At a Glance
National Museum of Cambodia Street 178 & Street 13, next to the Royal Palace; entry $2.00. Open 8 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.- 5 p.m. everyday.
Rodin and the Khmer dancers: his last passion Sketches and photographs by Auguste Rodin, on display through February 11 at the National Museum.
Sure, it’s featured in every guidebook, and makes every traveler’s must-see list, but the National Museum of Cambodia may still be underrated.
Opened to the public in 1918, the towering crimson museum houses antiquities and artifacts from the Kingdom’s ancient past. From the first step inside, the museum is an explosion of history, mystery and beauty. It’s a dizzying array of divinities and demi-gods, of nagas and lingas and astonishing statues.
But you don’t have to be an anthropologist, expert or historian to enjoy the National Museum. It’s accessible for any tourist or even the most novice student of Cambodia. It also goes a long way in explaining the artworks behind the Kingdom’s most famous temple complex, Angkor Wat.
These days there’s even a more modern element. From now until February 11 the museum is presenting the exhibition “Rodin and the Khmer dancers: his last passion.”
Courtesy Rodin Museum
French sculptor Auguste Rodin was inspired by the apsara dancers who traveled to France with King Sisowath in 1906. The story goes that after seeing the dancers perform, Rodin was overwhelmed by the purity and grace of their gestures. He followed the entourage to Marseilles where they were waiting for a ship back to Cambodia.
In Marseilles, Rodin worked madly. He sketched some 150 drawings — interpreting the poses of ballet and focusing on arms and hands — in a matter of days. He later water-colored the drawings with subtle, pastel tones. Forty of his original drawings and 30 photographs from the Rodin Museum in Paris are displayed in newly renovated, climate-controlled rooms.
The Rodin exhibit is included in the museum’s $2 entry fee and makes a pleasant complement to the centuries-old relics and religious figurines throughout the museum.
Opened to the public in 1918, the building was designed in traditional Khmer style by French archaeologist and scholar George Goslier. The single-level museum makes for an easy stroll. It’s a circular route of four linked, open-air galleries that surround a lush garden courtyard complete with benches and fish ponds.
It hasn’t had such an idyllic past. In 1975, the museum was looted by the Khmer Rouge as they emptied the capital, and the museum’s director was murdered. By the regime’s end in 1979, the roof had collapsed and the courtyard and galleries were overgrown with weeds and vegetation. In later years, the museum became slightly infamous for the enormous colony of bats that inhabited the roof. A new roof was installed in 1995, but according to museum officials, it hasn’t completely solved the problem.
The museum’s range of items is stunning. Immediately, the enormous sandstone statues of Hindu and Buddhist figures demand attention. On closer inspection, however, it’s the menageries of smaller items that can fascinate for hours.
Entire glass cases are devoted to rings, bracelets and pipes. There’s an amazing selection of ancient weapons ranging from bamboo spears to cast bronze canons. In the museum’s eclectic North Gallery is the entire cabin of a 19th-century royal boat. The wooden boat gleams with polished hard wood and boasts intricately engraved dragons, flowers and animals.
Delightful and mysterious, the National Museum is more than a “must see.” It’s an astounding visual experience and a key to the Kingdom’s ancient days.