One man’s obsession is another man’s museum

I wonder what the editor was thinking when he wrote the headline to the story. But yes, it almost seems as if the director of the Hoang Long Museum as a crazy-obsessed dude with a knack of spending every last cent in acquiring artefacts.

08 October 2007 (Viet Nam News [Link no longer active]) – I wonder what the editor was thinking when he wrote the headline to the story. But yes, it almost seems as if the director of the Hoang Long Museum as a crazy-obsessed dude with a knack of spending every last cent in acquiring artefacts.

Crazy guy digs up stuff, founds museum [Link no longer active]
by Dieu Thuy

“The museum will belong to society.”
That is the desire of Hoang Van Thong, director of the Hoang Long Museum in Thanh Hoa, one of three private museums in Viet Nam.

Established on November 31, 2006 in his hometown, the museum was considered the eccentric brainchild of an otherwise normal engineer. He was someone who spent all his days, efforts and desires acquiring each and every valuable thing in the museum, to the point of leading his family and relatives to believe that he might be losing his mind.

“I was brought into this profession by chance. I remember when I came to Dong Thinh District for a project at Thanh Hoa Youth Union. We discovered lots of ceramic dishes and bowls with zig-zag patterns on them buried where we were clearing land. I became afraid of them, knowing they were ancient artifacts with spiritual value.

“And I knew that if I didn’t bring them home, they would be stolen or destroyed by the construction,” Thong said.

When he brought the artefacts home, he told his wife they could sell them to earn money. “We were in a tough spot in our lives and it was hard to survive. My wife was working very hard to earn a living. But she also thought these things belonged to the dead and that it was harmful for me to bring them into the house,” he said.

In the end, he did not sell them. He stored the items carefully with other things he found later on. During his free time, he took them out and looked them over, always trying to find their origins through research and books.

“At first, I only wanted to know what the patterns meant, and what period they belonged to. But the more I read the more interested I became. I decided to start exploring.”

He began to spend all of his time and money trying to find items from the past. He searched all around Thanh Hoa trying to find the things he needed, as he heard the province was a place with many ancient items from various periods waiting to be unearthed. Now his museum displays many of the items he found during his explorations in the province, including stone axes, a bronze sword from The Dong Son period, and ceramic dishes from the Minh Dynasty.

Thong even went to Ca Mau to find a ceramic cup from the Nguyen period that some people caught while fishing.

“I paid nearly VND10 million (about US$620) for the cup. It was all the money I brought with me. This was also all the money that my family had at the time, so naturally my wife was very angry with me, knowing that I traded all that money for such a small little cup,” Thong said, smiling as he remembered.

He said that his family was going through many difficult times, and he always thought he would need to begin selling things in order to survive.

“But in the end I never sold anything. I worked hard at my primary job in construction in order to survive and keep my valuables.”

In addition to discovering ancient artefacts, Thong also grew over 200 valuable trees around his home, which were later transferred to the museum as part of an ancient Forest in the City.

He said that almost all the trees came from the highland provinces. His colleagues knew that he was interested in the trees, so whenever they returned from a place they would bring one back, always knowing what its origin was, how old it was, and what the tree was called. Thong considers the collection his spiritual son.

“Thanks to my friends, I have a large collection of beautiful trees that help bring a sense of life to my museum,” he said.

During the 20 years he has been searching for these treasures, Thong has had many unforgettable experiences.

He told one story about coming to the Thach Thanh District. He had heard of an old man who possessed an ancient bowl. When he arrived at the district, he tried to persuade the old man to show him his bowl.

“I offered to buy the bowl at a very steep price, but he refused to sell it to me. At the time, I was certain that he would never relinquish it because he seemed to love antiques as much as me. However, I talked with him several more times, and by the fifth time he agreed to give me the bowl. He asked me to take care of it as best as I could. He told me he would watch me even after he was dead, so I knew how serious he was,” Thong recalled.

On the way home, Thong kept the bowl beside him at all times. He didn’t even sleep because he was so afraid that someone might steal it. When he got home, he fell on the road and injured his arm saving the bowl.

“At the moment, I fell, my mind went immediately to the bowl. Thankfully it was OK. It was a moment of great faith for me.”

Thong’s collection currently includes nearly 7,000 ancient items from different periods in the history of both Viet Nam and China. Its total value is immense. And at the age of 52, Thong is still searching for new items to add to his collection.

“I do not find them only for me, but for all people who respect and value ancient things, and also for society. I have been able to travel all around the country and I have met many other people like me who have a love of ancient artefacts, though they do not have the fortune that I have. So my museum is also for these people, to help satisfy their desires when they come here to see these things.

“I also have no intentions of selling these treasures; they are a part of my life. When I pass away, the museum will belong to the public, to society. My only hope is that the museum will be good for the children, helping them learn and understand more about our history,” he shared. He also said it was these artefacts that motivated him to continue searching.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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