Cultural Identity/ Theam’s House

One of the biggest markers during my internship was the cultural identity of Cambodia. Loven works in both in tourism and in private design work, so knowing and understanding the cultural and artistic identity of Cambodia play big roles in his work. As a General manager of Riversoul hotel, he has to know many different faces of his city, depending on what kind of vacation his guests want to have. One of my jobs was to research new and emerging places of interest in Siem Reap to suggest to clients. We visited two different museums after his request to find more local culture spots to offer his clientele: the Textile Museum and Theam’s House.

The first was a relatively newer museum that had been commissioned by the Indian government. Museum-style in Cambodia is very different from what we’re used to in western style. There are guides that walk you through the gallery and give information and answer questions on the different displays. It creates an intimate experience and allows guests additional insight. The museum was a gift of the Indian government and covered textiles from across Southeast Asia. Of course, the two biggest features were from both India and Cambodia. In Cambodia, silk production is a key industry, and farmers will plant hectares of land with the different trees that the silkworms like to eat. One of the most incredible things I learned was about the Ikat dyeing technique: workers dye the silk before you weave it together, starting first with the lighter dye and tying intricate knots to section off threads. The workers keep adding darker colors until the coloring is done, and then they weave the final results together. It’s painstaking and difficult, but the results are beautiful tapestries and rugs with rich colors (albeit a bit dull, given that most of the dyes are all natural, instead of chemical-based). While we were there, Loven requested I take notes on improvements. He wanted opinions as a foreign guest, but also from an interior design standpoint. We agreed on both methods: the museum was wonderful in content, but it was poorly laid out. It didn’t use the layout of the building to the best advantage, and the exhibits, while informative, lacked a logical flow. In the end, I recommended that the museum wasn’t the caliber that Loven wanted for his guests.

One of my favorite places we visited was Theam’s house. Loven has been longtime friends with the owner of the gallery, Lim May Theam, a natural born Cambodia that had returned from France after fleeing the Khmer Rouge when he was nine. Theam, as an artist, was haunted by the trauma of his childhood. His gallery contains a reproduction of his childhood kitchen, and most of his artworks are rooted in the effects of the Khmer Rouge. His two biggest exhibitions were based on the effect of his refugee experience. One of the reasons Theam has achieved commercial success as an artist was his parade of Terra-cotta Elephants. They were brightly painted, a gradient rainbow all in a line. Theam created them after remembering smashing the Terra-cotta Elephants, getting the little money his family had hidden away there to flee his home. They are lacquered, and throughout Siem Reap’s businesses — hostels, hotels, restaurants — you can often find his elephants on display. His other main projects involve huge lacquer portraits. Theam’s family had been lacquerware masters: after the Khmer Rouge, which killed off most of the artists and intellectuals, the art form had been lost. Theam now has a studio that teaches the form, his students going on to create works for modern Wats and open their own business. Theam’s own portraits often feature portraits, his largest collection taking the profiles from photos of the Khmer Rouge victims, placed in modern day settings: what could have been.

One of the reasons we went to revisit Theam was a recent expansion. He always expands his gallery and had recently added a musical section to the gallery, which Loven wanted to see so that he could advise his customers. It featured a stage, but more prominently, an exhibit called the Sounds of Angkor. Here, Theam had displayed a recently revived instrument, a harp from the 7th century that historians had found on several reliefs around the temples. From the depictions, they researched the materials — animal horn, snakeskin, animal hide — and recreated the instrument. They studied how they believed it would be played, and have been reteaching the instrument. Theam commissioned a stage to be built so they can have performances with traditional Khmer instruments.

I loved looking at the museums and galleries in a new light. Loven helped guide my suggestions, but he said to look at it from multiple angles, both objective and subjective. It was fantastic learning both about the tourism industry, interior design and museum theory, and learning how to write proper proposals for suggestions for clientele and how to improve a tourist experience from both a design and business standpoint. The biggest thing that I appreciated, especially as an international studies major, was the consideration put about the mix of cultures. Loven and the places we visit put an emphasis on Khmer culture, but also considering the different types of clients that visit, both their cultures, what they are typically interested in, and how to best convey the information in ways that will both appeal and help them to best understand the country they are visiting.

One thought on “Cultural Identity/ Theam’s House

  • August 29, 2018 at 10:27 am
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    Hi Ryley,

    My name is Josh Lee, and I am one of the coaches at the LSA Opportunity Hub. Thanks for posting all of your entries – while I would have loved to comment on your blogs throughout your experience, I’m glad that I was able to catch these towards the end!

    A common theme across most of your blogs that I am noticing is the effect that culture and its various forms has on the world of work. International experiences can be such an eye-opening, perspective-shifting experience in that our notions of “normal”, “professional”, and even our idea of “success” are constantly challenged. There are few experiences that equip you with the sort of underlying, foundational cultural competencies you need to succeed in our increasingly connected and global world than the one that you got the opportunity to participate in.

    With Loven and yourself both not being native Cambodians, what were some of the more nuanced difficulties in navigating this type of work? Did you notice Loven taking special care to do some research on the culture before getting started, or was it more of an organic process of making mistakes and rectifying them as you went? Did you feel like you did well in considering the outsize role that culture can play in your decision-making process, or were there some gaps that you need to consider for future opportunities? When we are in a new place, the most obvious difficulty that crops up is language. However, the vast majority of our communication is done non-verbally, and those cues changes across cultures as well! Did you notice some behaviors that you needed to adjust with this in mind?

    I’m glad that this experience was a multifaceted, fully immersive one for you. If you’d like to unpack more of it in person, feel free to stop by the Hub!

    -Josh

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