Cleveland, Ohio (May 11, 2015, updated May 12, 2015) – The Cleveland Museum of Art has voluntarily returned a 10th-century Cambodian stone sculpture of Hanuman to the Kingdom of Cambodia and has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding concerning cultural cooperation with the National Museum of Cambodia—the first such agreement between the National Museum and an American museum.
The return of the Hanuman and the signing of the Memorandum were officially recognized in ceremonies held May 12 in Cambodia attended by the Director of the Museum, Dr. William M. Griswold and many Cambodian and foreign dignitaries, including representatives of the United States Embassy in Phnom Penh. At the ceremony for the Hanuman, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An awarded Dr. Griswold the medal of the Royal Order of Grand Officer of Sahametrey, the highest order that Cambodia awards to foreigners. With the return of the Hanuman and the signing of the Memorandum, the museum and Cambodia celebrate a new era in cultural relations.
In his remarks at the signing ceremony, Dr. Griswold said, “Imbued as they are with immense cultural significance, great works of art are also great ambassadors. …By its very nature, art unites us. It promotes tolerance and understanding. That is a function of each of our personal relationships with works of art. But art also forges connections among people. I can think of no better example than the process that culminated in the return of the Hanuman.”
The Memorandum of Understanding provides a framework for cooperative activities, including sharing best practices, joint projects, studies and technical assistance. In addition, the National Museum will provide consultation and guidance to the Cleveland Museum of Art with respect to loans from Cambodia of works of art for exhibition in Cleveland. Dr. Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, is already working with her Cambodian colleagues at the National Museum to identify specific projects and loans.
T His Excellency Chan Tani, Secretary of State of Cambodia, expressed his government’s appreciation for the return of the sculpture and the opportunity that it will provided for reuniting the various sculptures once located at Prasat Chen. He added that “The voluntary return of the Hanuman demonstrates the Cleveland Museum of Art’s sensitivity to the importance of Koh Ker to the Cambodia people.”
Commenting on the cultural cooperation agreement, the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, said, “The Memorandum of Understanding between the National Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art is our first with an American museum providing for reciprocal collaboration and technical assistance. We look forward to many years of working with our friends in Cleveland and to increasing knowledge outside Cambodia about the wonders of our culture.” Kong Vireak, Director of the National Museum, added “I look forward to working with our American colleagues to identify specific projects, many of which we have already discussed, that I know will be of benefit to our museum and to visitors to Cleveland.”
Dr. Griswold also commented that: “Our discussions with Secretary of State Chan Tani, Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona and all the other Cambodian officials with whom we worked were extremely amicable. The return of the Hanuman will facilitate Cambodia’s plans to reconstruct a most important Khmer temple and paved the way for future cooperation between the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Cleveland Museum of Art. We look forward to continuing and enhancing the excellent relations we have with the government of Cambodia and with the National Museum.”
The museum acquired the sculpture of Hanuman—a figure with a human body and the head and tail of a monkey who is one of the main characters in the Hindu epic The Ramayana—in 1982 from the late Robert H. Ellsworth, a dealer in New York City. He acquired the sculpture from the estate of Christian Humann, whose collection was known as the Pan-Asian Collection. In 1977, the sculpture was published in the catalogue of the landmark exhibition entitled Sensuous Immortals: A Selection of Sculpture from the Pan-Asian Collection, and it traveled with that exhibition to four museums in the United States. Since its acquisition by the museum, the sculpture has been widely published and almost continuously on display in Cleveland.
In 2013, after a scholarly article and related newspaper reports suggested that the Cleveland Hanuman may once have been part of a sculptural tableau in the east gate of the temple complex known as Prasat Chen at the massive site of Koh Ker, a former capital of the Khmer empire, the museum undertook new research into the provenance of the sculpture. In January 2014, Dr. Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, went to Prasat Chen, other sites at Koh Ker, museums and storage facilities throughout Cambodia, and the offices of APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) in Siem Reap to investigate reports that archeologists had discovered the pedestal of the Cleveland Hanuman. In addition, she met with Cambodian officials and archaeologists in an effort to obtain more information about the provenance of the sculpture. Although that work did not lead to the discovery of physical evidence linking the Hanuman to Prasat Chen, Dr. Quintanilla continued to pursue her research over the course of the next eleven months. During that time, she discovered that the head and the body of the sculpture had been offered for sale in Thailand in 1968 and 1972, respectively.
By December 2014, Dr. Quintanilla had gathered enough information to satisfy the museum’s director, Dr. William M. Griswold, that the sculpture had in all likelihood belonged to the east gate of Prasat Chen. Dr. Griswold informed the leadership of the Board of Trustees who authorized him to initiate discussions with the Cambodian government concerning the return of the Hanuman. Dr. Griswold then contacted officials in Cambodia and arranged to go to Phnom Penh in February 2015 to discuss the museum’s findings as well as ways that the museum might work more closely with Cambodia. While in Phnom Penh, Dr. Griswold was shown the results of the new excavations at the east gate of Prasat Chen carried out under the auspices of the Cambodian government in June of 2014 that linked the sculpture to the site.
While the government of Cambodia agrees that the museum’s acquisition of the work in 1982 was entirely proper, the museum determined that the facts represent a unique set of circumstances that justified offering to return the sculpture to Cambodia. The Hanuman’s return will help in the recovery of Cambodia’s culture after decades of hardship and will permit the government of Cambodia to reconstruct the tableaus from the western and eastern gates of Prasat Chen. ”
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