Some of the wooden crates at the National Museum in Phnom Penh are about the size of a small, one-room, Cambodian home.
Painted a brilliant hue of purplish blue, their panels are reinforced with thick pieces of wood, making the crates extremely sturdy, which is essential since their precious cargoes weigh more than a ton.
Padded hydraulic lifts and mini rails move the works of art—119 Khmer masterpieces in total—into the crates that will depart for Germany next week for a three-city exhibition, said Yasemin Becker, a German museum conservator from Bonn.
Titled “Angkor – Sacred Heritage of Cambodia,” the exhibition is the most extensive showing of Khmer art ever held in Germany and one of the biggest—if not the biggest—to take place in Europe, German Ambassador Pius Fischer said.
The exhibits will open to the public Dec 15 in Bonn at the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Germany’s leading museum, Fischer said.
In April, the plans are to move the artworks to the Martin-Gropius-Brau museum in Berlin, and a few months later to the Riedberg Museum in Zurich.
The exhibition will also include a symposium on hydrology and Angkor’s elaborate irrigation system, Fischer said.
The agreement to lend the artworks was signed by the Cambodian and German governments in 2004, and allows for up to 300 Khmer art pieces to travel to Germany. But not more than 130 pieces from the National Museum, Angkor Conservation in Siem Reap and the Battambang museum will actually leave the country.
Some objects on loan from the National Museum in Bangkok and the Guimet Museum in Paris will also feature in the German exhibition, Fischer added.
The pieces from the National Museum in Phnom Penh include 59 stone, seven wooden and 43 bronze artworks, plus seven paintings and three palm-leaf books, museum Director Khum Samen said.
Although the museum’s artworks, which usually are more than several hundred years old, are in good repairs, some have cracks and fractures and will demand particular care during transportation, Becker said.
One of the most delicate sculptures selected is a large bronze of the Hindu deity Vishnu, which will require a climate-control system for the trip, she said.
The Vishnu statue will be packed in a case, which will then be put inside another case, said Dirk Arbeiter, project manager for Schenker Logistics, the private firm handling the packing.
The smaller case will be sealed with Phnom Penh’s warm air and high humidity, which will ease the statue’s transition to the cool air and low humidity of the German museums, he explained.
The cases were individually designed according to the measurements of each artwork, and will contain padded supports, and not packing foam fill that could scratch the pieces, Becker said.
A chartered Antonov cargo airplane will be sent to Phnom Penh to pick up the artworks next week and began the long journey to Germany, where an estimated 300,000 people are expected to visit the Bonn exhibition alone, Fisher said.
While the artworks are absent, the national museum will replace them with artworks from its vast collection, which are usually kept housed in the basement, Khum Samen said.