Notes From the Underground

So many works of art fill the cramped, unlit basement of the National Museum in Phnom Penh that they make the series of open rooms lined with locked glass cases appear small at first glance.

After a few minutes in the dim light, one starts to discern the enormous number of pieces, ranging from bronze anklets to ceramics and sandstone statues, that fill every shelf up to the ceiling and most of the floor space.

In the museum’s basement, there are approximately 14,000 objects in addition to the 1,500 pieces on display which have accumulated since George Groslier founded the museum in 1920, during the French administration.

A staff of five has now embarked on the task of photographing each piece and scanning archival records to create a French, English and Khmer database for the whole collection.

In the 1990s, the cost of material and equipment put such an undertaking well beyond the museum’s means, said Darryl Collins, an art historian who was part of an Australian team assigned to the museum a decade ago and who now manages the project.

Today, sophisticated computer equipment, programs and digital cameras sold at affordable prices make it possible for a small staff with a modest budget to carry out the inventory of the museum’s collection, he said.

The work began in August and is expected to take three to four years. In its first stage, the project consists of two major tasks, Collins said. Museum employee Ros Sinath scans the original records of each artwork to include them in the piece’s inventory entry. A work of art may have up to three classification numbers, depending on how long it has been in the museum’s collection, Ros Sinath said.

The earlier pieces received a number based on the classification system of Groslier, who was the museum’s curator from its opening until 1945, when he died in military interrogation during the Japanese occupation of Cambodia.

Between 1950 and 1955, French curator Jean Boisselier implemented his own system; all pieces already in the collection therefore acquired a second classification number. Finally, around 1982 or1983, a new Khmer system was set up and new numbers were assigned as museum administrators tried to catch up on a decade of neglect in the 1970s, Ros Sinath said.

As a result, the bronze bust of Vishnu reclining, which is on exhibit, has three numbers. Discovered in 1936 at Angkor, it was first assigned the number E 1230. In the 1950s, it was reclassified as E/ 1.30,18; and in the early 1980s as Ko 5387, he said. Using numerous classification systems is fairly typical of museums around the world, as successive curators try to modernize previous systems, Collins said.

While Ros Sinath concentrates on the records, museum employees Nguon Sophal, Hor Kosal and Kun Sathal work in the basement, taking photos of each artwork and reorganizing storage as they go.

Wearing white cotton gloves so as not to damage the pieces with human sweat, Hor Kosal holds out each artwork to Nguon Sophal who photographs it from all angles, while Kun Sathal records its classification number, original location and its new location if it is to be moved.

They set up the photo equipment in a small area of the basement with electric light and good ventilation. There is no air conditioning and no electric light in most rooms; windows create some air circulation and let in enough daylight to find one’s way, but the staff must use portable lamps when they work.

The project is named The Leon Levy Foundation and Shelby White Inventory Project for the National Museum of Cambodia, after the US donors funding it. Shelby White discovered that the museum did not have an inventory through Emma Bunker, a research consultant to the Asian Art Department of the Denver Art Museum in the US and a frequent visitor to the National Museum.

“My late husband Leon Levy and I have a long history of supporting archeology, archeological publications, conservation and exhibition,” White said. “This [project] is a natural extension of our work.”

In addition to being invaluable for education and research on Khmer art, this inventory will enable the museum to assess its collection and improve security since there will be detailed records on each piece, said museum director Khun Samen. The long-term goal is to have a central database cataloging all the museums’ collections in the country, he said.

Last year, the museum launched a provincial museum project. This includes building or restoring museums, training staff and creating basic databases, which are difficult to compile since there are hardly any records available on provincial collections, said Hab Touch, deputy director of the National Museum.

Work is underway in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Kompong Chhnang, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces, he said.

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