Siem reap town – When Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated the Angkor National Museum last November, it had already attracted all the criticisms that a facility built on a deal between the government and a foreign company could receive.
Some questioned the government’s decision to call it a “national” museum since a private company—Bangkok-based Vilailuck International Holding Co Ltd—would own and manage the facility for the next three decades before handing it over to Cambodia under a build, co-operate, transfer agreement.
Some also resented that Cambodia’s National Museum in Phnom Penh—an 88-year-old institution with the largest Khmer artifact collection in the world—had to send pieces from its collection to fill the new Siem Reap town facility.
And when the museum’s doors opened late last year, some experts became concerned at the sight of a stone inscription displayed upside down and priceless sculptures flanking the main staircase on the ground floor, which made them look as if they were decorative side tables, one archeologist who wished to remain anonymous mentioned.
Those sculptures—artworks from Angkor’s Banteay Srei temple—have since been returned to the National Museum in Phnom Penh, said Hab Touch, director of the country’s national museums.
Now, seven months after opening, visitor numbers are strong at the Angkor museum and heritage conservation experts have started to work with staff to make this new facility a truly national institution.
“To arrange such a big space is not easy,” both from the standpoint of design and getting the necessary pieces to display, Hab Touch said.
“[The Angkor museum] has tried to use high technology in its exhibits, and maybe it’s not professional yet in terms of museum concept, of scholarly academic presentatio…but even [at the National Museum in Phnom Penh], we still have a lot of work to do,” Hab Touch said, adding that the Angkor National Museum just needs time to settle.
But completed or not, the Angkor museum’s displays are already dazzling. Each of the eight galleries has been given its own look through dramatic lighting and the positioning of artifacts to create visual effects.
In the 1,000-statues-of-Buddha gallery, walls are covered with small statues resting in individual niches, the room in near darkness except for the lights in each niche and over the room’s larger statues.
In another part of the museum, sculptures of the serpent deity Naga are displayed against a huge photo of a Naga at Angkor produced in tones that complement the golden gray of the stone works on the museum floor.
The Bayon temple section has a pit in which restoration workers repair artifacts while visitors look on. The Angkor Wat gallery includes a circular room with a maquette of the temple in the center and a short film projected on a giant screen. The 3-minute introductory film that visitors see at the start of their tour is available in seven languages.
Despite its visual panache, only a few individual artifacts are fully identified and explained, with most information available to visitors restricted to panels providing general historical and cultural overviews. But texts explaining the individual works are being progressively installed, said Chhan Chamroeun, co-executive director in charge of artifact management.
“We keep improving the displays and the information every day,” he said.
An archeologist who had worked for the World Monument Fund on restoration projects at Angkor, Chhan Chamroeun was appointed in November as the museum was opening.
A government committee assigned to oversee the museum was created in November and is headed by Bun Narith, director-general of the Apsara Authority, the government agency in charge of the Angkor Archaeological Park.
The committee includes representatives from the Ministry of Culture, the Siem Reap provincial authority, and tourism and police officials, Bun Narith said. Unesco is also providing assistance, he added.
One of the committee’s first tasks consisted of reviewing artifacts already on the museum floor.
“We found 23 pieces that had been sent by the National Museum in Phnom Penh and which were of great importance,” said Unesco country representative Teruo Jinnai. “We recommended to the committee to have them returned, which was done,” he said. The pieces—some of them rare pre-Angkorian artifacts—were needed for the Phnom Penh museum to better present Cambodian art’s stylistic evolution throughout the centuries, Hab Touch explained.
About 700 pieces had been shipped from the National Museum to the Siem Reap town’s facility, but the majority of them were small statues of Buddha from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries that are now in the 1,000-statues-of-Buddha gallery, he said.
The committee also removed from the museum some artifacts that had come from Angkor Conservation and whose authenticity was dubious. The conservation serves as a government storage facility for statuary found in Angkor park, and a full inventory has not been done for some years.
Vilailuck recently secured a 15-year contract to manage Angkor Conservation, mostly for the purpose of having access to quality artifacts, but has yet to decide how and when to proceed with the inventory, said Sunaree Wongpiyabovorn, the Angkor museum’s co-executive director.
According to a “build, cooperate and transfer” contract between the Cambodian government and Vilailuck—whose parent company, Vilailuck Group holds controlling shares in the telecommunication group Samart Corp—the company has built and will manage the Angkor museum for 30 years. Cambodia owns the artifacts and is responsible for their conservation as well as security of the building.
Vilailuck has invested $15 million in the 10,000-square-meter museum and expects to cover its costs within 10 years, Wongpiyabovorn said. About 5,000 people visit the museum each month, most of them Westerners and Japanese tourists, she added.
The agreement includes a “cultural mall,” which is attached to the museum and only slightly smaller in size. A purely commercial venture, the mall is meant to become a middle-to-upscale shopping center with a bookstore, jewelers, arts and crafts shops, health and beauty care, banking, travel services as well as food and beverage outlets, said Wongpiyabovorn, who manages the mall.
Construction delays and other technicalities prevented the building from being ready at the same time as the museum, she said. Still, half the space has been rented and hopes are that all vendors will be in place to officially open the mall towards the end of the year, she said.
The land on which the museum and the mall sit is about 4 hectares, Wongpiyabovorn said. Despite Thai media reports last year that the company would build a hotel and serviced apartments near the museum, she said no decision has been made yet.
The Angkor National Museum is open from 9 am to 8 pm daily. Admission prices are $12 for foreigners and $3 for Cambodians, with special prices for foreigners with extended visas and for Cambodians during national holidays. Admission is free for Buddhist monks.