Hue goes to town on its heritage

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Visitors to an exhibition featuring sculptor, painter Le Ba Dang's new creations at Le Ba Dang Art Museum in Hue last August. Dang, who was born in the province of Quang Tri in 1921, but has lived in France since 1939, decided to donate most of his works to Hue to be displayed at the museum, located at 15 Le Loi Street.

Hue Town in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue is famous for its historic and cultural antecedents, but major modern cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are home to more museums.

The former royal citadel, however, has shown it is second to none in  demonstrating its love and enthusiasm for arts and culture.
It has emerged as a pioneer in Vietnam in reserving most of its best structures and locations to build up different kinds of museums. It is perhaps the only locality in the country to do so.

In 1994, the local goverment opened the Diem Phung Thi Museum in a 83-year-old French-style palace located at 1 Phan Boi Chau Street in downtown of Hue.

The museum displays 386 artworks by Hue-born sculptor Diem Phung Thi.

Thi (1920-2002), whose name is listed in LaRousse Dictionary of 20th century arts, has 36 statues of hers placed around France, where she lived for almost 50 years (1940s-1990s), before choosing to spend the rest of her life creating new works in her hometown. She donated all her works to the local government when she passed away at the age of 82.

The town also opened a museum for sculptor, painter Le Ba Dang, who was born in the province of Quang Tri in 1921, but has lived in France since 1939.

Dang pursued an art career at the Ecole de Beaux Arts de Toulouse and is recognized as of Vietnam's most talented, famous artists, winning accolades for his blend of European and Far Eastern culture and philosophies in the arts.

Dang held his first solo exhibition in France when he was 29, and since then, has had his works displayed in several galleries and museums all over the world.

However, he decided to donate most of his works to Hue to be displayed at the Le Ba Dang Art Museum, 15 Le Loi Street, former home of the province's department of Posts and Telecommunications, since 2006.

Dang not only has full rights to display his works in the two-story,  1,417-square-meter white structure, but he has also been allowed to live with his wife on the second floor of the building.

Last April, the town also gave permission to antique collector Tran Dinh Son for opening its first private museum, featuring fine porcelain products from Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), in a renovated private house that belonged to Son's great grandfather, Tran Dinh Ba, who was a high-ranking mandarin.

The Nguyen Dynasty Porcelains Museum, located at 114 Mai Thuc Loan Street, is the 7th museum in Hue.

After 1975, the building was used as a tourist spot, a grocery store, and an office until 2012 when it was given back to Son's family to be restored as a cultural, tourism destination in the town.

"The museum has been my dream for a long time, to introduce to the public the culture and fine arts of the Nguyen Dynasty. The local government and I have spent VND4 billion (US$190,120) to restore the house to its original structure," said Son, whose wife Nguyen Hoang Anh is a famous chef of Hue's royal cuisine.

Early this year, the town decided to have the offices of its People's Council and People's Committee at 23-25 Le Loi Street house the Museum of Culture. This is expected to happen in the next few years.

Phan Tien Dung, director of the province's Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said: "Hue always gives top priority to arts and cultural heritage. It spends billion of dong and keeps its best locations to build museums for both native and non-native artists. This policy has been applied for many years."

Only in Hue

This policy, according to historian Duong Trung Quoc, makes "Hue unique and like no other place in Vietnam."

In contrast, Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is unable to arrange a place for an overseas Vietnamese, who had worked in the field of arts and education for the United Nations, to house his lifetime collection.

The capital city has also turned down the request of the wife of late musician Van Cao, who composed Vietnam's national anthem, to convert her husband's apartment into a cultural destination for tourists.

Like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City also has a poor cultural sensitivity record.

Culturist Vuong Hong Sen (1902-1996) donated his antique collection and his precious old house to the city when he passed away at the age of 94.

Since then the city has done nothing to protect and preserve this historical site from degradation. Instead, it even lost some of the antiques when they were moved out of the house to be kept at another local museum.

Hue researcher Ho Tan Phan says, "It is not by accident that Hue has such many museums. It was the former capital of Vietnam, with several palaces, temples, and ancient houses. Now it is a festival town.

"Hue people also love the arts and are nostalgic," said Phan, a retired teacher.

"Many artists were born in Hue, including the renowned Trinh Cong Son and poet Thanh Hai. As a result, cultural preservation is a top priority here. This explains the number of museums in town."

However, according to director Dung, there is till much to do to maintain the local museums.

Recently, the Diem Phung Thi Museum was criticized for not showing her  works to the public.

Many items in the Thua Thien-Hue Museum of History and Revolution have been damaged because they were exposed to sunlight for a long time.

Dung said the province is renovating the Diem Phung Thi Museum at the cost of VND2.2 billion ($104,564). The foundation of the two-story building as well as its garden will be raised 45 centimeters higher to protect the works from flooding during the storm season, and to have more outdoor space to display Thi's collections. The museum will be reopened by the end of July.

"Hue's museums are very promising and help us attract tourists. We understand that it is necessary to preserve and promote our heritage.

"Hue itself is a living museum."

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