Choeung Ek Genocide Museum


of an Exhibition

by Mary Marcussen

Published on October 20, 2009

  • Description:

    To get to Choeung Ek, we traveled 15km down a dusty, pot-holed road from Phnom Penh, winding through small hovels of people who struggle to recreate one day at a time a country that just 30 years ago was entirely destroyed.

    When we arrived, the former orchard was quiet, calm, and peaceful, with ducks wandering along the river. Our Cambodian guide, a university student whose aunt had died here, warned us that what we were about to see was sad. In the center of the grounds, rose the tall white, ornate Buddhist Memorial Stupa, whose shelves are filled from floor to ceiling with 8,000 human skulls. The harsh reality is that an estimated 20,000 people were bound, blindfolded, and shot, or in order to save on expensive bullets, simply bludgeoned to death and buried here in one of 129 mass graves.

    These Killing Fields are just one of many to be found throughout Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge—the communist regime that dictated Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and led by Pol Pot forced all city dwellers into the countryside and to labor camps—, used these fields to rid themselves of people who had been detained and tortured in prisons. This field was used in combination with Phnom Penh’s famous S-21 prison, used specifically to eliminate the country’’s most educated citizens – teachers, doctors, lawyers, and high-ranking officials. By the time Pol Pot’’s Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, it had killed an estimated two million people. Cambodia was turned upside down during the Khmer Rouge years and the country has the daunting task of healing itself physically, mentally, and economically.

    As a sign of respect, we removed our shoes before mounting the steps to enter the Memorial Stupa. For a few cents, I bought some incense to place in an alter jar, which also gave me a moment to collect myself.

    The stupa is divided into multiple levels. Lower shelves hold hundreds and hundreds of human skulls, arranged by age and gender at eye level, while other bones are placed on higher levels. Over 8000 skulls are visible behind clear glass panels, many left open to the air so that the spirits can easily come and go, according to Buddhist belief.

    Behind the Memorial Stupa are the mass graves. Fragments of human bone and bits of cloth are scattered everywhere around the disinterred pits. Signs provide the count of the number of victims that were found in each. In one pit alone there were 450 victims, defying belief.

    Large-scale excavations took place at Choeung Ek in 1980: about 89 mass graves were disinterred out of the approximately 130 in the vicinity. Nearly 9,000 individual skeletons were removed from the site with the assistance of Vietnamese forensic specialists. The remains were treated with chemical preservatives and eventually placed in the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988.

    Cambodia must deal with its social memory in a Buddhist culture that believes that cremation and other rituals for the dead help to ease the deceased’’s transition to rebirth. Many Cambodians consider the Choeung Ek Genocidal Museum to be a highly dangerous place and refuse to visit the memorial. The spirits of people who have died unnatural deaths are thought to be malevolent; because their spirits cannot rest, they haunt the living and cause them misfortune. To display uncremated remains is also considered by some to be a great offense and tantamount to a second violence being done to the victims.

    According to our guide, however, most Cambodians in general support the preservation of the skulls and other remains. This support is reinforced by an underlying belief in Buddhist tradition that people can cremate only the remains of their family members. However, virtually no individuals in the country’’s killing fields have been identified from their remains. In addition, the Cambodian Government has long supported the preservation of the bones as evidence.

    I knew that writing about Choeung Ek would be difficult and emotional. I had put it off for nine months until I recently came across an article in Exhibitionist (Fall 2008) by Gretchen Jennings and Maureen McConnell, ““The Unexhibitable: A Conversation.”” Their national survey of museums revealed a number of opinions concerning the display of historic events that are so sensitive as to be “unexhibitable.” This reminded me that the clash of various beliefs with the interest on the part of museums to educate is nothing new. Choeung Ek presents an agonizing effort to reconcile the views of Buddhist beliefs with the need for public education and forensic evidence from the genocide.

    There are many smaller memorials throughout Cambodia, and even here in the U.S., for example, the Cambodian Cultural Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Seattle, the U.S. Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago, and the Cambodian Cultural Museum and Killing Fields Museum in Washington, DC. These museums not only raise awareness of the genocide in Cambodia; they celebrate the renewal of Cambodian community and culture here in the U.S. by offering a place for reflection, healing, and celebration of the human spirit.

    This article explains more about the controversy over the remains: “Buddhist Cremation Traditions for the Dead and the Need to Preserve Forensic Evidence in Cambodia.”

    This video I found on YouTube provides a sensitive look at what it was like to walk around inside the Memorial Stupa, gazing at tier after tier of skulls, each witness to the atrocities of history as reflected in the glass. The film is interspersed with art from the S-21 Prison Museum in Phnom Penh. Watch for the powerful visitor contributions at the end:

Latest Comments (3)

Collective memory

by Wendy Pollock - October 27, 2009

This review also brought to mind a 2004 issue of J. of Museum Education, which discussed the role of museums in supporting reflection and healing around terrible collective memories – even those many would rather forget – and an essay by Tzvetan Todorov called “The Evil That Men Do,” published by UNESCO ( Thank you for sharing this experience, Mary.

The Unexhibitable

by Gretchen Jennings - December 02, 2009

My eye caught your review, and then I read on to that the article by Maureen McConnell and me on “The Unexhibitable” had encouraged you to write. I’m so glad you did. It’s an excellent and thoughtful piece. We’re talking at Exhibtionist about an issue on memorials so I may be in touch with you to write more. Thanks, Gretchen

Truth and Goodness

by Maritza Macdonald - January 06, 2010

Your experience and review brings to mind Howard Gardner’s perspectives of truth, beauty, and goodness that he encourages us all to seek in education. In this case, I see this museum and your words, as evidence of the power of historical and cultural exhibitions to help us confront the truth and the complex elements of religion, tradition, and representation that is required to find goodness. I ofter use Gardner’s book “The Disciplined Mind” to teach about museums exhibits that inspire those three sentiments. In his work Gardner uses the examples of evolution, Mozart’s music, and the holocaust to illustrate these ideas.

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