The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh is the country’s main and major repository of national treasures, relics and heritage. It is clearly Cambodia’s largest and most important museum of cultural history and historical and archaeological treasures.
When not many people gave notice to Cambodian art, George Groslier, a Cambodian-born French historian, curator and author, almost singlehandedly revived international interest in local Khmer art and culture. He designed the museum, creating a new and unique architectural design called Traditional Khmer. The National Museum resembles portions of the Angkor Wat and undoubtedly represents a modern attempt to reinvent ancient Khmer architecture. He was also the museum first conservator, and practically gave his life to preserve, promote and popularize Khmer art and culture when the rest of the world did not care.
On April 13, 1920, during the Khmer New Year of the Monkey, the country celebrated the opening and inauguration of the National Museum of Cambodia that showcased a huge number of Khmer art collections. Only four years later, the museum was expanded to include two wings at both ends of the eastern façade. The museum’s new look made it more imposing and majestic.
On August 9, 1951, the French turned the museum over to the complete administrative control of Cambodians, in line with Cambodia’s upcoming independence in 1953. Chea Thay Seng became the first Cambodian museum director in 1966. He also became Dean of the newly opened Department of Archeology, Royal University of Fine Arts.
The years 1975-1979 went down in history as the darkest, bloodiest and most forgettable years in the lives of the Cambodian people. Strongman Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers took full control of the country and halting whatever possible developments in culture and arts. Pol Pot disdained culture, education and anything that stood for beauty and modern civilization. He led the country to a backward march and executed the rich and educated. More than 2 million people died in Pol Pot’s short 4-year regime. The whole of Phnom Penh, including the National Museum, was evacuated and abandoned.
After North Vietnam pushed back the Khmer Rouge, the museum was “rediscovered” and found in a deplorable state. Its roof was rotting, the gardens overgrown, and a colony of bats lived within the exhibit halls. The precious collections were scattered around, damaged, and some were stolen. If was later discovered that many of its former employees were executed by the Khmer Rouge. The museum reopened on April 13, 1979.
In addition to the preservation and exhibition of relics, archeological finds, and cultural items, the museum also performs the following functions today. It maintains a religious function by preserving a collection of important Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, functions as a place of worship, supports all other state-run museums in the country, policing the looting and illicit export of authentic national treasures, promotes an understanding of Cambodian arts and culture, and holds exhibitions outside Cambodia (such as at the National Gallery of Australia, as well as in France, the US, Japan, South Korea, and Germany).
Located on Street 13 near the Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia is open every day from from 8.00 AM until 5.00 PM daily. Admission is very affordable at US$3 for foreign visitors and 500 riels for locals. Children and students may come in for free. Tours are available in English, French, Japanese and Khmer. For understandable reasons, visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the museum. The museum accepts donations and contributions that shall be used to shoulder operating costs and maintenance.