The Cham Museum:
Beauty and Heritage at Risk
by Nathan Lauer
The Kingdom of Champa, which flourished in central Vietnam from around the 7th to the 15th century, was the home of art and architecture unlike that found anywhere else. Drawing on influences from their Hindu-Buddhist religion as well as from Indonesia and the Khmer Empire, the Cham created a unique art tradition remarkable for its richness and individuality.
As Vietnam continues to grow and to become an increasingly important player on the world stage, the world will take greater notice of the art history of the Cham as well as other aspects of Vietnamese art and history. Now is the time to pay increased attention to conservation, preservation, and display both in order to encourage international appreciation for the works of the Cham as well as for the sake of the art itself.
One of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam, the Cham Museum is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in the central region. Housed in a wonderful example of early 20th century architecture, it provides the visitor with the rare opportunity to survey one of the most beautiful art traditions of the region, if not the world. It is also a tradition underrepresented in most of the world’s museums, which only enhances its status as a must see destination for anyone visiting Vietnam.
Most of the collection to be seen at the museum is in the form of Hindu – Buddhist sculpture in sandstone. Dating primarily to between the 8th and 14th century, these pieces represent the single greatest assemblage of Cham art in any museum in the world. Unfortunately, many of them are in crisis. Stone is not the indestructible material it seems to be, and erosion by wind and water, biological agents, mineral salts, and pollution all play a part in slowly turning it into the dirt and sand we see around us. Normally this takes a great amount of time, but recent increases in industrial activity, traffic, and tourism are combining to accelerate this process.
Sandstone is comparatively porous by its nature and has a matrix that is usually base or a little alkaline. This makes it somewhat soft, which is the very reason for its use in art. It is easy to carve, yet can hold detail. Some types are also able to achieve a certain degree of polish. Yet the very factors that made sandstone preferable for use by the Cham and other cultures make it particularly susceptible to damage, and the detail of sculpture can be easily lost. Following is a list of specific environmental hazards affecting the collection of the Cham Museum.
- Moisture: Moisture, whether directly in the form of rain or indirectly in the form of humidity, is the father of most of the hazards to sandstone art. Rain mechanically removes surface material and weakens the subsurface structure of the stone. Due to pollution, it is also acidic. Runoff brings with it mineral salts. The presence of general humidity and moisture encourage the growth of biologically erosive agents.
- Fungi and Lichens: These are particularly troublesome in a tropical area such as Vietnam. Both mechanically penetrate the rock with a pseudo root system (thallus and hyphae), and produce acidic compounds to assist in this.
- Bacteria: Autotrophic, heterotrophic, and cyano bacterium all have the potential to cause great harm to sandstone. They produce acidic compounds, and because of their small size, can penetrate deeply into the stone. As they form colonies, they expand and contract depending on environmental conditions, which mechanically weaken the stone and can cause cracking.
- Salts: Borne by air or water, nitrates and sulfates can contaminate stone. As the crystals form, they inherently expand, mechanically disrupting the matrix of sandstone. Sulfate salts also further increase the hydration of the stone.
- Pollution: Whether airborne or in the form of acid rain, pollutants cause both aesthetic and integral problems in sandstone sculpture. Sulfur and nitrogen oxides as well as carbon dioxide all form acidic compounds, particularly in the presence of humidity and moisture.
- Human touch: Beyond the mechanical erosion that repeated touching causes, human touch leaves behind acids, salts, and oils that stain and damage the surface of stone.
Each piece is different and has been exposed differently to the various hazards listed above. Because of this, the treatment of specific pieces will have to be considered individually by someone knowledgeable in the area of conservation. That being said, there are a number of relatively inexpensive actions that can be performed immediately to halt or slow the damage to the collection.
Moisture needs to be controlled. Displayed outside on the grounds of the museum are a number of valuable pieces that are essentially rotting away due to the combination of rain, organic infection, and pollution. Because the interior of the museum is already overcrowded and bringing them inside would no doubt be impractical, they need to be sheltered in some other fashion.
For the statues not attached to the building, small and inexpensive gazebo-like structures could be built in traditional style and at little cost. These would protect from the rain and much of the pollution, though the statues would still have to be cleaned and protected using other means. Anything that is on the ground needs to be displayed on pedestals to protect from runoff and other hazards.
There are also a number of architectural elements being stored outside. These should be warehoused elsewhere to protect them until a solution for their display is found.
Many statues have been attached to the building near doors as architectural decoration. These are subject to not only the rain, but runoff as well and they show increased damage because of it. These should be moved, or at least lifted from the ground and provided shelter from the rain. Moisture is also a problem inside of the museum. Not only can one see walls that are growing algae, but close inspection will note that some statues are soaked during the rainy season, and many more exhibit organic growth.
The presence of this moisture is due to both the climate and to flaws in the building. The humidity of the climate can’t be controlled, but we can avoid its affects uses various methods of cleaning and the use of specific coatings as needed. This should be determined with the assistance of someone experienced with conservation principles and techniques.
The moisture caused by leaks within the building ought to be controlled as soon as possible. From what can be readily seen, this is primarily a matter of fixing the roof and preventing water from flowing within the walls of the building. However, for pieces that are set within the walls, removing them and displaying them on pedestals instead should be strongly considered. It also may be less expensive in the short term than working on the building, depending on the nature of the structural problems.
There are some pieces being held in glass or acrylic display cases. These cases are not sealed, and sometimes the humidity collects to the point that one cannot see inside because of the condensation that develops. If they are made of acrylic, glass would be preferable, as acrylic is slightly moisture permeable. If the cases are made of glass, they need to be dried and desiccants added to absorb any remaining moisture. The regular maintenance of the desiccant used should prevent this problem in the future. It would be very inexpensive, and anhydrous calcium sulfate might be a good choice as it quite safe and easy to use and recycle.
Possibly more dangerous than moisture to the interior pieces is the matter of human contact. A number of pieces, including some of the most famous, are noticeably smoothed and oiled due to human contact. Tourists and tour guides alike regularly handle pieces, and even climb them. The damage we can see now will eventually get much worse, and some relics that currently appear unharmed will soon start to show damage as well.
Because of this, the handling of the Cham relics by tourists and tour guides needs to be curtailed. The signs used to warn against touching objects are virtually invisible, and new ones are needed. Security staff needs to be made aware of the importance of this. Tour guides have to be informed of this directly as well.
Part of the problem is also a matter of a certain degree of overcrowding. The collection of the museum is vast, and the display could easily be trimmed both to the benefit of the pieces and of the viewer. So many pieces in one place can be confusing to the eye. The trouble would be what to do with the pieces removed from display. It may be possible to create a program to increase the loaning of pieces to other museums, either in the West or elsewhere in Asia. This would not only take care of part of the storage problem, but provide “advertising” for both the Cham Museum as well as for Vietnam as a whole.
Built in 1915, the building was designed by the French using Cham influence to compliment the collection. Given the climate, the history of the last 60 years, and rapid development it is remarkable that the building still exists. The size and extent of the collection that the Museum holds is evidence of the dedication of the Vietnamese to the maintenance of their history and culture, a fact which should be noted when considering the difficulties presented in this article. While the tropical climate has combined with more recent socio-economic developments to present these problems, the fact that the Cham Museum has continued to exist for almost 100 years is an accomplishment worthy of respect, not to mention a visit to admire the remarkable artifacts within.
Famous Recumbant Vishnu/Birth of Brahma, second half 7th century, light touch damage
Corner detail, pedestal of main shrine from Dong Duong, 9th-10th century, more evidence of handling Winged adorant architectural element undocumented or labeled, circa 10th century
Ganesh, 8th century, one of the more famous pieces with obvious handling evidence
The above article and related images by Nathan Lauer © Nathan Lauer provided to Manner of Man Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the author and publisher.