Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek (Phnom Penh)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, aka S21, is on the site of a high school used by the Khmer Rouge as a secret security prison from 1975-79. Prisoners were held and tortured here, before being executed at the "killing fields" outside the city, now the site of the Choeung Ek Memorial museum, one of 150 execution centers around the country. Approx. 2 million Cambodians, 1/4 of the population, were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Most visitors to Phnom Penh visit both these museums.

Tuol Sleng
Local tour guides are available, but most visitors choose the audio guides, available in many languages. Audio allows them to retreat into a private experience of this very painful history. Seating is critical, and benches are all around the site.

The audio narrator repeatedly cautions the visitor about difficult content. He encourages them to remain outside exhibits they don't feel comfortable seeing, or skip audio sections they're not comfortable listening to. Detailed first hand stories are available using separate clip #s, providing choices, and a buffer. I watched one foreign visitor with several young children (of different ages), monitoring their experience carefully. She listened to each audio section first, then interpreted and paraphrased it to her children. She previewed each exhibit room first, before deciding whether to bring the children in to see it or not. The children had to wait at each stop for her to prepare. Acting as a custom personal tour guide was clearly hard work for her, and their visit was a slow process.

There is very little overt design at Tuol Sleng. Presentation is simple, with no expressive design treatments. Prison rooms are left as is, and documentary photographs taken by the Khmer Rouge are the main content. Display techniques are old fashioned, signage is spotty and illegible. The building, the photos and the audio provide the haunting experience. Imagine the experience of local families coming here searching for their own missing relatives in the photo archives.

How much is too much? When does morbid fascination and sheer revulsion take over the visitor's awareness, preventing them from experiencing other forms of reflection? When does the horror become paralyzing, instead of motivating in a constructive way? It appears that nothing is censured here, perhaps because what is most shocking is most memorable. The narrator reminds us that we, as visitors are now witness, and the "holders" of history and it's lessons.

2 large outdoor billboard photos are the only design statement on the grounds.

Would less be more? How are the needs of locals different from those of foreigners? Two small green courtyards provide a safe zone for visitors, empty except for the memorial itself. A meditation room with scheduled chanting sessions, is available for all visitors at any time. Finally, at the end of the audio, extra clips with a focus on healing are provided. Visitors can sit on a bench outside, listen to the powerful Smot, song of sorrow, and weep freely if needed.

Choeng Ek Memorial
The "Killing Fields" memorial is located outside of the city, at the outdoor site of mass graves. There are no remaining buildings. The interpretation is very similar to Tuol Seng, using the same approach to the audio guide supplemented with (longer) personal stories. The visceral sense of brutality is just as strong, in a different way. Without photos of the victims, the museum seems more useful for school groups, as an education center. There is a long looped path around a pond to follow while listening to stories. It is un-nerving to see fresh bones revealed as the ground is constantly shifting. The rawness of the wound is palpable, and the need for a place to process national grief. 

The museum's spirit house.