National Museum

George Groslier (1887-1945), historian, curator and author was the motivating force behind much of the revival of interest in traditional Cambodian arts and crafts, and it was he who designed this quintessential building that is today synonymous with ‘traditional Khmer’ architecture. It is perhaps better described as a building enlarged from Cambodian temple prototypes seen on ancient bas-reliefs and reinterpreted through colonial eyes to meet museum-size requirements.

Groslier’s intended museum was soon associated with the Ecole des Arts Cambodgiens (1917) and became known as the Musée du Cambodge in 1919. In 1920, this museum was soon to be officially renamed Musée Albert Sarraut after the then Governor-General of Indochina.

The foundation stone for the new museum was laid on 15 August 1917. Some two-and-a-half years later, the completed Musée Albert Sarraut was inaugurated during Khmer New Year on 13 April 1920 in the presence of H.M King Sisowath, François-Marius Baudoin, Résident-supérieur, and M. Groslier, directeur des Arts cambodgiens, and conservateur du Musée.The original design of the building was slightly altered in 1924 with extensions that added wings at either end of the eastern façade that made the building even more imposing.

Early directors of the museum from the 1920s-1940s contributed greatly to knowledge of the rapidly expanding collection -Groslier himself catalogued the collection, followed by Jean Boisselier and Solange Thierry (interim Director) who added their individual talents to cataloguing and management.Control of the National Museum and Arts Administration was ceded by the French to the Cambodians on 9 August, 1951 and following Independence in 1953, the then Musée National de Phnom-Penh was the subject of Bilateral accords
(7 November 1956). From 1956 to 1966, the museum continued to flourish under the direction of Madeleine Giteau, Conservatrice du Musée National.

1966 marked the appointment of Chea Thay Seng, the first Cambodian Director of the National Museum and Dean of the newly created Department of Archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts. This university that from its foundation as the Ecole des Arts Cambodgiens in 1920 was intimately linked with students, artisans and teachers who worked to preserve Cambodian cultural traditions, can still be found to the rear of the museum.The museum closed between 1975 and 1979, the years of Khmer Rouge control and re-opened on 13 April 1979.
BuildingThe museum is bordered by Streets 178 (to the north), Street 13 (to the east) and Street 184 (to the south).The museum buildings were constructed between 1917 and 1924, with the inauguration of the museum in 1920. The central section of the east façade was renovated in 1968 under the supervision of Cambodian architect, Vann Molyvann.Physical dimensions:East façade 97.09 m
North-South faces 72.98 mExhibition galleries 2,800 sq m
Studios & stores 540 sq m
Offices & archives 1,200 sq m
Storeroom 650 sq mTotal 5,190 sq mObjectivesThe National Museum of Cambodia houses one of the world’s greatest collections of Khmer cultural material including sculpture, ceramics and ethnographic objects from the prehistoric, pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods.The Museum promotes awareness, understanding and appreciation of Cambodia’s heritage through the presentation, conservation, safekeeping, interpretation and acquisition of Cambodian cultural material. It aims to educate and inspire its visitors.ActivitiesThe main activities of the National Museum of Cambodia include exhibiting, safeguarding and promoting understanding of Cambodia’s cultural and artistic treasures. Keeping objects safe and working to ensure the repatriation of pieces stolen from Cambodia are important aspects of the museum’s work, particularly as looting and illicit export of cultural material are a continuing concern. In addition, the Museum strives to engage its visitors through its exhibitions and to fulfil its role as an integral part of the community. The Museum believes that Cambodia’s cultural heritage is of great value and can provide a source of pride and identity to the Cambodian people who have lost so much in recent decades. The availability of multilingual Museum tour guides and Publications, as well as the Museum’s public library, all serve to increase the accessibility of the collection both for local and international visitors.

Under the auspices of the Cambodian Department of Museums, the Museum has responsibility not only for its own collection, staff and premises but also to support and oversee all other museums in Cambodia.Outside of Cambodia, the Museum has an active policy of lending objects from its collection for major international exhibitions. This practice was in place before Cambodia’s recent decades of unrest and was reinstituted in the 1990s, starting with an exhibition held at the National Gallery of Australia in 1992. Subsequent exhibitions have been held in France, the USA, Japan, South Korea and Germany. The exhibitions to Australia and France have resulted in significant professional and structural assistance to the Museum from the governments of those countries and it is hoped that international exhibitions will continue to attract such support.AchievementsThe turmoil of recent decades has devastated all aspects of Cambodian life including the cultural realm. During the years of Khmer Rouge control the Museum, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, was evacuated and abandoned. The Museum suffered from neglect during this time and after the liberation of Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979 it was found in disrepair, its roof rotten, collection in disarray and garden overgrown. The Museum was quickly tidied up and reopened to the public on 13 April 1979. Tragically, however, many of the Museum’s employees had lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime. The resulting loss of expertise, combined with the deterioration of the Museum building and its collection, have made rehabilitation of the Museum a daunting task.Despite such obstacles the last decade has seen considerable progress, with generous assistance from individuals, foreign governments and numerous philanthropic organizations. In recent years the Museum has successfully addressed a range of key concerns. These include:The removal of a colony of bats inhabiting the Museum’s roof, a problem that threatened not only the preservation of objects on display which were subject to serious damage as a result of falling bat guano, but the health of Museum visitors and staff.Upgrading library holdings, facilities and administration and the creation of well-catalogued archives and inventory files which are now stored in a climate-controlled repository.The first temporary exhibition at the Museum since its official opening in 1920, The Ganesha of the National Museum, was held in 2000 and further collection-based temporary exhibitions have continued.Making considerable inroads on the conservation of its collection following training and assistance from the National Gallery of Australia in the 1990s and later the French government. France continues to fund the development of the museum’s conservation workshop, employing a stone and wood conservator who has successfully trained a team of Khmer staff in these areas of expertise. This funding not only supports the workshop itself but provides salary supplements for the staff involved.Playing an active role in the restitution and subsequent care of looted artifacts. Supported by the efforts of UNESCO’s International Council of Museums (ICOM) and their Publications One hundred missing objects: Looting in Angkor, eight objects have been successfully returned to Cambodia since 1996. A further two are currently under investigation. Some of the pieces have been returned by private individuals while others have come from international institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Honolulu Academy of Arts.Upgrading of storage facilities. The National Museum of Cambodia collection storage area, which houses some 90% of the collection, is located in the basement of the building and subject to regular flooding during the wet season. In collaboration with UNESCO, a series of improvements began in 1993 to renovate the basement to protect the collection from flood damage and general deterioration. The collaboration ensured all artifacts were placed on secAn automatic pump and internal pond were introduced in 1997 to catch and dispel floodwater. Private donors have also contributed to improving the Museum’s storageure shelving raised above the ground. facilities.Addressing the needs of the community. The Museum functions not only as a repository and display place for Khmer cultural material but, with its collection of important Buddhist and Hindu sculpture, also addresses community religious needs as a place of worship. The permanent exhibition, Post-Angkorian Buddha, supported by UNESCO and a number of individuals and local businesses, opened in 2000 to extend the religious function of the Museum.Publishing the collection. A comprehensive guidebook to the Museum’s collections was published in 2002 in Khmer, English and French.Display & StoreroomOn current estimates there are 1,877 works of art on display in the museum galleries with a further 12,320 items secured in the basement storeroom. This transposes into a grand total of 14,197 works with a breakdown between works on exhibition (some 15.2%) and those in storage (some 84.8%).There is one special exhibitions presently on show in the museum – ‘Post-Angkorian Buddha’ that opened in 2000.

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