BANGKOK, Siem Reap (eTN) – The rooms are well lit and air conditioned, explanations are provided with eletronic headsets, and interactive videos provide good and entertaining information. The collection is, of course, outstanding – hundreds of buddhas and deities can be admired. All of this has ben built and run by the powerful Vilailuck family from Thailand, owner of the communication company, Samart. However, the museum does not stand in the center of Bangkok or in any city in Thailand. It is located in Cambodia, in Siem Reap and is called the Angkor National Museum.
The museum has been opened now for two years and offers eight galleries showing the evolution of Cambodian art from its origins to the end of the Khmer empire. Samart has won a 99-year concession to open and run the museum in Siem Reap city center, a few kilometers away from the fabled Angkor temples. The Vilailuck family has been in Cambodia since 1992, when it won a concession to run a telecom company, Samart Cambodia. The build-cooperate and transfer agreement for the museum was signed in 2003, and Samart invested approcximately US$15 million to complete the 20,000 m2 facility.
The museum was marred by controversies with UNESCO, as well as the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Relations have always been very sensitive – for the most – between Thailand and Cambodia. Angkor National Museum has been seen by many insiders as just a matter of money business between the Cambodian government, the APSARA Authority (administrating the Angkor Wat complex), and the private Thai company. UNESCO experts find the presentation as a way to propagate a Thai vision of Cambodian history. Phnom Penh’s National Museum has also limited its cooperation – originally it was supposed to transfer up to 1,000 pieces from its storage – with some 30 large pieces from collections that were due to be transferred to the new institution.
Meanwhile, far from geo-political acrimonies, visitors can only enjoy the galleries and their spectacular presentation. Displayed statues and bas-reliefs are stunning and at least are visible for tourists. Explanations are good enough to provide an overview on the evolution of Cambodian art. The highlight of the collection is the 1,000 buddhas gallery where the venered figures – mostly dating to the post-Angkor Wat period – surround visitors. Some experts pointed out that the gallery looks basically like a replica of a late Ayuttaya temple (in Thailand). The result still remains impressive.
A Thai private company has succeeded in building a cultural institution offering a modern and attractive museology. In contrast to that is Bangkok’s National Museum, run by the State. Despite its stunning art collections, buildings are in such a sorrowful state – crumbling walls, humidity, and dust everywhere – that it could easily qualify as a national disgrace. Last year, the textile gallery at the National Museum was renovated, not because of the state’s generosity but because of funds collected by the National Museum Volunteers – a private association consisting of the museum’s fans.
While there is obviously no money from the state to preserve its national assets, it might be time that private Thai companies step in and look for a partnership with Thailand’s Ministry of Culture to help renovate what should be Thailand’s flagship for culture and arts, a walk through Angkor National Museum would then be a source of inspiration, of a cooperation between the state and private partners.