Banteay Meanchey Museum has been open to local and international visitors and students for nearly 15 years. The museum displays ancient artefacts that were seized from smugglers at the Cambodian-Thai border or excavated from archaeological sites.
Cheng Vanna, deputy director of provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts who is in charge of the museum, said the museum has received many ancient artefacts from members of the armed forces and provincial authorities who have seized looted artefacts since the late 1990s.
He added that a large portion of the artefacts were moved to the museum from other provinces after they were seized by police from traders. When it was determined that the origin of the artefacts had been Banteay Meanchey, they then handed the objects over to the department.
Established in 2009 in cooperation with the government and partner organisations, the museum exhibits four kinds of ancient artefacts – sandstone objects, ancient carcasses, ceramics and wooden objects. Students who want to study the objects can be provided with a lot of additional knowledge.
“If the students are real learners, they will acquire knowledge of design, history and Khmer arts,” Vanna said.
He continued that in general, they had visited the museum on school trips rather than in their leisure, but the students taking tours will be instructed on the styles of carving, ceramics and whatever is known about the ancient objects.
The majority of the ceramics were handed over by the military after they raided a warehouse where they discovered 800 ancient ceramic objects.
Sitting on a chair surrounded by clay-made objects and fractured objects that were reassembled, Oeun Nayki talks about the different pieces of pottery excavated at Sophy and Kouk Treas graveyards that date back to the Iron Age, between 500 BC and 500 AD.
A contract official, Nayki has been working at the museum since 2016 as a repairer of ceramics.
“These artefacts have been excavated and reassembled to be exhibited in glass cases for the public and students to see for more than 10 years now,” she said.
Ky Panharith, deputy bureau chief for museums, said the province has three museums: Banteay Meanchey Museum located in Serei Saophoan town; Svay Chek Museum on the compound of the Svay Chek district hall where 326 ceramic pieces are kept; and Tepkaosa Snay Museum in Preah Netr Preah district, with around 100 ceramic pieces that are not yet fully studied.
He noted that there are 2,211 objects – 1,141 pieces of pottery and 876 other registrations – at the Banteay Meanchey Museum. There are a remaining small number of objects that are jointly registered together and stored in containers.
In addition to the three museums, the provincial culture department has a monument containing bones and 30 to 50 ceramic pieces in O’Chrou district.
“Literally, we don’t have any tour guides as yet. In terms of archaeology, I am the only one here, and there are two to three state officials and two to three contract officials. Our officials can give tours to students as well as visitors who have any questions. We do not have any foreign tour guides,” Panharith said.
The pottery is arranged on the top floor of the museum and is already categorised according to the period on the shelves.
“The pottery is stored at the top because it is easy for people to find, especially for students to study and research,” he said.
Some of the pottery is in good shape when it is found and some of it is broken into pieces, and it is necessary for a team to repair and reassemble it.
“It is hard to reassemble the pieces because they are fragile. We need to harden the pieces before we reassemble them. Certain objects have as many as 50 pieces. Certain materials were already joined but holes still remain,” he continued.
He also said that the team is looking for exact sources of the objects to see where and when they came from so it is easier to categorise them.
Some of the pottery was unearthed in ancient hillsides and in the graveyards. He added that in addition to the domestic pottery, the museum displays Chinese and Thai pottery that was unearthed in the graveyards. Those items were likely the result of trade between Khmer and those cultures.
He said the average number of visitors, who are mostly students, is between 300 and 400 per month. There are only four to five foreign visitors per month currently.
Independent researcher and writer Andy Brouwer said in a social media post that he wanted to encourage anyone visiting Serei Saophoan town to pay a visit to the museum.
“The museum works closely with local primary and secondary schools to give the younger generation an insight into Cambodia’s past with their heritage for children education programme, which is a great way to encourage a thirst for knowledge of their own history,” his post noted.
Vanna said most people were not aware of the museum and do not know that entry is free, including foreign visitors, though in the future they may request permission to sell tickets to foreign tourists, but it won’t be expensive and the proceeds will go towards the upkeep of the museum.
“Most visitors are interested in the excavated objects, such as the beads on display,” he said. “There are also four cabinets exhibiting skeletons that we unearthed in the graveyard in Sophy village and the excavation site in Banteay Chhmar. These skeletons are Khmer people from before the Angkorian period.”
He also said the objects that have been preserved until now were buried in the soil generally, as were the bodies – though those are not nearly as fragile as clay-made pottery.
Panharith said he encourages everyone, Cambodian and foreigner, to visit the museum and see its collection of ancient objects when they are in Serei Saophoan town.
Admission to Banteay Meanchey Museum is free for everyone and it is open from Monday to Friday during regular business hours.