Visit to the Angkor National Museum

IMG_5352The last few days have been mostly spent going through some of the academic literature appropriate to ceramics studies in Cambodia and having various productive meetings with people to organise fieldwork here. Not exciting stuff to blog about but very necessary. It’s not all been meetings and reading however, and I have taken time to visit a couple of museums.
First I decided to pay a visit to the Angkor National Museum ( which is about half way between my hotel and the town centre. The building is a grand modern building which seems slightly out of place in the landscape but retains a sort of Khmer style. Unfortunately, they don’t allow cameras to be used inside, so check out their website for pictures. The polite staff gladly take your $12 and direct you first up a long open circular walk way to the first floor from which you can see a small enclosed courtyard with a swimming pool in the middle. I’ve never been to museum with a swimming pool before and can’t quite imagine it working in the centre of London at the British Museum. It is strongly recommended you follow the set route through the museum, to such an extent when I tried to pop to the loo I was quickly chased and told it was the wrong way!

The tour began with a short film about the museum, its history and the exhibitions held within its 6 galleries. The door led from the small cinema into the Gallery of a Thousand Buddha’s. The original gallery is a part of Angkor Wat and here, instead of a sandstone temple, it was a room with easily a thousand statues of stone, wood and metal. The spectacle was obvious but effective, row after row of serene meditating miniature monuments. Unfortunately the sight, whilst impressive, didn’t lend itself to actual observation as many were too high to see and the room generally suffered from a lack of information. It also seemed that a lot of the statues were nothing to do with Angkor and many were 19th and 20th century productions. The intention seemed to be a little bit of style over substance.

The next few galleries were taken up by a variety of different statues and information boards looking at various aspects of ancient Khmer culture. First the religious aspects of Angkorian Cambodia were explored with the transition from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism and through to Theravada Buddhism, explained through changes to style and material of sacred objects. Next the works of four of the greatest Khmer Kings (Jayavarman II, AD 802-850, Yasovarman I AD 889-910, Soryavarman II, AD 1113-1150 and Jayavarman VII AD 1181-1201), was presented with a particular focus on the changing architectural styles each King utilised in their grand constructions. Galleries D and E focus on Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom respectively and are again full of architectural splendour but are a little thin on information beyond what can be found in a guide book.

The final two galleries showcase a slightly different side of the Khmer Empire. Displayed first is a collection of inscribed stela with explanations of the text. The stela are often intricately carved and the degree of workmanship in impressive. The concluding gallery is in attempt to focus on ancient costume through an analysis of sculpture and is quite successful. The divine statues are all in various states of repair but express well changes in dress, costume and personal adornment but with only a small focus on the Angkorian period. Additionally, a lack of any kind of secure dating makes more in depth conclusions difficult to draw.
Overall I found the Angkor National Museum a little disappointing, especially considering the not insignificant $12 entrance fee. If you have a thing for sculpture and architecture it’s a great place to visit but it doesn’t really function as more than display rooms. It lacks information and artefacts on the lives of the people of the Khmer Empire and rarely goes beyond superficial explanations. The lack of portable, artefact material culture was a shame too; I only found 3 pots in the whole place. Generally the museum doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose. It functions as a draw to tourists who want to learn more about the temples but overwhelms them with a lot of the same architecture but in a different context. It struggles to be more than a visual display for guide book information and doesn’t really hold up to any kind of in depth academic study.