Since 2005, Sok Soda of the National Museum’s Restoration Workshop in Phnom Penh has made no less than 10 trips to Danang in Vietnam, spending weeks on end working at the Museum of Cham Sculpture.
The challenge has been huge: providing technical assistance to help the museum’s Vietnamese staff restore artworks in dire need of restoration.
Nearly 300 stone sculptures roughly from the 7th through the 15th Centuries are crowded in this small museum—an open-air roof supported by columns, located near the Song Han river.
Ravaged by wind and rain, some artworks are also embedded in concrete, which was commonly done decades ago. Restorers have since learned that salt in the concrete combined with water to damage the stones, Sok Soda said.
The museum was built by the French government agency Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient in 1915, during the Indochina era.
Henri Parmentier of the EFEO, who launched the Angkor restoration program in 1907, fought with the French government to get the Danang museum to gather together Cham artworks at one location, said Bertrand Porte of the EFEO who created the Restoration Workshop in Phnom Penh 10 years ago.
The museum was expanded by the French in the 1930s, and repaired by the Vietnamese government in the 1990s. But the staff was not in a position to restore the sculptures, Porte said.
During a visit to Danang in 2002, the museum authorities asked Porte to set up a restoration workshop. The EFEO agreed and, with the support of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Porte and his Cambodian team started training the Vietnamese staff in Danang.
The work has involved fully restoring 55 artworks for an exhibition at the Guimet Museum in Paris—the first major exhibition of Cham artwork ever to be held that ended in February. Seven pieces came from the archeological site of My Son about 60 km south of Danang, which is one of the most famous Cham sites in Vietnam.
The sculptures have since been returned to Danang and My Son, Porte said.
While statues of both Hindu divinities Vishnu and Shiva can be found at Angkor, Champa gave Shiva predominance, said Son Soubert
—an ethnologist with art history and archeology training and a member of Cambodia’s Constitutional Council.
The Cham statues of Shiva are quite distinctive: the deity usually is depicted standing, hair in two superimposed low buns, and with a moustache, he said.
The Cham and Khmer had a different concept of temples, Soubert said. Champa was never a unified kingdom and their kings were not deified as they were in the Khmer empire and as the Angkorian kings expressed in the temples they built, he said.
This may explain why the Khmer carved elaborate religious and historical scenes depicting the king of the moment on the walls of temples, while the Cham rather adorned their temples with decorative motifs, he said.
In addition, unlike the Khmer who built brick temples early on and switched to stone at Angkor, the Cham always built their temples in brick, reserving stones for statues and the occasional architectural detail although they had access to stones, Soubert said.
This said, some Khmer-style features discovered on Cham temples and Cham-style elements seen on Khmer temples show the close contacts that existed between the kingdoms, he said.
A Vishnu on a lintel at the Danang museum that may have come from My Son is similar to a 7th-Century Vishnu on a lintel from Tuol Baset temple in Battambang, now at the Battambang Museum, he said.