Men in crisp white suits return from a trek on elephants’ backs and pose in the bush around Wat Phnom. Water buffaloes pull a vintage car out of a flooded road. A sprinkling of cars are pictured on the tidy, orderly streets around Phsar Thmei.
The images from the exhibit “Treasures of the Library of the National Museum of Cambodia: Illustrations and Antique Books” are of a Cambodia never to be seen again.
The drawings, photos and rare books presented in a room of the National Museum range from the late 19th century to the 1950s, and showcase the Indochina of King Norodom and King Monivong, Albert Calmette, Albert Sarraut and Marguerite Duras.
The 100-photo exhibit gives only a taste of the museum’s collection of about 3,000 books, part of which was digitized with French funds.
“This library is one of the richest in rare books about Cambodia and particularly about Khmer art,” said Jean-Jacques Donard, consultant for Valease, France’s project to promote the written word in Southeast Asia.
The exhibition and digitization aim to both share this wealth of knowledge with the general public and further scholarship of Indochina, Donard said.
Images of the temples of Angkor as they were first seen by 19th century explorers and photos of Phnom Penh buildings now damaged and long demolished, for instance, could help future restoration efforts, he said.
“I believe it is a gold mine that we’ll have to exploit little by little,” Donard said.
The images are shown with minimal captions taken from the original books, in Khmer and French only, giving no more than a name and date, and the visitor is, unfortunately, left craving more details.
Donard said he’d heard that complaint before and that a book and DVD is in the works that will include more commentary.
A similar project was also undertaken recently to digitize the National Library collection, including book excerpts and images, which were compiled alongside similar material from Laos and Vietnam.That material can be viewed at www.bnc-nlc.info and in a DVD and CD Box set available free of charge for institutions at the National Library