Tuol Sleng is in better shape than Choeung Ek, probably due to it’s location in the city rather than out in the countryside, and the fact that its physical structures (it was formerly the largest high school in Cambodia) are much sturdier. Nevertheless, it too is in serious need of preservation funds–its exhibits are all open to the elements and only a few items are under plexiglass (a set of three skulls). Mold is spreading on the walls and according to my tour guide (and the official brochure), the Museum wages a constant struggle with squatters who sneak onto the grounds at night and set up residence.
For some of the same reasons I described yesterday, the Museum’s greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. The very lack of modern museum infrastructure forces the vistitor to confront the reality as it was–not the reality as it gets tricked out by interactivity and proper preservation and display of artifacts. For now, one can walk into the torture rooms and stand next to the cots where the victims of the Khmer Rouge were beaten, shocked, had their nipples torn off (a torture reserved for women), their genitals crushed (men), or had stinging insects placed on their bodies. As I stood there listening to my guide describe these horrors, I noticed that in each room she dropped the bloom of a flower onto the cot–a bloom she had picked up from the ground outside. Where else can we come so close to the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man?
Related to, but not part of the Museum, is the Documentation Center of Cambodia. Among the exciting features of the DCC’s project is a GIS database they are developing for their archive. That this project is supported by Yale University and grants from sources like US-AID means that it is much more robust than the Museum itself. A particularly good and hard to work with (for emotional reasons) section of their collection is the archive of more than 6,000 images from the genocide in Cambodia, many of which are from Tuol Sleng where the guards made detailed records of their activities so that they could prove that they had carried out their orders properly.
So we are left with a conundrum. Modern digital technology makes it possible for those studying the Cambodian genocide to sort through thousands and thousands of records of that tragedy at the click of a mouse. But nothing can replicate the experience of standing in a cramped cell in one of the prison blocs, staring at the scratches in the floor made by those about to receive their daily visit from the torturers or to be sent to Choeung Ek. And when the Museum is finally funded sufficiently to bring it up to modern museum standards, will it be better? Surely not. But the past must be preserved as best we can so that others can have experiences that at least approximate mine this week.
When I return to the States I’ll post my photostream fromTuol Sleng as well as from Choeung Ek.
, the fact that the Documentation Center of Cambodia which is affiliated