Story: Nguyen H. H. Duyen
Photos: E FEO, Ly Hoa Binh, Paisarn Piemmettawat

The Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang is celebrating its centennial

Occupying a humble spot on the west bank of the Han River, the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang is one destination tourists just cannot miss. With architectural details that resemble Cham temples and towers, this charming building gathers over 400 unique stone sculptures that testify to the pinnacle of the Buddhist-Hindu arts from the golden age of the Champa kingdoms in Central Vietnam. After many historical ups and downs, the museum, which opened in April 1919, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

The facade of the Cham Museum of Tourane as designed by Auclair. 1915. (EFEO archives)

A statue garden

The establishment of the Museum of Cham Sculpture was initiated by Charles Lemire (1839-1912), who sought to build a local museum to display and preserve stone sculptures. Appointed by the colonial government, he served as the French envoy at Qui Nhon, Vinh, Dong Hoi, Tourane (Da Nang) and Faifo (Hoi An) from 1881 to 1893. During his time living and working in Central Vietnam, he started to research the arts of Champa, expressed concern over the deterioration of Cham temples and towers, and began collecting stone sculptures from abandoned relic sites. In 1892, Mr. Lemire had 50 statues transported to Tourane Park, originally a high mound adjacent to a temple by the Han River. In 1893, a plan to build a museum was submitted to the authorities. In the following years, Mr. Lemire gathered many more artifacts, including a set of sculptures donated by Ms. Camille Paris from a plantation in Phong Le. Tourane Park was gradually transformed into a statue garden by Mr. Lemire. However, he passed away in 1912 when the project of building the museum remained unfinished.

Henri Parmentier and the Cham Museum of Tourane

Charles Lemire laid the first foundation for the development of a museum, and Henri Parmentier (1871-1949) was the one who inherited and realized his dream. Having graduated in architecture from the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, Mr. Parmentier started working for the French School of the Far East (EFEO) in Vietnam in 1900, with the task of surveying Cham relics in the central region.

Mr. Parmentier pursued the idea of building a local museum to exhibit and preserve Cham sculptures, instead of sending them to the Guimet Museum of Asian Art or elsewhere in France. In 1902, he began conceiving the “Cham warehouse project” to care for the artifacts Charles Lemire had gathered at Tourane Park since 1892, which were still exposed to harsh weather in the garden. But the proposal concerning the development of a Cham museum in Tourane put forward by the Department of Archeology of the EFEO was not approved due to financial constraints.

In 1908, Mr. Parmentier once again raised this project. In a report to the authorities, he demonstrated the feasibility of building a warehouse that could be used as a museum at a low cost, while pointing out the critical condition of those sculptures not properly preserved in temples and towers. In addition, he laid down the principles of artifact collection. It was not until 1914 that was agreed to grant funds for construction and appointed Mr. Parmentier as the project’s director.

The museum was built according to the designs of two French architects, Mr. Delaval and Mr. Auclair, guided by Mr. Parmentier’s comments. Work started in 1915 and finished in May 1916. In the following three years, Mr. Parmentier gave direct instructions on the display of the artifacts. In April 1919, the museum opened to the public, known as the Cham Museum of Tourane (Musée Cham de Tourane) at that time. However, on March 11, 1936, when the inauguration ceremony took place, the museum was renamed Musée Henri Parmentier to acknowledge this archaeologist’s efforts in  establishing this Cham art-archaeological museum.

A century has elapsed since its opening, and the Cham Museum of Tourane has been renamed and upgraded several times. Today, visitors refer to it as the Museum of Cham Sculpture or simply the Cham Museum. However, the people of Danang, who are long familiar with this museum, simply and endearingly call it the “Cham Ancient Institute”. The tree-lined pathways in the garden are no longer as intact as they were 100 years ago. The exhibition space has undergone great changes. Nevertheless, there are still traces of a serene garden and of the pioneers who founded a museum showcasing the artistic heritage of Champa.