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Cambodians criticise Angkor National Museum for Thai influence and cultural mire

By: Expat Advisory Posted: July-08-2008 in
Expat Advisory

The loss of artefacts is partly attributed to looting over the centuries, appropriation by the colonial ruler for French museums, or mere relocation to the National Museum in Cambodia.

Though the treasures may remain within the country, the National Museum is over 185 miles from Angkor, which encouraged Vilailuck to rectify the issue by opening the nearby Angkor National Museum.

The Angkor National Museum has borrowed almost 1000 Buddhas from the national Museum, but has been the object of significant criticism since its unveiling in October.

Whilst some find fault with the aesthetic appeal of the museum, and its commercial retail area, others query its historical relevance, as hundreds of featured Buddhas are no older than the past century.

A significant condemnation arises from the Thai involvement, as Cambodians are fiercely protective of Angkor since it was once under Thai control, according to the New York Times.

Wall images were once looted from the 12th century Banteay Chhmar temple which neighbours the Thai border, and returned to Cambodia by Thai police in 1999. Anti-Thai riots followed in 2003, when a Thai actress claimed her home country still owned Angkor.

These issues, as well as the fact that Vilailuck is "primarily interested in turning a profit," according to historian Darryl Collins, have heightened the displeasure with the museum in Cambodia.

However, this criticism has impacted the Thai company, who spent US$15 million on the project. The managing director of the museum, Sunaree Wongpiyabovom, pointed out that Vilailuck tripled their initial investment in the project, and did not anticipate any earnings for a decade.

Wongpiyabovom claims "We want to educate Cambodian people about their own history."

It is especially for those "who know little about its monuments, and even less of the progress of Buddhism and what led up to it." The contract between Vilailuck and the Cambodian government transfers control of the museum to the government after 30 years, in exchange for the right to borrow artefacts from the National Museum and the Conservation d'Angkor.

However, the original plan loaned almost 1000 artefacts during the 30 years, when Khun Samen was the director of the National Museum, whereas his successor, Hab Touch, will only permit 23 major pieces to be shared.

His explanation claims "I am not going to surrender important pieces that should be permanently displayed here for the integrity of the collection."

UNESCO have been generally supportive of the museum which accompanies one of their World Heritage sites, but one of the advisers to UNESCO, Azedine Beschaouch, concurs with the criticism of the retail area.

Vilailuck promoted the area as a 'cultural mall', but Beschaouch believes "this seems to have been foremost in the mind of the designers, while the collection came second." The museum has rallied against criticism, claiming that it requires further time to develop itself. The Cambodian curator, Chann Charouen, has instigated plans to rotate artefacts and introduce new displays from provincial museums within the nation. It is hoped that the criticism amongst scholars and the like will influence the museum to embrace its mandate as a National Museum to compliment the wonders of Angkor, instead of remaining little more than a commercialised tourist experience.

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