by Trung Hieu Tuan Hoang
Many of Viet Nam's artistic treasures are locked away in museums, and do not receive the proper care and protection they deserve.
A friend called me last week and said: "You should visit the HCM City General Science Library, they have three lacquer paintings there by famous painter Nguyen Gia Tri."
At the library, when I asked a clerk sitting at the information desk where the paintings were, she smiled and replied: "This is a library, not an art museum so we have no paintings. You may be mistaken!"
Finally, after I insisted, she directed me to two reading rooms on the second floor where I found the paintings hung on the walls.
Another art lover, Pham Hiep, also had a similar experience. He has visited the library on numerous occasions over the years, but had no idea that it was hiding these treasures.
The paintings are known as Hoai Niem Xu Bac (Nostalgia to the Northern Land), Truu Tuong (Abstract) and Mua Duoi Trang (Dancing under the Moonlight).
"When I asked some young librarian about the paintings, they didn't seem to know about the works or the painter. After exploring the reading room, I found two hung in the main area, and another hidden in the businessmen's reading room, hardly good locations for people to enjoy their beauty," said Hiep.
I checked what he said and it was true. All three paintings are located in inconvenient positions for viewers, without any notes about the author, their names, or the history and artistic values they represent.
On a similar note, I visited the National History Museum at 25 Tong Dan Street in Ha Noi, where I saw a statue of Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, a rarity that was created 356 years ago. The statue has a sophisticated design, with 1,000 hands and eyes, and is the only statue among the ancient Buddha statues in Viet Nam that chronicles the year it was made and its creator.
While I was enjoying the art work that preserves the skills of the forefathers, I noticed a ceiling fan spinning above the statue, and was worried that if the fan fell it would destroy the precious artefact.
Among the lacquer paintings by Nguyen Gia Tri hung in the HCM City General Science Library, Abstract has been reduced to practically a black board, and the gold laminated detail on Dancing under the Moonlight has been worn away.
Ly Bich Ngoc, a fine arts researcher, said regretfully: "The curators should have used feather dusters, but they cleaned the two paintings with wet towels. These two paintings need immediate restoration before the lacquer layer is completely ruined."
Luckily, Nostalgia to the Northern Land is still almost intact, maybe because it hung high on the wall and has escaped the wet towels!
The Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum now stores nearly 20,000 items which typify the country's fine arts history.
However, many of the 6,000 paintings that are housed at the museum are in danger of degradation.
Over the past years, the museum has restored dozens of precious paintings, but this is just a small number compared to the thousands of paintings that are degrading rapidly.
In addition to the impacts of the environment, especially high temperatures and humidity, domestic and foreign experts concluded that it was because showrooms and stores used ceiling fans and open doors and windows to save electricity, in stead of using air-conditioning!
Open doors and windows and spinning ceiling fans are a common scene in most of the 138 museums in Viet Nam.
The preservation of artefacts in museums is done in two ways: preventive maintenance (slow down degradation or prevent the risk of damage to artefacts); and therapy maintenance (restoration of damaged artefacts). However, most museums in HCM City can only implement the first way, with air conditioning, light meters and humidity meters for storage facilities, along with fumigation and chemicals to combat termites and mould.
And a lack of experts makes it difficult to put these methods into practice.
Ba Trung Phu from the Viet Nam History Museum branch in HCM City warned that the ancient Cham books kept in the museum were being destroyed by termites, but staff were unable to clean them due to a lack of equipment and knowhow.
This seems to be the general situation in the country's museums at the moment, and the state of artefacts on display outdoors is even more alarming.
The War Evidence Museum now faces difficulties in preserving aircraft, tanks, artillery and bombs to cope with the impacts of the environment.
Its director, Huynh Ngoc Van, said: "The items will quickly rust or damage if we don't build suitable platforms for them, and we have already had to ask military experts to help."
At a recent seminar regarding the preservation of artefacts in HCM City, held by the local Department of Culture, Information and Tourism, Le Thi Minh Ly from the Cultural Heritage Department said: "The preservation of artefacts and documents in the City's museums do not meet the necessary standards and requirements. Local museums have no specialised staff and laboratories to test and treat the items."
Pierre Baptiste, a South East Asia arts expert from the Guimet Museum (France), has visited most of the country's museums. He was an expert of a project funded by the French Government to improve and modernise five museums including the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, the Cham Sculpture Museum in Da Nang, Dak Lak Museum, the Viet Nam History Museum, and the War Evidence Museum in HCM City.
He recalled: "At the Cham Sculpture Museum, most of the stone sculptures were attached to the walls, and hot and humid air had affected them badly. While we were implementing the project, we had to detach them from the walls and reposition them following modern exhibition methods."
When I told him about the examples I had seen, he said: "Oh my God, why are these happening in Viet Nam's museums?" — VNS