In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge seized power, the National Museum of Cambodia, under the care of director Ly Vou Ong, was closed with its collections abandoned. Upon the museum’s reopening in 1979 in the aftermath of the dictatorship, only seventy-three silk textiles and a costume collection of about thirty pieces were recovered. Three-quarters of this collection had disappeared due to environmental issues and looting. Most of the pre-1975 staff had died, resulting in a significant loss of knowledge about the museum’s history and objects.
Due to the lack of comprehensive photographic records for each piece and the unstable inherent qualities of textiles (portable, fragile, easy to hide and copy), it appears nearly impossible to track the looted objects in other museums or private collections. However, catalogues, inventories and sets of datasheets pre-dating 1970 provide substantial evidence of these pieces and their acquisition. This paper argues that in addition to studying and preserving what was salvaged, examining missing artefacts through archival and photographic evidence sheds a more comprehensive light on the value and specificity of the museum’s textile heritage formed through successive curatorial teams from the 1920s to the late 1960s. This research especially explores the importance of paper records as invaluable data to bring new meanings about the history of the collection, as well as physical objects. Through their tactile, textual quality, they act as placeholders in which are inscribed the curator’s choices and the textiles’ material memory. Focusing on the transience of this textile collection opens theoretical and methodological ways to materialise the rich diversity of textile craftsmanship pre-1970 (motifs, styles, techniques) and critically examine further the destructive nature of the Khmer Rouge regime and civil war.
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