Notes from the Field

In Cambodia, Culture Shapes Identity, Spurs Economic Growth

February 12, 2014

Last year, the United Nations called for culture to be given top priority in the post-2015 global development agenda, citing its importance to economic growth, social inclusion, equality, and sustainable development. It is difficult to quantify the impact culture has on a nation, particularly for a developing country like Cambodia, which endured such turmoil and hardship under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Many Cambodians have turned to their cultural traditions to regain a sense of community and morality, says Mr. Kong Vireak, Cambodia’s director of the Museums Department in the Ministry of Culture.

Kong Vireak

Kong Vireak with art specialists at the Asian Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the Asian Art Museum.

Mr. Kong was in the San Francisco Bay Area last month on a two-week professional affiliation at the Asian Art Museum as The Asia Foundation’s Brayton Wilbur Jr. Fellow in Asian Art. As part of his fellowship, he visited an exhibit of Cambodian Buddhist paintings at the University of California in Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies and I had the opportunity to accompany him. The exhibit illustrates episodes of Buddha’s life, and scenes depicting key teachings on life, suffering, and death. These works, painted in the 1980s, are from a private collection, and were commissioned by individual temple donors or by village associations, mostly in rural communities. The paintings typically show scenes of villagers listening to the Buddha preaching, with the sponsors among the faithful. Striking to me were the graphic scenes of an emaciated Buddha meditating, and scenes depicting life cycles of birth through death. “Death and suffering paintings are not so popular in Cambodia now,” said Mr. Kong, explaining that the people had enough of suffering. Those paintings embody not only religious stories but also aspects of Cambodian culture and village life.

Safeguarding cultural traditions in a developing country such as Cambodia can be a challenge. At a presentation on silver treasures from the National Museum at the conclusion of his fellowship, Mr. Kong said many of the priceless antique silver artifacts once housed in the Museum have been lost. Many of the artifacts were melted down and used as coins or other forms of currency during the nation’s civil war in the 1970s. Some are hidden from the public eye and reside in private collections in Cambodia and abroad.

Without documentation and records, even some pieces returned to the Museum draw questions as to what they are, and how the provenance can be determined. Mr. Kong pointed to a piece returned recently by a Hungarian collector as an example: a silver plate from the Angkorian era (9th to 15th century) in the shape of a lotus, with a needle-like strap across it. He said no one has been able to identify what it is. Was it used as an ornament, or perhaps a mirror? A riddle, yet to be solved.

Kong Vireak

Kong Vireak examines art pieces at the Asian Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the Asian Art Museum.

Silver in the form of Buddhist statues, on the other hand, have survived because in Cambodia, a primarily Buddhist nation, melting down holy images is considered blasphemous. Thus, a sizeable number of silver Buddhist statues still remain in the Museum’s collection.

Tourism, an important revenue source for Cambodia, brought more than 2 million visitors in 2013 to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. The National Museum in Phnom Penh is also a magnet for tourists, drawing an international audience to its exhibits and cultural performances. Mr. Kong said. The museum employs hundreds of musicians and performing artists, and also supports the local traditional handicrafts.

The challenge now, he said, is to draw young Cambodians to the Museum. “Young people go to internet cafes and sport events for recreation. But how can we get them to come to the Museum?”

Through opportunities like the Wilbur fellowship, Mr. Kong said he’s able to see first-hand how other museums overseas attract audiences, and to see how exhibits can be curated effectively and economically. This is what grabbed him at the Legion of Honor – a window through which the public can watch conservators at work restoring art objects. At the Asian Art Museum, he saw how art education is incorporated in local schools. In turn, he assisted the Museum in identifying artifacts in its Cambodian collection.

He will return to the U.S. in the spring, to meet with the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to discuss the loan of Cambodian art objects for the Met’s upcoming exhibit.

Established by Asia Foundation Trustee Judy Wilbur, the Brayton Wilbur Jr. Fellow in Asian Art honors her late husband and is administered by The Asia Foundation’s Asian American Exchange unit, in cooperation with the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Read more. 

Julia Chen is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer for the Asian American Exchange unit in San Francisco. She can be reached at Julia.chen@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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