Into the past: Cambodia’s National Museum

A treasure trove of ancient artefacts and cultural curios, Cambodia’s National Museum is an important site for any visitor to the country. We meet the man at the helm of this august institution, museum director Kong Vireak

Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum of Cambodia
Kong Vireak, director of the National Museum of Cambodia

For many visitors to Phnom Penh, the National Museum of Cambodia, an oasis of exquisite calm and ancient culture in the heart of the capital’s tourist hub, is a natural stop on any trip to the city. Designed to echo the majestic temple complexes glimpsed on the faded bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat, the museum houses art and artefacts stretching back more than a millennium to the dawn of Cambodia’s once-flourishing empire. 

But for its director, Kong Vireak, the winding path through the carved doors of Cambodia’s national museum took him along a less straightforward route. 

“It was accidental,” he admits when asked the provenance of his passion for the nation’s antiquities. “Most of the Cambodian people in my generation, we were not thinking of what we would be after high school… when we finished high school, we had to look for a university – and at that time, there were not many private universities so we had to find anything that we could.”

Chuckling, he reveals that if his house had not been within walking distance of Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), his life might have turned out very differently.

“My house was just a hundred steps from RUFA, from the National Museum, so it was much easier for me. I took the entry exam for RUFA. I had no orientation before that. I accidentally fell into archaeology. After that, of course, I fell in love with culture, with art history.”

Although he was initially trained in archaeology, Vireak was captivated not just by the ruins of Cambodia’s ancient empires, but also by the lost cultures that had shaped them. Upon graduating, Vireak travelled to France to study anthropology before travelling back to his homeland to work on excavation sites at Siem Reap’s Angkor complexes. After five years in the field, Vireak returned to his alma mater to teach classes in anthropology and research ancient Khmer culture. In a few short years, he was made deputy director and then director of RUFA before being appointed director of the national museum in 2012. Since then, Vireak has overseen the museum’s steady transition into a modern institution leading Cambodia’s exploration of its ancient heritage.   

“Now we are integrated into the international community, so we have to be flexible and adapt to the new strategy – the new definition of museum,” he said. “Of course, the basic definition of museum is a place to collect, to protect, to conserve the safeguarding of objects, artefacts with artistic value, cultural value, antiquities – but now we also have a main role in education through exhibitions, permanent exhibition displays, and through special exhibitions.”

During his time at the museum, Vireak has witnessed Western nations return almost half a dozen sacred statues that were looted from the remote Koh Ker temple site in Cambodia’s northern forests decades ago. In January 2016, the last of these relics in the hands of a public institution, a 10th-century sandstone sculpture of the warrior-king Rama – the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu – was returned to Cambodia from the Denver Art Museum.

For Vireak, the repatriations are a sign of a new way of thinking within the walls of the West’s great museums.

“I cannot blame the old generation,” he said. “Before, people in Europe, the rich aristocracy, they wanted to collect exotic objects and artefacts. But I can imagine the later generation, the younger generation of people, they have more feeling to [ask]: ‘Why should we take somebody’s culture?’ Culture is something that we can admire, but we cannot steal.”

Perhaps it is for these reasons that Vireak remains most moved by the reclaimed sculptures of Koh Ker – even more so than the exquisite statue of King Jayavarman VII in meditation, the last great god-king of the Khmer Empire and one of the museum’s most popular works.

“Of course, Jayavarman VII – no one can deny the beauty of it as an idol, a symbol of the National Museum, but I myself personally have fallen in love with the statues of Koh Ker.”

It is this passion for his nation’s ancient beauty that Vireak hopes the museum will kindle in the Cambodian public, whether in the sweeping gardens of the museum’s grounds, in the still waters of the central courtyard, or in the enigmatic smiles of the sculptures that have watched empires crumble.    

“The museum is more than a building with artefacts,” he said. “The museum can be a school, and also a place to enjoy. So my message for students – for the Cambodian public – is to visit the museum, to learn their own culture and to enjoy.”

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