Culture Almost Lost

Sometimes you take for granted the value of something until you realize that it was once almost lost, and that you’re fortunate to still be able to experience/see it. Such was my feeling after visiting the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. The museum houses collection of artifacts from the rich Khmer history. Many of these were almost lost during the Khmer Rouge reign, as the regime attempted to erase the culture and history and ‘start over’ in the agrarian society that they envisioned.

I made some observations as I walked around viewing the exhibits. There were some groups of school students in uniform listening to young tour guides explaining the exhibit to them in Khmer. I think that was nice to see the young generation of the locals also coming to the museum to learn about their own culture and history, considering that most of them were not even born at time of the Khmer Rouge reign (more than 80% of Cambodian population was under the age of 30 in 2010).

There was also an exhibit explaining about an archaeological site in rural Cambodia where they found many artifacts from the golden age of the Khmer Empire. It’s interesting to read the story how the site was initially discovered. A farmer found some of the metal artifacts, and initially collected and sold them in the market as scrap metal. It turned out that the site was one of the richest archaeological sites ever excavated in Southeast Asia. One of the purposes of this exhibit was to educate people about the importance of these archaeological finds in learning about the history, and how it’s a loss for the society when the treasures fell into the hands of looters and art dealers. I think that would be a difficult concept to get people to adopt, especially when many people lived in poor condition and the short-term gain from selling those artifacts was more appealing than the long-term gain for the society from turning over the findings to the archaeological research groups.

As I walked through another section of the museum, I overheard a tour guide explaining some artifacts to a couple of foreign visitors in French. What’s interesting to observe was that the lady who guided the tour seemed to be a Cambodian in her 50s. That means she’s old enough to have gone through the Khmer Rouge era. Given her knowledge about the art history, I wonder if she was an educated person who fled the country before the Khmer Rouge era or if she was a survivor who lived through the Khmer Rouge time and managed to avoid being identified as educated and killed by the regime. Either way, I thought that was great to have someone from the previous generation who can help link the culture to where it was before the dark times.

So there it was, a brief visit to a museum that holds a nation’s treasure. It may not be as well known as what you find in other history museums in the world, but when you consider what this nation had gone through, this is definitely a collection that should be appreciated. I hope as the country becomes more developed and more of the Cambodian people become more educated and come out of poverty, these national treasures become more known and they can appreciate the richness of their own culture and history.

The photo below was taken at the front of the museum, as we wrapped up our visit to this museum. Notice the group of young people walking out in white shirts. Those were the students that I mentioned above.

Students at the National Museum

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