PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- As Cambodians work on restoring their way of life after decades of war and economic stagnation, Australia has stepped in to help preserve the nation's rich but neglected cultural heritage. The latest step in this laborious process was the recent reopening of the National Museum of Cambodia, one of Southeast Asia's most beautiful buildings. The 75-year-old museum, built in spectacular Khmer temple style, has been reroofed and freshly painted in dark red in its first major restoration, funded by the Australian government. The museum, which houses superb sixth- to 12th-century artifacts from Angkor Wat and other sites, was run by the French during the colonial era, put under Cambodian management in 1951 and then abandoned during the 'killing fields' of the Khmer Rouge regime. Museum Director Pich Keo recalled the abuse the museum suffered during 25 years of turmoil and civil war. 'During the nightmare time of the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, nobody worked here at the museum and records were burned and destroyed,' said Keo, who studied archaeology in Russia and has worked for years conserving Cambodia's heritage. 'Even after the Khmer Rouge were thrown from power the museum was in very bad condition, but we had no funds or trained technicians to carry out maintenance. They had been killed during Pol Pot's reign,' he said. Help arrived when 20 stone and 13 bronze artifacts from the museum were flown to Australia for exhibition in 1992 and the Australian government pledged its assistance to the museum.
The aid included physical repairs to the building's steeply pitched and spiraled roof and conservation and archival training for the museum staff. Conservator Catherine Millikan, on loan from the Australian National Gallery, arrived last August to direct the restoration project. Inside the battered museum she found 2 million rare bats in the ceiling and six inches of floodwater in the rat-infested basements where priceless Khmer artifacts were stored. 'I hit the roof because as a conservator I had prepared displays and labels but realized the museum was in no physical condition for them to go out,' she recalled. 'I realized this wasn't going to be a glamorous job.' The bats in the ceiling were identified as very rare freetail bats and were declared 'sacred' by a visiting biologist. But their droppings were covering the sculptures at the rate of one centimeter a day, Millikan said. 'The smell and insect problem from the droppings was very bad,' said Keo, who now is happy with a 'joint venture' arrangement with the bats. 'An inner ceiling has been installed to catch the bat droppings and we are selling about 1,000 kilograms a month as fertilizer at 500 riel (20 cents) per kilogram,' he said. The cash-strapped Cultural Ministry provides no funds for operation of the museum, so sales from the droppings are used to buy flashlight batteries for the guards and brooms for cleaning, Keo explained. While the bat problem was being solved, Millikan and Keo decided to tackle the flooded basements. 'There were pyramids of artifacts in the basements covered in dust and water and crawling with rats, spiders and scorpions,' Millikan said. Amid the chaos and dusty light of the basements, Millikan found 120 well-packed, unopened wooden crates. Filled with rare artifacts, the boxes had been rushed by road from ancient temple sites around the country as war escalated and security declined in 1970-71. 'The boxes were handed over to the museum and the royal palace by the government and the Far Eastern School for safe-keeping...only months before the Khmer Rouge moved into Siem Reap,' Millikan said. The museum director's requests for permission to open the boxes -- 25 years later -- have not been approved by the Cultural Ministry. 'Prince Sereyvuth Pannara, state secretary of culture, told us to wait for one year more because the security is still not good,' the director said. While the boxes remain firmly shut, shelving has been built for other artifacts to be stored above the wet-season flood level. Photographic and computer records of the museum's collections are being established. The museum has maintained its reputation as a sanctuary for rare art objects and more than 400 works, including massive stone heads from the northern Angkor Wat temple complex, were brought to the museum in the last year for safekeeping against thieves and illegal exporters. Plans are in place for more international exhibitions of precious Khmer artifacts and statues to further celebrate and advertise the museum's revival, Keo said. The next is planned for 1996 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. release at will