Worried about sliding visitor numbers, the director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum unveils a slew of new exhibits he hopes will engage Cambodians
While it’s been 36 years since the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – where an estimated 12,000 people were tortured and executed – was a functioning Khmer Rouge prison and torture centre, little of its appearance has changed.
The scratched-up walls retain their original paint job and barbed wire still lines the balconies.
Today, for many visitors, a tour through Tuol Sleng remains a deeply moving experience. But for recently appointed museum director Chhay Visoth, who worries about sliding visitor numbers, the current offerings aren’t cutting it.
“Right now we only have the permanent exhibition and it is boring for the locals,” Visoth said this week. “It doesn’t encourage them to visit again.”
Visoth – a cheery 37-year-old with neat black hair and a sharp sense of style – was appointed director in April 2014. Before that, he worked in administration at the National Museum.
The prison’s former photography room, where newly arrived inmates had their portraits snapped before being dragged off to a cell or interrogation session, now serves as his office.
Hanging on the wall this week was one of those portraits, the now-iconic image of S-21 prisoner Chan Kim Soun cradling her newborn baby.
To attract more visitors, Visoth and his staff of 65 have come up with a variety of new exhibits for the memorial-museum, marking the first time that the museum staff had arranged their own projects.
The first of the new offerings, which opened on August 19, is titled Skill and Fortune.
Using a series of photos, sketches and items, the two-room exhibit depicts the stories of Bou Meng and Chun Mey – two of the only 12 known individuals to exit the prison alive. Both former inmates – who have long been a fixture outside the museum, where they sell books telling of their experiences – owe their survival to skills acquired before the communist revolution: Meng with painting and Mey mechanics.
The head of Tuol Sleng, Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his nom de guerre Duch, spared the two prisoners in order to put their skills to his own use.
Meng was to produce propaganda paintings and Mey to repair typewriters and other machinery.
In the room depicting Meng’s story, one of several placards recalled his fateful encounter with Duch.
“Mr Meng told Duch that he had been a painter since [independence]. Duch smiled and said: ‘If you do not paint well, you will be killed.’”
With the new exhibits, Visoth hoped to attract more young Cambodians. Many of them, he said, saw the museum as “depressing” and “boring”. And there were other problems too.
“They still think that when they come here they might meet with a ghost … This is a memorial site, it is not a ghost site,” he said.
Visoth hopes the focus on the survivors’ skills will also encourage young Cambodians to mind their studies.
“We want to encourage the young people of Cambodia to understand [the importance] of skills, especially students.
You don’t want them to ignore the value of the university. If they keep learning that skill, it’s going to be helpful for the family,” he explained.
He added that he also intends to create an activities room with various interactive exhibits, including a jigsaw puzzle in which visitors piece together a Khmer Rouge evacuation map of Phnom Penh.
Seng Kunthy, 29, a researcher at DC-Cam who has worked with the museum on past exhibits, said that the new attractions were a positive step for national reconciliation.
“With young people, it’s hard for them to understand Khmer Rouge history, or to encourage them to be interested in this horrible history, because they are entertained by other things,” Kunthy said.
“To encourage them to study it in simple ways like at the exhibition and [by talking] to survivors ... it can encourage them to ask their parents about their own stories during the Khmer Rouge.”
Along with the current exhibition, survivors Meng and Mey are also taking part in another new attraction at the museum called Survivors’ Voices. Six days a week, rotating daily, the men share their stories with visitors and take 10 minutes of questions.
So far, the museum has hosted a handful of such events. During one question and answer session with Mey, a mostly foreign audience were asking questions that Visoth interpreted as too broad, such as “Why did the Khmer Rouge kill innocent people?”
Visoth requested that visitors ask questions specific to Mey. A student from a local high school inquired about the torture methods used at Tuol Sleng. Another about the executions.
For Mey, who has spoken publicly countless times on his horrific experiences there, it was standard fare. It was an innocent query from a Canadian about how he dealt with bad weather in his cell that finally shook him.
“This new question made him cry,” recalled Visoth. “He said that it was a very difficult situation for him because he only had shorts and slept on the floor and it wasn’t dry enough. It was cold. They had no blanket.”
In the exhibition rooms, Visoth had included two comment books. In one of them, an Australian visitor left a message.
“A moving exhibition. What strength these men have and what heavy hearts they must carry. Thank you for giving them a voice.”