The gallery displaying the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of ancient Cambodian sculptures is a clean, well-lit space. Visitors serenely contemplate the art, disturbed only by the occasional footsteps of a guard and the soft woosh of air-conditioning. But Cambodia says that at least 45 artworks in the Metropolitan’s collections were illicitly dug from temple sites by looters and then smuggled out of the country.
Visitors might sympathize with the museum’s reluctance to hand over the art to Cambodia. Won’t it be safer and better preserved in a prestigious museum? Won’t more people visit New York to see this glorious part of humanity’s shared history? As a cultural heritage lawyer, I believe Cambodia has the legal right to reclaim its stolen art regardless of the answer to these questions. But my recent visit to the country showed me that New Yorkers needn’t worry when they say goodbye to the sculptures.
Visiting the temple sites from which the artworks were stolen could not be more different than strolling through the museum. As I wandered the halls of Angkor Wat temple complex and climbed the seven-tiered pyramid at Koh Ker this summer, my shirt was soaked in rain and sweat, my shoes were red with mud, and my pant cuffs fringed with hooked seeds from the vegetation continually trying to creep a little closer to the ruins. Sometimes, the soundtrack to my visits was the conversation in many languages of other tourists. At more remote sites, I heard bells tinkling around the necks of grazing cattle or the crinkling hiss a column of ants makes on its way through the forest. Unlike the scentless museum, I could always smell the trees, with occasional whiffs of the incense lit by Cambodians as an offering to the spirits many believe still reside in these sacred sites.
Getting caught in a crowd of other visitors at Angkor Wat helped me imagine the massive festivals for which these temple complexes were built. Even at the less-trafficked site of Koh Ker, the fragments of pottery that cover the ground near the temples tell of the thousands of people who once brought offerings there. You can bend down and put your fingers in the grooves in the clay that a potter made with their fingertips a thousand years ago.
Of course, New Yorkers find it easier to catch a subway to the Metropolitan Museum than a plane to Cambodia. (By contrast, the relative ease of obtaining a tourist visa for Cambodia and the country’s low cost of living make the reverse true for most of the rest of the world.) You might think it’s a good thing we can learn about Cambodian antiquities, even if in a different setting. But a gallery with sculptures isolated on their own pedestals gives the visitor a false picture of the art.
The sculptures were originally placed in elaborate complexes, surrounded by hundreds of other carved and painted images. Together, they told the enthralling stories of Cambodian mythology and history. The details of each individual figure are exquisite, but seeing it alone is like looking at a single frame from a film.
Take, for example, two 10th-century sculptures the Metropolitan Museum returned to Cambodia in 2013 after Cambodian authorities gathered evidence to prove that looters dug them up from a temple at Koh Ker and sold them to Douglas A. J. Latchford, who would later be charged with extensive trafficking in stolen Cambodian antiquities. If you saw them in New York, you would have thought the sculptures represented nameless “kneeling attendants,” as the labels read. But now, reunited with other sculptures from the same group, the figures have regained their stolen identities. They are the twin brothers Nakula and Sahadeva in an episode from the Mahabharata epic, tensely waiting to see who will win a fight to the death between the warriors Bhima and Duryodhana.
Many of the sculptures Cambodia now wants returned also passed through Latchford’s hands. But, you might ask, what about preservation? Will the sculptures be repatriated only to crumble away from neglect? If you visit the temples, you will see Cambodian workers performing the constant, careful tasks required to keep the sites from disappearing under dirt and vegetation. Workers float in small boats in the moats surrounding the temple walls, pulling up the weeds that threaten to choke them. They sweep floors and dust sculptures. Archeological and engineering experts monitor and stabilize the architecture.
Cambodians aren’t just motivated to preserve their heritage out of national pride or appreciation for its aesthetic or spiritual qualities. They also know that preservation is financially necessary to keep tourism revenues, which reached almost $5 billion in 2019, flowing. Many Cambodians make their living from these visitors: guiding them, staffing hotels, and cooking food and selling souvenirs at the sites.
In the dark, economically desperate days under the Khmer Rouge, some Cambodians were unable to resist the money offered by Latchford and others to loot the temples. But for decades now, tourism has allowed Cambodians to resume their role as guardians of the sites, continuing a tradition that kept them undisturbed for centuries. Now, the biggest temptation to potential thieves is probably the sight of galleries like the Metropolitan’s, which demonstrate that foreigners can still buy, sell, and donate Cambodia’s cultural heritage with little fear of prosecution.
In 2019, nearly 6.5 million people visited the Metropolitan Museum. But the museum can’t even claim superiority in numbers, since over 6.6 million tourists went to Cambodia the same year. Their visits benefitted a still-recovering population — and taught them more about art and history than a display of isolated, stolen artifacts ever could.
I love spending a calm afternoon in a hushed gallery, marveling at the skill of ancient artists. But I could have the same experience if the Metropolitan Museum’s Cambodian gallery were filled with high-quality replicas. Cambodia is a far better place for the originals, whose repatriation will benefit not just Cambodians, but all of us.