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30 years after Khmer Rouge, killing fields, Cambodia grows new generation of art conservators

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Irwin Loy

(Read caption) Metals conservator Huot Samnang at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is part of a new generation of art conservators and educated professionals rising from the ashes of the Khmer Rouge, who, in the killing fields of the 1970s, killed most of the country's intellectuals and educated elite because they were considered a threat to the Maoist regime.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

In a side wing of Phnom Penh’s National Museum, Noeun Von is slowly bringing a piece of his culture back to life.

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He casts a cloth over a bronze Buddha, removing the dust that has settled on the figure. When this piece was first unearthed, the figure’s head had been detached from its body. But now the piece has been meticulously repaired, allowing the intricate details on the centuries-old bronze to be revealed.

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Mr. Von’s handiwork, and that of his colleagues in the five-year-old metals conservation laboratory, will be on display this year in the United States as part of “Gods of Angkor,” a major exhibition of the work of Khmer bronze casters hosted by the Smithsonian Institution.

More than a presentation of Cambodia’s precious art, however, the exhibition will also shine a spotlight on the skilled professionals working to preserve this country’s culture.

An entire generation of conservators was lost in the killing fields during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power in 1979, preservation of invaluable Khmer artifacts was left largely to the foreign conservators who ventured into the country. Slowly, however, that has changed.

Through a training partnership with the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, a new crop of young museum professionals has risen to replace the lost generation.

“We can run the lab and do the conservation by ourselves,” says Huot Samnang, who heads the laboratory. “Step by step, we’re becoming self-sufficient.”

The “Gods of Angkor” will display some of the first pieces preserved entirely by the laboratory – a series of seven bronze Buddhist images. It is of no small significance in a country where cultural identity is intertwined with its rich Angkorian heritage.

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“We feel proud of this exhibition,” Mr. Samnang says. “We can let the world know about our culture and the craftsmen that produced this incredible art.”