Friends of Khmer Culture has been established to support Khmer arts and cultural organisations. Their mission is to work with Cambodian institutions to develop projects that are self-sustaining and thus offer hope and independence for the future. They have decided that their first priority is to provide help to The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Anyone who has read my travelogues will know that The National Museum is one of my favourite haunts when I'm in the capital and so this is music to my ears if the efforts of Friends of Khmer Culture can improve some of the problems of maintenance, security, conservation, display, training, education and public relations that the Museum suffers from. An initial project will be to publish a book (likely to be October 2005) that will present eighty masterpieces from the Museum's fantastic collection in stone, bronze and wood accompanied by a text in Helen Ibbitson Jessupfour languages, English, Khmer, Japanese and French. All profits from the book will be applied to projects proposed by the Museum. Future plans also include help towards a bookshop, cafe and other much needed facilities including brochures and pamphlets for public education and to help with plans for improved display of the exhibits and training for the Museum's staff. The founder and President of the Board of Directors is Helen Ibbitson Jessup, a renowned scholar and curator specializing in the art and architecture of Southeast Asia, who is author of the forthcoming publication and who already has a couple of books on Cambodia to her name, that are essential reading for anyone with any interest in this art form. She co-authored the catalogue edition of Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory and wrote the 2005 publication, Art & Architecture of Cambodia by Thames & Hudson.

The Friends foundation has already funded 2 books - Brah Ling, by Ang Choulean, and Calling the Souls, by Ashley Thompson - published by Reyum in Phnom Penh. They've also taken on the publication of an annual scholarly journal, Udaya.

The Friends of Khmer Culture website is at

Millennium of Glory

It was in 1997 that Helen Ibbitson Jessup began exploring the possibility of setting up a foundation to aid the Cambodian government and the National Museum of Phnom Penh in preserving the art and architecture of the Cambodian people. She gave an interview to ArtsZone at the time, as curator of the most complete survey of Cambodian art ever gathered in a museum. Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory was on view in Washington, DC at the National Gallery of Art, in September 1997. It later moved onto the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum and the Osaka Municipal Museum of Art.

ArtsZone:From the film The Shadow of Angkor you get a sense that the Gods and the ancestors of the people who created these wonderful sculptures were inhabiting the place, and the stone, and the actual bodies of the people there. Do you get a sense when you're there of a continuing spiritual tradition?

Helen Jessup:Oh, yes, I think these buildings are all imbued with a very strong feeling of the shades of the past, the continuity of a spirit of place, they are haunted buildings. Haunted with a millennium of memories in some cases. In the case of Angkor Wat of course, a 'mere' 800 years. What is extraordinary is that no matter how many times you visit these sites, they remain enigmatic. They overwhelm in their scale and complexity. They dazzle in their architectural imagination in their special mastery, in their sculptural detail. But no matter how many times you study them, no matter how many times you go there, they resist knowledge. They are enigmatic to the end. And that is true of all spiritual places, I think. Who could ever really know Chartres Cathedral?

ArtsZone:But our 20th century pursuit of knowledge is to try to get closer and closer, we want to slice open the atoms, and find out how old something is, we want to know that this scrawl on paper or stone or wood means this, and we want the facts. How does that conflict with actually going there, and being on the ground?

Helen Jessup:Oh, it doesn't at all. The more you know the more you want to know. I think it's essential to dig for every piece of information, every last fact. But what is so remarkable about great art or great architecture, is that, in the end, when you have answered every riddle, or tried to, when you have measured every plane, when you have calculated every volumetric expression, when you have worked out every single piece of iconography, when it's great art, it is still beyond you. There is something you cannot explain, it transcends all those ingredients. It's like trying to suggest that a Beethoven string quartet is about four instruments playing different tunes. You can learn by heart every single one of the melodies, you can practice until you're blue in the face, but you can never get an identical performance any one time, because the music resonates from within its own raison d'etre [reason for being]. And it surpasses any interpretation because it is great art. That's what makes great art. You can never really know it.

ArtsZone:People want to know how to come to something for the first time. They need a lot of reassurance. And one of the things I'm hearing from you is that it's OK to start wherever you are without knowing Cambodian history, without knowing the religious symbols, you can start by looking at the work, and reacting to it.

Helen Jessup:Of course, you always have to start with the art and end with the art, and I think any other approach is bound to interfere with the true relationship between the viewer and the work of art. This sculpture speaks for itself - of course it's helpful to know all those details about its age, what it means, where it comes from, how it relates to others, it's immensely helpful because the more you know, the more you appreciate it. But if you look at the reaction - I've been fascinated during the course of the exhibition showing in Washington, I've been fascinated by the reaction of a whole spectrum of visitors. Let's start with children, who universally smile when they see the elephant, and Ganesha [the man/God with an elephant's head.]

I've been fascinated by the reaction of the guards, and maintenance and housekeeping staff at the gallery. They think it's wonderful. They don't know anything about the background of it, they're not art historians, they come from a totally different culture [than the artists who created the sculptures], they perhaps don't even know where Cambodia is within the Asian setting, they may not know much about Buddhism or Hinduism. I think the bottom line is that ultimately you don't need to. If the sculpture is great sculpture, it will speak to people. And it's true, people just instantly respond. If I read the comments from people who have rented the Acoustiguide [audio tour], there are some very, very touching comments by visiting Cambodians. Some of whom say things like the following: "I'm a Cambodian-American, I was born in America, I have never seen the country of my ancestors, and I now realize I have been deprived of a wonderful heritage and I can't thank the National Gallery enough for teaching me about my heritage." Amazing reaction from the Cambodians who have come in busloads from all over the United States to see this exhibition. And the Cambodian community has been so supportive of us here.

ArtsZone:The idea that people who live in Cambodia now - the fact that this art is part of their heritage - does this offer any hope to you about the future of Cambodia - the existence of this wonderful, beautiful art and architecture?

Helen Jessup:A strange anomaly, is that, despite the brutality, the atrocity of the Khmer Rouge interval, paradoxically, they did not set out to destroy the ancient temples or the ancient sculpture. Contemporary monasteries they burned, the monks, they killed, but the ancient sculpture and the ancient architecture was left untouched. There was some inadvertent damage while troops were boarded in temple grounds, the occasional pockmarking from rifle shots - but on the whole there was no attempt to destroy this heritage. And one doesn't know whether it was too removed from contemporary political things, or that it was perceived as a National heritage.

At the moment, we hear that everything is safe in the National Museum [in Phnom Penh] There seems to have been no attempt to break into the museum and steal the objects that are still there. Fewer of course than there normally would be, because we have so many here. With any luck - there will be more and more awareness of this heritage - the exhibition itself is perceived by Cambodians as a great step forward. When we went to interview three ministers, for permission and support, the Minister of Culture said, 'Well, I would like some input into the presentation of this culture, so it can be appreciated at all levels in this country, because I have a whole generation that is totally ignorant of its own heritage.' And that's a complaint I hear from Cambodian community leaders in the United States. That children, who were born here, or came here at an early age, have been totally cut off from their own roots, and have not yet focused on them.

So they are deraciné, they are de-culturized, and they don't quite know where they belong, and I know all these community leaders, as well as ministers in Cambodia, feel that the presentation of such an overwhelming collection of great art, that is so - unmistakable - these facial features, this physiognomy that persists through a thousand years, religious grace married to humanism, it is so Khmer, no other art is like that, - it's clearly a National heritage. We hope this will become clear. And we hope the catalogue - which is not just a catalogue describing the objects, but is a total background to the prehistory, history, religion, inscriptions, architecture of Cambodia from the earliest times until recently, we hope that will be helpful as a sort of grounding for all this art, so it will be seen as part of a total context of architecture, religious belief, national pride and so forth.

ArtsZone:Could this also be a turning point in the role of a museum, working in the third world, helping to draw together the threads of a third world culture. I was thinking on the way here of the changing role of zoos. Before, zoos were places where exotic things were put on display, so people could gawk and gape at them. Now the zoo tries to show by its care of the animals and its social and political action on behalf of conservation, that it's trying to be part of the solution, not the problem. Museums are taking the same role.

Helen Jessup:Since we had the director the National Museum [at Phnom Penh] here for a month - it became six weeks - they have a very clear conception of all the things a museum can be. They are eager to make the National Museum just such a place [where culture can be preserved and explored]. They are horrendously limited by really pathetic lack of funds, they really lack everything, starting with money needless to say.

And I personally am determined, and I have spoken to several people already, that sometime next year, I will get advice about how to set up an institution here [in the US], a foundation of some kind, [called something like] Friends of the National Museum of Phnom Penh, that will raise money to do specific things that need doing. You have to start small. And this morning I had the honor to meet the venerable Goshananda, who is this saintly figure - who's been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, who walks across Cambodia every year in a peace march. He's here in Washington at the moment, and he came here and I had the honor to meet him. And as he said 'One step at a time.' If you take the step, if it's the first step, it's a beginning. And maybe you have to take two back for every one step you take forward for a while. And maybe that's what's happening in Cambodia now.

So I hope that sometime next year, the few people I've spoken to will get together to form some kind of institution that we hope will get the proper status to be helpful, to encourage people to support and give. There are so many such organizations in this country heaven knows, but I can think of no more needy cause than the state of Phnom Penh museums and the need to preserve their incredible architectural heritage - one of the world's greatest architectural heritages. © 2002 OVATION - The Arts Network

A Cruel Race to Loot the Splendor That Was Angkor

Siem Reap Journal by Jane Perlez. March 21, 2005, The New York Times.

Hidden among stands of bamboo far from the throngs of tourists who clamber over the grand temples of Angkor, a series of bas-reliefs in rose and gray sandstone stand in solitary splendor. The gods and demons and half-human, half-animal figures revered by the Angkor civilization were carved at Mount Kulen by anonymous artists and, like countless other artworks, disappeared into nature when the empire collapsed 500 years ago. Now, like much else at Angkor, the carvings are symbols not only of the mystique of the past but also of the greed of the present.

In the past six months, a head of one of the figures was gouged from the rock, said Sin Sokhorn, a Cambodian guide who often comes to the site by motorcycle. A scar in the rock marked the place where looters had hacked at the statue, leaving a crumpled, headless torso. The head was probably on display in an antiquities shop in Bangkok or in a European city with a handsome price tag, he mused. Or, he suggested, it could be in a private collection of Angkor art, secure from prying eyes. "We need protection from the looters, but where are we to get it?" asked Mr. Sin Sokhorn as he showed the bas-reliefs.

One of the astonishing aspects of the Angkor sites is their diminished nature at the hand of modern man. Amid the grandeur, empty pedestals, headless carvings and missing lintels cast an aura of indelible loss. The sudden cascade of tourists - one million foreign visitors came to Cambodia last year, a vast majority to Angkor - brings many risks: overcrowding, dwindling of the scant local water supply, a cheapening atmosphere.

But the relentless looting strikes at the very artistic and cultural value of one of the world's most admired ancient civilizations, art historians say. "There is not a single site that is not affected," said Helen Jessup, the founder of Friends of Khmer Culture, an American nongovernmental group. "The Western collectors continue to be as guilty as those who do this."

The art of Angkor, created between the 9th and the 15th centuries in the empire centered around this town in northern Cambodia, has been the target of occupiers and looters since French explorers rediscovered the city in the mid-19th century. Drawings of the period show large statues strapped to rafts and protected by armed Frenchmen as they floated down rivers on their way to Paris. In the 1920's, as a young writer, André Malraux, who later became France's minister of culture, was convicted in an Indochina court for stealing priceless figures from one of the most beautiful temples, Banteay Srei. He was sentenced to three years in prison but never served any time.

Cambodia's recent violent history provided an almost ideal opportunity for plundering. The Communist Khmer Rouge destroyed temples and written records, while the occupying Vietnamese Army, well aware of the value of Angkor art in the West, removed pieces by the truckload. The peace of the 1990's brought some help, but not enough, say scholars and others concerned with the protection of Angkor art.

Apsara, the Cambodian government agency responsible for the protection and management of Angkor, runs a force of gray uniformed guards who patrol the main temples. Their presence has helped dampen looting at Angkor Wat, the central temple, Cambodian officials say. But in a recent statement, Apsara acknowledged that it was fighting an uphill battle against armed gangs using chain saws and motorcycle brake wire, one of the latest tools for quietly slicing through artifacts. The agency suggested that the Cambodian Army was involved in the destruction. "Vandalism has multiplied at a phenomenal rate," the agency said. "Employing local populations to carry out the actual thefts, heavily armed intermediaries transport objects, often in tanks or armored personnel carriers, often for sale across the Thai border."

Out of desperation, many objects have been deliberately removed and placed in safekeeping at the Angkor Conservation Office, a row of buildings set behind a high fence here in Siem Reap. In the padlocked rooms, a visitor can see row upon row of the heads of demons, gods, snakes, lions and Buddhas. In one corner, a prized stele inscribed in Sanskrit and listing the wealth of the Ta Prohm monastery stands without any special marker amid a jumble of other artifacts.

A former Cambodian ambassador to the United States, Roland Eng, who recently returned home, said his country was doing its best to protect the Angkor treasures. But he said there were two severe limitations: Cambodia's rock-bottom economy and the exorbitant prices for Angkor art on the international market. "The country remains very poor, the army is very poor," Mr. Eng said. "There is a high demand for Angkor antiquities. We have to encourage people not to buy any antiques where they cannot trace the source." He was pleased, he said, that in 2003 the State Department and Cambodia signed a Unesco convention, known as the Cultural Property Implementation Act, that outlaws in the United States the import or export of illicit Cambodian cultural artifacts. The accord has already helped curtail the illegal trade.

"Fewer objects have become available at auction, and the quality has declined," Ms. Jessup said. Even so, Ms. Jessup, the curator of a show of Khmer art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1997, said she remained alarmed at the persistence of the pillaging. Her group is organizing an inventory of the thousands of Angkor-era works in storage at provincial museums and police barracks in Cambodia. If those pieces are stolen and re-emerge on the art market, she said, it will be easier to establish their provenance.

Meanwhile, the destruction continues at a startling rate. At Angkor Thom, for example, a 12th-century ruler, Jayavarman VII, built a highly fortified city with five causeways, each one lined with figures of benign gods and fierce demons. After many of the heads were chopped off by looters, the authorities replaced them with concrete copies. "Even some of those have been taken," Ms. Jessup said.

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