I’m not the type of tourist who wants to see every museum that a place has to offer, but I do love to go and spend a couple of hours walking around an art or natural history museum. Often when going to a new museum there is so much to see that I get overwhelmed. One of my favorite ways to slow down and appreciate what’s in front of me (instead of worrying about trying to see everything) is to bring a sketchbook or journal and take some time for focused observation.
On our first day in Cambodia, my sister and I walked to the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The museum houses a collection of Khmer cultural material including sculpture, ceramics and ethnographic objects from the prehistoric, pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods. It has perhaps the best selection of free-standing Khmer sculpture in Cambodia since much of the sculpture left at the temples have been looted or degraded from exposure.
Drawing and sketching sculpture can be really fun and I highly recommend trying it. I am not sure why I enjoy it so much—maybe because the forms are so dimensional (obviously) but also because it’s fun to draw someone else’s artistic interpretation. I find that drawing sculpture also helps me to notice details I wouldn’t have otherwise. In these sketches it seemed like I noticed a lot more phallic objects then I did at first glance.
Something else I really loved about the National Museum was the architecture and the floor plan. The whole museum had giant windows and doors that opened onto a central courtyard. This was nice since it was our first day in 90 degree heat. It felt good to sit in the shade by the pools and get a break from the intense sun. The museum also has the classic Khmer roof design and decoration.
The National Museum was closed and abandoned from 1975-1979 during the years of Khmer Rouge control. When it was reopened a colony of bats had to be removed and much of the roof was rotten. They also lost most of their staff in the genocide. However, it is a welcoming and rich place to visit today and they have been able to recover multiple lost cultural artifacts from around the world that were looted from Cambodia. The museum states that one of their achievements is:
“Playing an active role in the restitution and subsequent care of looted artifacts. Supported by the efforts of UNESCO’s International Council of Museums (ICOM) and their Publications One hundred missing objects: Looting in Angkor, eight objects have been successfully returned to Cambodia since 1996. A further two are currently under investigation. Some of the pieces have been returned by private individuals while others have come from international institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Honolulu Academy of Arts.”
You can learn more about the National Museum of Cambodia on their website.
Also before you plan to bring your sketchbook to a museum it is wise to check and see if they allow it. Most museums do, but many also prefer you to only use dry media, like pencils.