, he keeps a list of all of the genuine antiquities in his collection for the ministry.
But for all his efforts, Tranet said that he is not satisfied with saving what is ultimately just a small portion of the cultural artifacts that are still on sale in markets nationwide.
“The work to preserve artifacts is so great that what I can do is just a small drop…. This is not much, just a few things, but I love living in these surroundings,” he said. Scanning a nearly 100-year-old wooden statue of a standing Buddha, he added quietly, “The person that made this has died, but I would regret it if we lost his work.”