In Which the Head Meets the Body

Via an anonymous tip, I read this article in the Independent about a strange happening at the Musée Guimet in Paris involving a statue of one of Shiva's wives (whose name is unspecified). The headless statue, which had been recovered from the Bakong temple in Cambodia in 1935, was reunited with its head after nearly six hundred years.

The temple was built in 881, during the Khmer dynasty, and is one of many ancient Hindu temples scattered around Southeast Asia (today, the vast majority of Cambodians are Buddhists). The statue was decapitated in 1431, though exactly why or who did it I do not know. The body of the statue came to Paris in 1935, and the head remained in the museum affixed to the nearby Angkor Wat, Cambodia's most famous tourist attraction.

The reunification of head and body happened completely by accident. John Gunther Dean, an ambassador to Cambodia in the 1970s, known for protecting Cambodian art from the Khmer Rouge, decided to give the museum a present from his personal collection:

To thank the museum, Mr Dean, now 80, offered a gift from his own collection of ancient Khmer artefacts. Last month, the gift arrived, the sculpted head of a woman found at the Bakong temple site in 1939.

"I asked him for a Khmer head because we only had headless statues but I didn't think for a moment about a possible match," said Pierre Baptiste, the museum's curator for south-east Asian art.

"I brought the head into our [Cambodian] hall looking for a place that it could be exhibited," said M. Baptiste. "I had a sudden notion the two pieces resembled each other but then thought, 'no, things never happen that way'.

"I put the head on the statue's shoulders. It shifted a few millimetres. I heard the little click that you get when two stones fit together and the head fell perfectly into place. It was as if it had put itself together. I still get goose-bumps thinking about it." (link)

It's a great story, but it gives me goosebumps for a slightly different reason from the one curator Pierre Baptist experienced, as it reminds me that so many priceless ancient artifacts from from Asia are in westen museums. Indeed, the most likely place where the head of this statue could re-find its body is in one of the big 'Oriental' museums in Paris, London, or New York -- not Cambodia itself.

My own local Philadelphia Museum of Art has an entire Hindu temple (ca. 1550) from Tamil Nadu installed in a permanent exhibition (see here). It's a beautiful exhibit with amazing stone sculptures, and I'm not at all sure it would be preserved as nicely in India itself -- but it's still a little sad to visit it in this context, right next to the similarly-dislocated authentic 19th century Japanese tea-house.

Despite the absence of some major components, these temples are of course still major tourist attractions in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is world-famous, as is, more recently, Ta Prohm (where portions of Tomb Raider were filmed a few years ago). But imagine what they would be like if all the statues and friezes that are currently sitting in western museums were returned to their source!

Of course, this is hopelessly idealistic. The majority of the artifacts in the big European and American museums were acquired legally at the time they entered these museums' collections. And it's hardly likely those museums would agree to give back artifacts worth countless millions merely out of the goodness of their hearts.

Since restoration of the stolen relocated artifacts is impossible, I might propose a conceptual art project to draw attention to the incongruity. Careful replicas of statues like the recently fixed Bakong wife of Shiva should be made, and installed at the sites where they were found. Then a sign should be placed out front that reads as follows: "Welcome to Bakong. You are now entering a replica of the Hindu temple at Bakong. Everything of value from this site has been dismantled and relocated to Paris, London, and New York. Enjoy your visit!"

[X-Posted at SM]