LOUISE Cort looked on as a brush was swept over the outstretched arms of the bronze figure before her.
“It’s beautiful,” she marvelled, gazing at the centuries-old crowned Buddha and its intricately detailed hands.
When Cort had last seen the piece, it was weathered by age, and its arms had been severed. But in recent months a team of conservators at the National Museum has painstakingly reattached the missing pieces, making it look as though the statue had never been broken apart in the first place.
Beyond undoing damage, the conservators’ work also allowed the full meaning of the statue to be revealed. The crowned Buddha stood with its palms facing outward, its fingertips stretching to the sky: “Do not fear,” the Buddhist gesture of protection proclaimed.
The piece, which dates from the 12th century, is one of 36 bronze treasures the National Museum has loaned to the Smithsonian Institution for a major exhibition opening later this month in Washington.
The exhibition, titled “Gods of Angkor”, will showcase more than Cambodia’s art; it is also a stage for the country’s new generation of museum conservators, who have been tasked with preserving some of Cambodia’s key archaeological heritage pieces.
Though a generation of conservators was lost during the Khmer Rouge period, the last decade has seen a new crop emerge to take its place in the National Museum’s Metal Conservation Laboratory.
“The exhibition is going to introduce the laboratory to the world,” said Cort, the curator for ceramics at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution and the upcoming exhibition’s co-curator.
The laboratory was launched in 2005 as part of a training partnership with the Freer and Sackler Galleries. The Smithsonian exhibition marks the first time works that have been conserved completely independently by the laboratory will be shown internationally.
“This is our heritage. This is our culture,” said Huot Samnang, who heads the laboratory. “If we just let it go without preserving it, it would be terrible for the younger generations.”
Huot Samnang is a member of the new batch of homegrown museum professionals who have honed their skills here.
“After the war, there were mainly foreigner conservators and just a few Cambodian ones,” Huot Samnang said. “But now we’ve had a really good opportunity to study conservation. We can run the lab and do the conservation ourselves. Step by step, we’re becoming self-sufficient. We can preserve our own culture by ourselves.”
The exhibition’s curators are also touting it as the first international show to focus specifically on Khmer bronze casters, whose works are not as recognised internationally compared with those of other Asian countries, Cort said.
“We want to show Angkorian bronze casting, which is relatively unknown to the world at the moment,” Cort said.
“It has not been presented in the US in the same way as bronzes from India, Korea, Thailand and China.”
And although the world may be familiar with the structures of ancient Angkor, Cort said pieces chosen for this exhibition will provide a glimpse of the daily life that took place inside the temples, with objects such as incense burners and bronzes modelled after human beings, rather than only deities, sharing space with holy objects like the crowned Buddha.
“The word Angkor is a word many people recognise now,” she said. “What they’re seeing there is the stone monuments. This exhibition displays the objects meant to be inside those buildings.”
Hab Touch, the National Museum’s former director who oversaw the rise of the laboratory, sees the Smithsonian exhibition as a sign that Cambodian professionals are well-equipped to safeguard the Kingdom’s heritage.
“It is so important to train the new generation,” he said. “I’m so pleased to see that these young people are now becoming more active, and that the conservation lab is growing.”