As an institution dedicated to the preservation and protection of Cambodia’s important art and architectural heritage, conservation is one of the most important activities carried out at the National Museum of Cambodia. Two conservation workshops have been established at the Phnom Penh museum, one for Stone objectss and the other for metal. The stone workshop was founded in 1996, while the metal conservation laboratory was launched in 2005. The staff members of these workshops have now been trained in contemporary conservation techniques, and have carried out extensive repair and preventative conservation work on many art objects in the museum’s collection.

Stone conservation workshop

Metal conservation laboratory

Stone Conservation workshop

The EFEO started renewing contacts with the National Museum of Cambodia in 1996 (Phnom Penh) with the establishment of a workshop for conservation and restoration of stone sculpture in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

At its inception, the workshop strived to restore a selection of masterpieces exhibited in Paris, Washington, Tokyo and Osaka between 1997 and 1998.
Since then, numerous activities—almost 1,200 for the museum—have been undertaken in accordance with conservation and restoration ethics. These activities range from superficial cleaning to the dismantlement / de-restoration and structural assembly of occasionally complicated items. All these operations, documented and recorded, aim at improving the conservation methods and the relevance of the new display.

Researches carried out simultaneously with these activities have enriched our knowledge of numerous of these artefacts. Many sculptures and stone inscriptions have now been better identified and sometimes supplemented. Field surveys are being carried out on the sites of old or recent discoveries. The research is based on the closely associated database of the National Museum, the Angkor Conservation and the EFEO. It benefits from the network of researchers (archaeologists, historians, epigraphists, architects etc.) brought together by the EFEO and the nearby Royal University of Fine Arts. Sampling of carved sandstone allows petrographers to better identify the variety of stones used, according to the regions and periods of ancient Cambodia. An exhaustive photographic documentation is registered in a permanently updated database. The workshop is currently reviewing and documenting the old museum's photographic collection.

Training is of course paramount. The current team is made up of six staff of the museum. They have all been able to develop specialties in restoration practices, documentation, conservation of inscriptions, and etc. Former members of the team still hold positions in the field of heritage conservation. Many trainees, students from the Royal University of Fine Arts and foreign students, also participate in workshop activities.
Works often revolve around different thematic. The workshop is for example widely recognised in the mastering of the rubbing technique of stone inscriptions, or the statuary from a specific site like Phnom Da.

The work often leads to the establishment of new permanent exhibitions: the post Angkorian Buddha, pre-Angkorian and Angkorian inscriptions, and the museum's history. Temporary exhibitions have also been organised, such as those devoted to new acquisitions, images of Ganesha and goddesses.

Periodically, the workshop team sees to the preparation and monitoring of many of the museum artefacts selected for international exhibitions of Khmer art.
The workshop regularly intervenes on collections located in the provinces, notably at the Angkor Conservation and at the Battambang and Takeo museums. Since 2004, the workshop has developed major collaborative work with the Museum of Cham Sculpture of Danang and the History Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. Workshops have been established and many sculptures have been restored and newly displayed. A new collaboration has started in 2010 with the Wat Phu site museum, in Laos.

Metal Conservation Lab - $15,000 (U.S. Smithsonian Institution/Freer and Sackler Gallery of Asian Art)

Goal: Laboratory for conserving metal objects, training of metal conservation
Partner and location: National Museum of Cambodia/Phnom Penh
(Additional funding: $125,950 from the Getty Conservation Institute and $12,000 from the Global Heritage Fund.)

Bronze Conservation Laboratory

In 2005 the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution undertook to establish a workshop in the National Museum to train three Cambodian museum staff members and one other intern in methods of bronze conservation. Under the guidance Paul Jett, the head of the Galleries’ Conservation Department, metals conservator Sean Charette began training the team of Cambodians in techniques for the protection and restoration of the National Museum of Cambodia’s approximately 6,800 metal objects. Initial funding came from the Getty Foundation, Global Heritage Fund and Fulbright Senior Specialist Program. In order to continue the training for a second year, further funding was required, and FOKCI is supporting this project. At the conclusion of this project, not only will many of these important Bronze objects in the National Museum be conserved, but, as importantly, several Cambodians will have become skilled in bronze conservation techniques.

"Bronze Conservation at the National Museum of Cambodia"
by Paul Jett, Head of Conservation and Scientific Research, Freer-Sackler Gallery of Art

The National Museum of Cambodia is located in Phnom Penh and features a world-renown collection of Khmer artifacts from the 9th – 15th C. AD. Among these collections are approximately 6,800 Bronze objects, with over 600 on permanent display. Recently, Paul Jett of the Freer-Sackler Gallery of Art, headed up a project to conserve these significant cultural artifacts.

The goals of the project include completing a thorough survey of the bronze collection to determine its overall condition and needs, and establishing a laboratory facility for bronze conservation. The project will also include performing conservation treatments on selected bronzes from the collection, training members of the museum staff in the care and treatment of bronze, and finally, improving storage for the collection.

To carry out the project, a consulting conservator, Sean Charette, was hired to work on site at the National Museum for an eighteen month period. In addition, staff members from the Freer conservation lab have been traveling to Cambodia for stays of two to three weeks in order to work with Charette on the various aspects of the project. After Charette concludes his period of stay at the museum in the fall of 2006, follow-up visits are planned in order to provide further training and support for the project and to assist museum officials in planning for the future of the bronze conservation program. Materials shipped from the United States were used to establish a basic conservation laboratory at the National Museum. A core group, made up of four of the museum staff, were then trained to complete condition surveys of the entire bronze collection. This was quite a task due not only to the large number of artifacts, but also to the objects’ condition. A number of the bronzes had been sealed in bags by the museum staff over thirty years ago when the museum was closed before the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh and many of these objects have yet to be unsealed.

The improvement of the storage condition of the artifacts was another important goal of this project. The environmental conditions in Phnom Penh are not exactly ideal, since the area is subject to seasonal rains. Although some parts of the museum do flood during the rainy season, this was overcome by using storage systems that keep everything well off the ground. The last step was to provide additional training in basic conservation to a small group of the museum staff. In addition to being taught to perform conservation treatments, the staff is also learning about bronze casting techniques and other topics that will further their understanding of the objects. It is hoped that the project will ultimately not only address the goals listed above, but will also create a self-sufficient laboratory that eventually serves as a center for bronze conservation in Cambodia.

Dedication of the Metal Conservation Laboratory
Remarks by Ambassador Joseph A. Mussomeli
National Museum of Cambodia
March 23, 2006

Your Royal Highness Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuth, Minister of Culture; Khun Samen, Director of the National Museum of Cambodia; Excellencies; Members of the Press; Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor for me to be here with you this afternoon for the dedication of the newly renovated Metal Conservation Laboratory here at the National Museum of Cambodia. One of Cambodia’s most precious assets is its cultural heritage. Regrettably, historic monuments suffer from years of neglect, looters target archaeological sites and ancient temples, and priceless carvings and artifacts held in the national collection are deteriorating due to the ravages of time. I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite actresses—actually I had a terrible crush on her when I was about 8 years old, and later in life she entered Greek politics, Melina Mercouri. She once explained that “the past must emerge from the museums in order to become a source of inspiration and creativity, to become the inspiration and the joy of the people.” And she also warned that “our common memory is threatened, our soul shrivels, our creativity stifles, and our present becomes rootless” whenever our cultural heritage is stolen, neglected, or destroyed.

The U.S. is committed to the protection of Cambodia’s heritage, and the opening of this laboratory represents just one aspect of my country's assistance to Cambodia in this endeavor. The Metal Conservation Laboratory is a custom built space for the conservation treatment of metal objects and is stocked with the necessary tools, equipment and supplies. More importantly, it is also the setting for the training of Cambodian staff in modern conservation theory and techniques. This is crucial because ultimately it is up to the Cambodian people to preserve and protect their cultural heritage, and this training will enable them to take charge of this important matter.

I would like to thank several key individuals, without whom this Metal Conservation Lab would not have been possible. First, I wish to express my sincere appreciation to His Royal Highness Sisowath Sirivuth, for his advocacy and support on behalf of the Ministry of Culture. I would also like to thank National Museum Director Khun Samen for his lifelong commitment to the preservation of Cambodia's magnificent cultural heritage. It was Khun Samen who first presented the idea of the Metal Conservation Lab to the Freer and Sackler Gallery. Finally, I would like to recognize Sean Charette for all his work on behalf of the U.S. government to set up the lab and to train its staff.

Over the last few years, the U.S. government has provided nearly three quarters of a million dollars to fund cultural preservation projects in Cambodia, including restoration work at Phnom Bakheng at Angkor, the collection and Publications of 30 oral folktales in Khmer, emergency excavations at Wat Jas, the revival of the classical Lakhaon Kaol dance, and a national education program on the importance of cultural preservation. Additionally, in 2003 the U.S. and Cambodia signed a bilateral agreement that imposes import restrictions on Khmer archaeological material entering the United States. The agreement comes up for renewal in 2008, and the U.S. Embassy is committed to working with the Ministry of Culture to ensure this happens.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has been quoted as as saying: “We are ... each citizen.” well aware that both tangible and intangible cultural heritage constitutes a harmonious whole in the national identity. These cultural assets testify to the evolution of the civilization of a nation. Cultural heritage is usually regarded as the soul of the nation. Therefore, the protection of cultural heritage should not be confined solely to the government, but is also the duty of each citizen.

The United States is proud to be a partner in the protection and preservation of Cambodian cultural patrimony. And we join in the Prime Minister’s call for each and every person to play his and her part. An added incentive is the important role that culture now plays in Cambodia's economy. More than one million visitors will travel to Cambodia this year to marvel at the country’s temples, archeological sites and historical artifacts. The National Museum alone draws thousands of tourists a month. Tourism now employs over 100,000 workers, making it Cambodia’s second most important industry. In working to preserve Cambodia's past, we are also ensuring Cambodia’s future.

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