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  • Trauma, Memory, and RepresentationThe Role of Collaboration in the Development of the Museum Exhibit “Remembering the Killing Fields”

In 2011 the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial opened an exhibit on the Khmer Rouge period (1975–79), entitled Remembering the Killing Fields.1 The exhibit documents life under the Khmer Rouge through individual and collective survivor narratives, documentary photographs, informational text, and artifacts. The foundation of the exhibit was formed from a collection of life history interviews with Cambodian survivors between the ages of forty-five to seventy years old. The exhibit was produced through a university-community collaboration involving Northern Illinois University anthropologist Dr. Judy Ledgerwood, her students, board and staff members from the Cambodian Association of Illinois (cai) and the museum, other Cambodian community leaders and members, and non-Cambodian museum professionals.

This article describes the development of the Remembering the Killing Fields exhibit (hereafter referred to as the Killing Fields exhibit) and the collaborative process involved in producing a successful and meaningful exhibit for the Cambodian community and the general public. In the same way that Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (2008: 175) describes collaborative research, the development of the Killing Fields exhibit involved the people who were the focus of the exhibit “in an active way, as individuals or groups having vested interests in the project through their participation” in the exhibit design, execution, and production as well as an interest in “outcomes potentially related to community or individual [End Page 83] improvement of well-being.” The collaboration involved Cambodian community members, the anthropologist, and museum professionals at each step in the development of the exhibit, including the collection and analysis of survivor life history interviews, discussions of exhibit audiences and goals, various stages of exhibit layout designs, and the collection and final selection of photographs, artifacts, text, and other elements to include in the exhibit. The inclusion of the Cambodian community, their knowledge, and their choices of how to tell their stories was essential to the success of the Killing Fields exhibit, particularly since it deals with a traumatic history. Under these circumstances, the role of the anthropologist in the collaboration was key in bringing together the Cambodian community with the museum professionals, who did not have the same kind of knowledge about the community, their culture, and their history. Unlike some exhibits on the Khmer Rouge period produced without collaboration with Cambodian survivors and communities, the Killing Fields exhibit emphasizes the perspective of victims and survivors (rather than governments or political parties, for example), provides more than adequate contextual information, and promotes ownership of the exhibit by Cambodian communities (for more examples of exhibits on the Khmer Rouge period, see Caswell 2014; French 2002; Hughes 2003; Ledgerwood 1997; Schlund-Vials 2012b; Simon 2011; Thompson 2013; Um 2012).2 Additionally, as a result of placing survivor narratives at the center of the exhibit’s overall design and by providing the powerful tools of visual narrative, the exhibit became a medium through which survivors could gain control over traumatic memories that can otherwise be disjunctive, relentless, and disruptive in everyday life (see Brison 1999; Langer 1991; Ly 2008; Um 2012).

Once the exhibit was complete, the collaborative relationships between the anthropologist, the community, the museum, and the nonprofit organization did not end. New collaborations continue to form as a result of previously established relationships forged in the process of producing the exhibit. My thesis research was one of these new collaborations. My thesis project focused on how the Khmer Rouge period is represented, how genocide remembrance is enacted in a memorial museum setting, and how the development process of the exhibit involved negotiations, challenges, and decisions between the groups and individuals involved in the exhibit’s creation. As one of Ledgerwood’s anthropology graduate students, I participated in a summer internship in 2014 at cai, where I [End Page 84] assisted with designing outreach materials and website content. I also had the opportunity to build relationships with the people I would eventually work with during my thesis research. Over the course of the internship I had many conversations with Ledgerwood about her experiences serving on the Museum Advisory Committee and collaborating with people at cai, the museum, niu’s Anthropology Museum, and in the Cambodian community to create the Killing Fields exhibit. In speaking with the people involved in the collaborative process a common theme arose. Almost all of them told me that they were not able to document the process of the exhibit’s development since they were all busy producing the exhibit, and that a thesis on this topic would be a valuable contribution. Listening to the stories about how the exhibit was developed and how the community responded to the exhibit, it became clear that the exhibit is an important form of memorialization not just for the Chicago Cambodian community but for Cambodian communities throughout the United States.

As a student researcher, I have come to realize that not only do we as students benefit from these types of collaborations by gaining experience and an entrée into communities and organizations, but it is also critical that we follow up on these collaborations, sustaining positive relationships and carrying on or expanding upon the work produced.

War and Remembering

Cambodia experienced years of foreign incursions and civil war under the former royal government and the Lon Nol government.3 The Khmer Rouge defeated the US-supported Lon Nol government on April 17, 1975 (Chandler 1991; Dy 2007; Kiernan 2002, 2008).4 This began the near four-year reign of the Cambodian communist regime known as the Khmer Rouge, during which time between 1 and 3 million lives were lost as a result of starvation, exhaustion from forced labor, disease, lack of proper medicine, and execution.5 The Khmer Rouge implemented a radical revolutionary plan for the country, inspired by Maoist and Marxist-Leninist communist ideologies, to transform Cambodia back into an agrarian society and rid it of all traces of foreign influence, especially American imperialism. Soon after their rise to power the Khmer Rouge regime began arresting and killing soldiers, military officers, civil servants, and anyone loosely associated with the previous governments (Dy 2007). Anyone who resisted the Khmer Rouge or who was suspected [End Page 85] of having anti-revolutionary opinions was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and/or executed. On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese soldiers attacked Phnom Penh, officially ending the Khmer Rouge reign (Kiernan 2002; Dy 2007). Those who survived the conditions in Khmer Rouge labor camps and prisons were released and able to return to their homes, although many homes had been destroyed.

At the end of the Khmer Rouge period hundreds of thousands of Cambodian survivors were displaced and became refugees in border camps in neighboring countries. Many later resettled in third countries. For Cambodians who survived and became refugees in foreign countries, the task of rebuilding their lives, families, identities, and culture was affected by the ever-present memories of life under the Khmer Rouge, by a longing for a life that existed before the disruption and destruction of civil war and the Khmer Rouge genocide, and by the loss of family members, belongings, and official documents or certifications.6 Cambodian survivors who resettled in the United States eventually established communities throughout the country. Chicago, Illinois, came to have the tenth largest concentration of Cambodians in the United States (Chan 2004). In 2015 the Cambodian Association of Illinois estimated that a population of between 4,200 and 5,000 Cambodians resides in Illinois.

The Cambodian Association of Illinois was founded in 1976 by Cambodian evacuees and refugees in order to assist Cambodian refugees who arrived in the country after escaping the Khmer Rouge regime. cai was a Mutual Assistance Association (maa)—a community-based agency that assists refugees with transitioning to life in the new country (e.g., job training and placement, welfare assistance, language acquisition, citizenship, and other resettlement services)—as part of the development of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. cai provided the Cambodian refugees in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois with economic, social, cultural, educational, and health services. By 1983, like many maas nationally, cai shift ed its focus from refugee resettlement services to cultural and social services. In general cai serves as a community center and hosts Cambodian cultural events and celebrations; it has become a place for cultural maintenance and community support.

The Killing Fields Memorial was built when cai moved in 2000 to its current location, a three-story building on Lawrence Avenue on Chicago’s North Side. The memorial was designed by local Cambodian American architects and is a permanent fixture at cai. The memorial is composed [End Page 86] of the Wall of Remembrance—a collection of eighty glass panels organized in four tiered rows—with a marble column at the center of the wall inscribed with a lotus flower and the message: “We Continue Our Journey with Compassion, Understanding, and Wisdom” and a small altar that sits in front of the wall. The glass panels in the front row are inscribed with the names of individuals who did not survive the Khmer Rouge period.

When cai established the Cambodian American Heritage Museum (now called the National Cambodian Heritage Museum) in 2004, it became the first Cambodian museum in the United States. Since the museum’s opening, thousands of people from Illinois and from across the nation and the globe have visited the memorial and museum. It has produced four major exhibitions, a number of smaller temporary exhibits, and countless programs and has hosted numerous artists-in-residence and more than four hundred teachers for special projects, workshops, and seminars. Its library and archives house a collection of more than 750 resources from books and rare manuscripts to newspapers, magazines, documents, photographs, and oral histories. The collection is available to the public for research purposes.

The museum’s three previous major exhibits were (1) Our Journey Continues, (2) Khmer Spirit: Arts and Culture of Cambodia, and (3) Cambodia Born Anew. The first exhibit, Our Journey Continues, opened in 2004 and recounted the journey of Cambodian refugees beginning with Cambodia’s recent history and moving through life in refugee camps and ultimately resettlement and establishment of new lives in the United States. The second and third exhibits were jointly housed by and curated through collaboration between the museum and niu’s Anthropology Museum between 2007 and 2010. The Khmer Spirit exhibit sought to display the beauty and variety of Cambodian arts and featured artifacts from various Khmer art forms, including wood and stone sculptures, dance costumes and masks, musical instruments, paintings, textiles, and more. The Cambodia Born Anew exhibit aimed to illustrate the everyday lives of Cambodians living in rural areas, displaying objects used by Cambodians (e.g., fishing equipment, agricultural tools, textiles, weaving instruments, and Buddhist artifacts).

Remembering the Killing Fields, which opened in 2011, is the muse-um’s fourth exhibit, still current at the time of writing. This historical and ethnographic exhibit documents life under the Khmer Rouge by following [End Page 87] a narrative guided by four major theme sections: (1) “Clearing the Cities,” (2) “Destroying Society,” (3) “Constant Fear,” and (4) “The Killing Fields.” Each of these themes occupies a panel area that tells the collective story of life in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, while also following specific memories from the lives of six elder Cambodian survivors. Each section includes a combination of informational texts and maps, providing the historical context of the section’s content; documentary photographs from archives and personal collections; quotations abstracted from life history interviews of survivors; Khmer Rouge slogans; and artifacts from Cambodia, which represent the daily objects used by people during the Khmer Rouge period. The exhibit begins with an introductory section titled “Perseverance. Strength. Courage.” This presents an introduction to the six Cambodian survivors whose individual stories are woven into the collective narrative throughout the exhibit, a geographic orientation to Cambodia via a map of the country, and a five-minute documentary film describing the historical-political background that led up to the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. The exhibit concludes with two final sections—“How I Survived,” which contains a video screen that plays video clips of survivors explaining why they believe they survived; and a tribute wall to Cambodian survivor and artist-activist Vann Nath, one of twelve survivors of the infamous s-21 prison.7 The entire exhibit is bilingual, providing text in Khmer (Cambodian) and English. The exhibit’s layout is organized so that guests walk through each exhibit section, including a visit to the Killing Fields Memorial.

Exhibit Collaborators and the Importance of Community Involvement

The exhibit was created through collaboration between the Cambodian Association of Illinois, the National Cambodian Heritage Museum, and Northern Illinois University (niu), in addition to other Cambodian community members and individual designers hired specifically for the development of the exhibit. The individuals involved with the collaboration each contributed particular sets of knowledge and expertise to the development of the Killing Fields exhibit. This section introduces the collaborators and their contributions.

The cai board and staff consisted of approximately thirty members; half were first-generation Cambodian American survivors, and the other [End Page 88] half were 1.5 generation or second-generation Cambodian Americans.8

The museum board consisted primarily of second-generation Cambodian Americans. The museum staff included 1.5 and second-generation Cambodian Americans, one first-generation Cambodian American survivor, and some non-Cambodian Americans. As survivors, the first-generation Cambodian American collaborators contributed their personal knowledge of the Khmer Rouge period and of the needs of the Cambodian community. Oft en their voices represented the commemorative needs and goals of the exhibit, and they had the power to reject any idea if they found it inappropriate or unaligned with their vision for the exhibit. The 1.5 and second-generation Cambodian American collaborators also contributed their knowledge of the community’s needs and vision. The younger generations of Cambodian Americans may or may not have had firsthand experiences or memories of living under the Khmer Rouge, but they have witnessed the psychological and physical effects of these on their parents, older relatives, and other community members.

The niu collaborators included cultural anthropologist Judy Ledger-wood, from the niu anthropology department and Center for Southeast Asian Studies; museum anthropologist Ann Wright-Parsons, from the niu Anthropology Museum; and some of Ledgerwood’s anthropology students. Ledgerwood has conducted extensive research and work with Cambodian communities in the United States beginning in 1982 and in Cambodia (see, for example, Ledgerwood et al. 1995; Ledgerwood 1998, 2002, 2011, 2012).9 She has since continued research and collaborative work with Cambodian communities in the United States and Cambodia. Ledgerwood has served on the Museum Advisory Committee since 2003, and both she and Wright-Parsons collaborated with the museum on its two previous exhibits before the Killing Fields exhibit. The Museum Advisory Committee was made up of nine individuals who were primarily non-Cambodian museum professionals from Chicago area museums of history, anthropology, and the Holocaust, or were philanthropists. They contributed their knowledge of professional museum practices and effective curatorial tools, particularly in their experience with curating exhibits on topics related to genocide and accommodating dual audiences. Generally the museum professionals involved represented the educational goals of the exhibit.

Although all the groups mentioned were involved in the development of the exhibit, the curatorial team played a key role in directing the different [End Page 89] stages of exhibit development. The curatorial team initially included Ledgerwood and museum staff members—namely Charles Daas (museum director, at the time), Ty Tim (a first-generation Cambodian survivor), and Kaoru Watanabe (a museum library intern and later assistant director at cai). Later the curatorial team combined with the design team hired by the museum to assist with the exhibition design, graphic design, and media production. The design team consisted of a lead designer for each design area—Amy Reichert (exhibit designer), Anida Yoeu Ali (graphic designer), and Socheata Poeuv (media production)—and assistants for each of them. The museum selected Amy Reichert as exhibit designer because her proposal emphasized the importance of collaborating closely with the community and being sensitive to the museum itself and its intended audiences. Reichert stressed the importance of community representation in exhibits like these and she supported the use of the survivor life history interviews. The museum had worked with Reichert previously, so they were familiar with her and confident about her skills and approach. The cai and museum boards and staff also wanted the members of the design team to represent the Cambodian community and perspective, so they reached out to Cambodian Americans with expertise in graphic design and media production. The museum approached Socheata Poeuv, a filmmaker who is a second-generation Cambodian American, to fulfill the media production position. She produced the introductory video, which provides the historical context for the exhibit. As earlier noted, they hired Anida Yoeu Ali, a second-generation Cambodian American whose parents survived the Khmer Rouge period and are two of the six survivors featured in the exhibit, to be the exhibit’s graphic designer. She had previously expressed interest in contributing to the exhibit, and the museum was already familiar with her work because she had volunteered for one of their youth programs and for cai’s building campaign.

The collaborators regularly consulted other Cambodian community members, especially survivors, to get feedback on decisions throughout the development of the exhibit. The collaborators were always conscious and respectful of what the Cambodian community felt was right for the exhibit.

It was important to the museum and cai boards and staff to have Cambodians involved in as many aspects of the exhibit as possible. One reason for this is simply that it was their story to tell. On another level, [End Page 90] they also wanted to avoid criticism and distrust engendered by some other exhibits on the Khmer Rouge period. For example, when the Tuol Sleng prison complex was transformed into a genocide museum, it received some skepticism because it was designed by a Vietnamese curator and non-Cambodian individuals; some thought it was curated in order to promote political legitimation of the newly installed Vietnamese-backed government after the fall of the Khmer Rouge (see further discussion in Ledgerwood 1997; Schlund-Vials 2012b; Thompson 2013; Um 2012). Likewise, an exhibit of s-21 mugshot photographs produced by the Museum of Modern Art (moma) in New York in 1997 was designed without consulting members of the Cambodian community and has received criticism for not considering the community’s input, not providing sufficient historical context for the photographs, and for the choice of the exhibit’s “café-style” venue, which some felt was inappropriate given the seriousness of the exhibit’s topic (Hughes 2003; Simon 2011).10 Both these examples have also been criticized for lacking consideration of Cambodian cultural values or spiritual beliefs (Ledgerwood 1997; Thompson 2013).11 By incorporating the various collaborators and balancing their input, the Killing Fields exhibit has thus far avoided similar skepticism, distrust, and criticism.

This combination of collaborators and the contributions each group and individual made are why the exhibit was successful. The Cambodians involved with cai, the museum, and the design team contributed their personal knowledge and experiences, their knowledge of the community, and expertise in particular areas of the exhibit (e.g., graphic designer, media production). Without them, the exhibit and its narrative would be lacking what Geertz (1974) terms the “experience near” perspective that only they could provide. No matter how well an exhibit or narrative is produced, with supplementary visual tools such as photographs, text, and artifacts, non-Cambodian collaborators can only ever know about the experiences conveyed in the narrative on an intellectual level; they are “experience distant.” What non-Cambodian museum professionals contribute is a different kind of knowledge (i.e., curatorial practices). The anthropologist contributes academic knowledge of Cambodian history and culture and ethnographic knowledge of the Cambodian community, and uses her role in the collaboration to facilitate communication and understanding among the other collaborators. [End Page 91]

The Development of the Exhibit

Since the museum’s inception, producing an exhibit on the Khmer Rouge period was always a plan, but the museum board and staff questioned when the right time to create such an exhibit would be. In 2008 the museum board, staff, and advisory committee began contemplating what type of exhibition should follow the Cambodia Born Anew exhibit. Two Cambodian survivors on the museum board and staff proposed that it was time to create an exhibit on the Khmer Rouge period. The museum board and advisory members began contemplating the potential challenges and benefits of creating an exhibit on this period. Some worried that it was too soon to create an exhibit about the Khmer Rouge, since even though thirty years had passed, some survivors still could not talk about that period in their lives. They worried about potentially causing further psychological distress in survivors. Some worried that making an exhibit on the Khmer Rouge would force the museum to take a public stance on the newly formed un tribunal on the Khmer Rouge crimes and the issue of crime and punishment. Still they felt that the opportunity to recount the Cambodian genocide in an exhibit, through survivors’ perspectives, was critical for the Cambodian community, in terms of healing, acknowledgement of the genocide, and justice, and for educational purposes for a wider public. The museum and advisory committee all agreed that it was crucial to include survivors’ voices and opinions in the decision-making process to ensure that the community would feel a sense of ownership of the exhibit. When the decision was made to go forward with the exhibit, the museum board, staff, and advisory committee arranged meetings to interview a number of elder Cambodian survivors in the community to gauge their opinions about creating an exhibit about this time period.

Early discussions among the collaborators focused heavily on who the primary audience should be (i.e., the Cambodian community or the general American public) and what the goal of the exhibit should be. In the end they found a balance in accommodating both audiences by adopting multiple goals for the exhibit, including: (1) honoring deceased victims; (2) bringing healing to survivors and the Cambodian community as a whole; (3) preventing such atrocities from happening again by remembering and documenting the past; and (4) educating the general public about genocide and other human rights issues. Accommodating multiple [End Page 92] audiences and meeting multiple goals was not always easy. At times the curatorial team had to incorporate certain elements for one audience that may not have been necessary for another audience group (e.g., adding a historical documentary video for audiences unaware of Cambodian history). Ultimately, and appropriately, the commemorative goals and the survivor audience were placed before others.

The museum, cai, and niu collaborators decided to use data from a previous life history project to form the foundation of the Killing Fields exhibit. This project was also a collaboration with Ledgerwood and the niu anthropology department. The project was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, which provided funds for the collection of forty-eight life history interviews with Cambodian elders who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and were living in the Chicago metropolitan area at the time of the interviews. The interviews were conducted in the summer of 2006, by two niu students and two Cambodian Americans hired by the museum, who asked interviewees about their lives in Cambodia before and during the Khmer Rouge period. Between 2008 and 2009 the interviews were transcribed and translated from Khmer into English.

Preliminary analysis of interview data, conducted by Ledgerwood and museum staff, found four general themes throughout the interviews—daily life, family life, work life, and killing—in addition to a list of more specific subthemes, such as collectivization, reversal of social order, forced labor, and invisible killing. With these themes in mind, the museum staff and Ledgerwood put together a preliminary conceptual framework for the exhibit, which they then adapted into grant proposals for funding. In 2009 they received a second grant from the Luce Foundation and a grant from the Joyce Foundation for exhibit development. In 2010 they received a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council to fund the second phase of the life history project.

In the beginning of 2010 Ledgerwood and the students from one of her anthropology classes at niu began the second phase of the life history project. During class meetings and as take-home assignments, each student was given several interviews to read and code, noting important themes, which would become the sections in the exhibit. Kaoru Watanabe, from the museum, joined the class to help analyze the interviews. All forty-eight interviews were read by multiple people and analyzed, and then the themes gathered prior to phase two were refined. This process [End Page 93] produced more specific titles for the four major sections in the exhibit: (1) Evacuation and Collectivization, (2) Breaking Down Social Order, (3) Living in Constant Fear, and (4) the Killing Fields. Later Ledgerwood and the museum professionals on the advisory committee further edited these section titles, revising them from more academic terms to phrases more accessible to a range of audiences with various educational and linguistic backgrounds.12 The second phase also involved selecting individuals from the original forty-eight interviews to be interviewed a second time; this time on film. The people who were asked to participate in second interviews had stories that reflected the overarching, collective narrative of life during the Khmer Rouge but also provided distinctive experiences at the individual level. They were from urban and rural areas across Cambodia and were of different ages and sexes.

Early in 2010 the curatorial team—at this point, Judy Ledgerwood, Charles Daas (museum director), Ty Tim (museum staff and first-generation Cambodian survivor), Kaoru Watanabe (library intern), and Amy Reichert (exhibit designer)—used the four major themes from the second phase of the life history project to begin discussing the content of the exhibit. They developed storyboards to conceptualize what they wanted to include in each theme section. Artifacts, documents, photographs, Khmer Rouge slogans, interview video clips, and subconcepts were color-coded with tags and mapped out. Then they began to designate which quotations from the life history interviews would suit each section. The curatorial team formulated concepts and layouts for the exhibit, and then the cai board, the museum board and staff, and the Museum Advisory Committee reviewed, commented on, and either approved or rejected them. This process involved many meetings and conversations among these groups before any final decisions were made.

Negotiating Exhibit Layout and Content: Collaboration and the Role of the Anthropologist

The exhibit’s layout design and contents evolved over several years (2009–11), going through several draft s. After each draft was created by the design team and the rest of the curatorial team, it was reviewed by the cai and museum boards and staff. This was a lengthy process as every photograph, artifact, text selection, translation, and design element was assessed for its relevance, meaning, and effect and then could either [End Page 94] be approved or rejected by members of cai and the museum. Potential quotations for each theme section were selected from pages of life history interviews and then compiled into excerpt lists, from which Ledgerwood, Tim, Watanabe, and a history museum professional on the advisory committee chose an even smaller selection to include in the final exhibit.13 The informational text that describes the historical events and evidence of the Khmer Rouge period in the exhibit was written by Ledgerwood, then revised by a museum professional on the advisory committee for accessibility for a general audience, and then approved by the cai board, museum board and staff, and community members. The text was then translated into Khmer by four cai and museum staff and community members. The translations were edited by a Cambodian American in the academic community and Ledgerwood, who is fluent in Khmer. This was the museum’s first completely bilingual exhibit in Khmer and English, and the incorporation of Khmer written language in all the exhibit text has important symbolic significance as a marker of Khmer identity and voice. For the selection of artifacts, Ty Tim created a “wish list” of possible artifacts to choose from, and then he and the curatorial team selected artifacts for each exhibit section. The artifacts were acquired in Cambodia on multiple trips and shipped back to Illinois by representatives from the museum and niu. The curatorial team chose items that were “as authentic as possible,” selecting artifacts that were actually used during the Khmer Rouge period, were reproductions of objects used during that time, or are objects still produced today.14 The curatorial team also included a number of artifacts that could be touched, not confined within a case or bolted down in any way, so that visitors (survivors and others) could pick them up and “test” them out, or use them to speak about their own experiences during the period.15 They also decided to incorporate survivor artwork in the exhibit as another method of expressing survivors’ stories and another way to interpret what happened during the Khmer Rouge period. The idea came from the community and from an interview with Rithy Panh conducted by Ledgerwood when she was in Cambodia acquiring photographs for the exhibit.16 The remaining design elements and content selection went through a similar process, which involved extensive conversations among the collaborators.

In order to illustrate how the exhibit evolved through these stages and to highlight the negotiations, compromises, and decisions that had to be [End Page 95] made, I next discuss two examples of exhibit elements that the curatorial team considered including in the exhibit and why certain decisions were made for the final version. The first example is the selection of photographs. To begin the process of selecting photographs, members from the cai and museum boards and staff and the curatorial team browsed through Khamboly Dy’s book A History of Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979), published by the Documentation Center of Cambodia (dc-Cam) in 2007, placing sticky notes on photographs they wanted to include in the exhibit. With these requests in hand, Ledgerwood traveled to Cambodia to visit the dc-Cam and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum archives to acquire hundreds of scans of original photographs and permissions for their use. While in Cambodia Ledgerwood was in constant communication with the museum and cai boards and the curatorial team. Once the scans were acquired, graphic designer Anida Yoeu Ali and her team selected photographs from the collection, considering requests from the curatorial team, cai and museum boards, usage releases, resolution quality, fit with exhibit theme sections, and audiences. They then developed all the graphics for the exhibit panels. This process, as Anida Yoeu Ali put it in an interview, involved “recommendations of the overall design, color scheme, font choice, graphic elements, signage, and photography selection,” which were again discussed with the members of the curatorial team and the museum and cai boards. The selection of photographs also dealt with limited space and finding a balance between effective images and gruesome images while remaining cognizant of the potential psychological risks to different audience groups. The members of the curatorial team wanted to demonstrate visually the magnitude of destruction and violence during the Khmer Rouge—to be sure that the audience (especially the general public) could grasp the severity of life under the Khmer Rouge—but without causing any emotional or psychological trauma to survivors or young audience members. Another reason they refrained from using an excessive number of graphic images was to avoid the risk of sensationalism. In the end the photographs selected were chosen for their ability to facilitate the exhibit’s narrative.17

The second example involves the process of deciding how to conclude the exhibit properly (e.g., whether to leave visitors with the unsettling reality of the aftermath, with a connection to larger global issues, or with a more uplift ing ending, such as including a message of resilience and stories of the present lives of survivors); this issue was debated among the [End Page 96] collaborators. Initially there were plans to create a timeline to conclude the exhibit, which would present events that occurred after the end of the Khmer Rouge period, including historical events and personal stories of survivors who resettled in the Chicago area. The curatorial team thought a timeline at the end of the exhibit would be a way to bring the exhibit back to the present. However, the designers encountered some complications with the timeline while it was being designed. As with all the text in the exhibit, the timeline narrative had to be approved by members of the cai and museum boards and staff. Since the points along the timeline were historical events, they also involved politics, and getting multiple generations of Cambodian Americans with different political opinions to agree on how to phrase descriptions of these events proved to be a difficult task. Another obstacle to completing the timeline was a reluctance on the part of survivors to share personal details of their present lives. The result of these issues was the deletion of the timeline from the final exhibit. When the timeline concept fell through just days before the exhibit’s opening, the curatorial team decided to replace it with the tribute wall to Cambodian survivor and artist-activist Vann Nath, who passed away just before the exhibit’s opening. The tribute section includes four framed prints of Vann Nath’s sketches of the conditions in the s-21 prison, two portraits of Vann Nath (one as a prisoner, the other as a survivor), and an obituary composed by Ledgerwood.18

Significance of the Collaboration and Exhibit

In this article I have described the development of the Remembering the Killing Fields exhibit to show how individuals working at the museum and cai, the niu anthropologist, her students, museum professionals, and community members collaborated with one another through each step of the process from initial collection of survivor life history interviews and data analysis, to the various designs of the exhibit layout, to the collection and final decisions of what to include in the exhibit. There were disagreements at times, but these were resolved through conversations, negotiations, and at times compromise. Throughout the development of the Killing Fields exhibit, periodically there was tension between the older first-generation survivors, the younger generations of Cambodian Americans (1.5 and second generations), and the nonCambodian museum professionals involved in the project. Members [End Page 97] of the first generation were influenced by their experiences during the Khmer Rouge period and their identities as survivors. To some extent this was true of the 1.5 generation as well, although they and the second generation may be more influenced by a combination of American and Cambodian ideals because they were raised in the United States. The non-Cambodian museum professionals and scholars were influenced by American concepts and professional museum practices. While this is generally true, it is important to note that all the individuals in these groups were influenced by multiple cultural and professional frameworks. Coming to decisions and compromises was complicated, and power relations were not simply generational or Cambodian/nonCambodian. Ultimately the Killing Fields exhibit reflects mutual respect and trust among the various groups involved.

As anthropologist and scholar of Southeast Asian studies, Judy Ledgerwood contributed academic knowledge and analysis of the Khmer Rouge period to frame and write the historiographic text for the exhibit in a way that was accessible for a larger public audience. Her connections to particular organizations and people in Cambodia (e.g., dc-Cam, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Vann Nath) also helped with ease of access to scan documents and acquire photographs and survivor artwork. Perhaps more important, as a culture broker, Ledgerwood brought her ethno-graphic knowledge of the Cambodian community itself (see Kurin 1997). Through her extensive research and long-term relationships with individuals and organizations in Cambodian communities, Ledgerwood has gained a nuanced and complex perspective on the community that gives her the ability to anticipate what topics members may find sensitive and to facilitate communication and understanding in these areas. At times this specialized ethnographic and personal knowledge of the Cambodian community helped to navigate disagreements, misunderstandings, and negotiations among Cambodians on the cai board, museum board and staff, and non-Cambodian museum professionals. For example, Ledger-wood has described her part in writing the text for the plot points on the timeline and the conversations and disagreements that ensued among the cai and museum boards and staff on how to represent particular political-historical events.19 She had to know when not to force the issue and instead step back from these conversations and let the Cambodians involved make the decisions. In the end the Cambodians decided independently to delete the timeline from the exhibit. The anthropologist [End Page 98] and museum professionals respected the Cambodian community and recognized the knowledge and expertise that the cai and museum boards and staff brought to the collaboration as well. The community was able to retain control of the direction and development of the exhibit and the narrative it portrays because, as Ledgerwood observed, it was their story to tell.

Ledgerwood directed anthropology students in interviewing the survivors and coding interviews to find themes for the exhibit. The interviews and thematic content analysis laid the groundwork for the exhibit as the themes came to organize the exhibit layout and formed the starting point for selecting appropriate photographs, artifacts, quotations, and so on. Anthropology students benefited from the collaboration by receiving entrée into the community, opportunities to gain experience with anthropological data collection methods and analysis, and experience with how to collaborate on a community project. After the completion of the exhibit, the collaborative relationships between anthropologist, community, museum, and nonprofit organization did not end but rather continue to the present day. Long after the initial collaboration, students continue to be welcomed into the community, particularly cai and the museum, because of the relationships built and sustained by Ledgerwood, cai, and the museum. cai and the museum also benefit since niu continues to supply them with interns and volunteer workers. Ledgerwood continues to bring students from her Asian American Cultures class on fieldtrips to cai and the museum—as a culmination to lectures, readings, and discussions on the history of Cambodian refugee immigration to the United States—which helps increase recognition for cai and the museum in the niu anthropology department and Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Additionally, at least three master’s theses on cai, the museum, the Cambodian community, Cambodian survivors, or the Killing Fields exhibit have been produced by Ledgerwood’s anthropology graduate students (myself included) as a result of the trust and respect between Ledger-wood, cai, and the museum. These students were able to pick up where the anthropologist, the association, and museum left off, continuing work on and with the community, cai, and the museum.

Other types of collaborations and relationships continue to form as a result of previously established relationships and as a result of producing the exhibit. cai, Jewish, Armenian, and other communities in Chicago successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to require teaching on genocide [End Page 99] at the high school level, and that these lessons should include more than the Holocaust. As a result the Khmer Rouge genocide gets incorporated into the classroom, and the museum regularly gives guided tours of the Killing Fields exhibit to students and teachers from these classes. The Cambodian community, cai, and the museum’s relationships with the State of Illinois were also affected by the creation of the Killing Fields exhibit. Within a few months of the exhibit’s opening, cai hosted its first official Day of Remembrance, commemorating the lives lost during the Khmer Rouge period, which soon afterward was formally acknowledged by the State of Illinois. In May 2012 the Illinois House of Representatives composed and adopted a resolution formally designating April 17 as the Cambodian Day of Remembrance in Illinois, thereby officially recognizing the Chicago Cambodian community.

Together the individuals involved in the collaboration produced a successful and meaningful exhibit on the Khmer Rouge period. I define this success first and foremost by the reaction of the Cambodian community to the exhibit. Through the telling of survivor narratives and by incorporating the memorial into the exhibit, members of the Cambodian community took ownership of the exhibit, regularly utilize it, and have stated that it tells their stories with dignity. Including survivors’ voices in the exhibit, both at the individual and collective levels, helped to destabilize essentialized notions of refugees as merely victims and instead allows them to be seen as survivors. The voices of other victims and survivors who experienced the Khmer Rouge period—including other minorities, survivors who do not reside in Illinois, and the deceased—are represented through the collective narrative of the exhibit, which is supplemented by historiographic text in the exhibit’s panels. Kompha Seth, first-generation Cambodian evacuee and the current director of cai, has commented that the exhibit tells the story for those who have no voice (i.e., those who did not survive).

Additionally, the exhibit became a medium through which survivors and the Cambodian community could gain control over traumatic memories and make sense out of their traumatic past. The constructed narrative of the exhibit has the potential to give survivors—who participated in the original life history interviews, who contributed to the exhibit’s creation, or who visit the exhibit today—a means of reclaiming some control over their recollection of traumatic memories (Langer 1991; Ly 2008). Even more than the written aspects of the exhibit’s narrative, the [End Page 100] photographs and artifacts that form the exhibit’s visual narrative help evoke survivors’ memories to communicate their experiences while lending them the structure and grounding that is sometimes absent from strictly oral or written testimony.

In combination, all the elements of the exhibit, from artifacts, text, and photographs to graphic and architectural design, are intended to evoke the kinds of thought and action in viewers that help prevent such atrocities from happening again and counteract the indifference engendered by historical erasure from public memory (Caswell 2014; Schlund-Vials 2012a, 2012b; Simon 2011; Thompson 2013; Um 2012). Unlike national narratives produced by the Cambodian government, and the lack of acknowledgment of the genocide by the US government, the narrative conveyed through the Killing Fields exhibit gave Cambodian survivors the opportunity to create their own narrative, one that does not ignore the part governments had in the destruction caused by the Khmer Rouge taking over Cambodia. By producing the exhibit’s survivor narrative, the museum ultimately resists the “forgetting” brought on by what Schlund-Vials (2012a) calls the “Cambodian Syndrome”—the combination of historical and political amnesia on the part of the US and Cambodian governments. Unlike some narratives and exhibits about the Khmer Rouge period produced without collaboration with Cambodian communities, the Remembering the Killing Fields exhibit provides more than adequate contextual information and emphasizes the perspective of victims and survivors, representing their stories, acknowledging their pain and losses, and giving them the power to hold those responsible accountable.

The success of the collaboration to create the Remembering the Killing Fields exhibit illustrates how respect for the agency of communities we work with—and for their lived experience, their stories, and how they choose to tell them—produces significant work with powerful outcomes. As Fluehr-Lobban (2008: 175) writes, “community or individual collaboration in research—with partnership incorporated in every phase of the research—becomes a condition for its success, not simply a fortuitous by-product of work with communities.” From the beginning a major difference between the Killing Fields exhibit and some exhibits on the Khmer Rouge period (e.g., the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the moma exhibit of s-21 mugshots) is that the idea for the Killing Fields exhibit originated with and was carried out by Cambodian community members. The successful collaboration produced an exhibit relevant [End Page 101] to the community’s needs and current global issues as well as having a lasting impact on those involved, beyond the completion of the exhibit.


I would like to express my gratitude for the support I received from niu’s Department of Anthropology and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and the financial support and training provided by the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship. I thank Drs. Susan Needham and Judy Ledgerwood for being continuous sources of inspiration and encouragement and for providing generous feedback on this article. I extend my great appreciation for the work done at cai and the National Cambodian Heritage Museum, and I owe a debt of gratitude to all the individuals who participated in this research for contributing their time, stories, and assistance. On behalf of cai and the museum, I would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for their generous support of exhibition development for the Remembering the Killing Fields exhibit.

Alexxandra Salazar
Independent Scholar
Alexxandra Salazar

alexxandra salazar is a recent graduate from Northern Illinois University. She has a ba in anthropology from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and a ma in anthropology with a concentration in Southeast Asia Studies from niu. Her interests include cultural maintenance, Cambodian visual and performing arts, language and culture, survivor memory, genocide remembrance, ritual and religion, gender, transnationalism, and tourism.


1. In the winter of 2015 cai and the museum boards and staff decided to change the name of the museum to the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. It was previously known as the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. They decided to make this change in hopes of increasing national and international support and recognition for the museum. The memorial was named after the film The Killing Fields (director Roland Joffé, 1985), from which many Americans first learned about the Cambodian genocide.

2. On the other hand, confining the exhibit’s account to the perspective of victims and survivors, rather than providing a critical analysis of multiple viewpoints (including the voice of the perpetrators), places a limit on the scope of the exhibit. As Thompson (2013: 102) explains, seeking a single perspective, voice, or truth marginalizes the “messy truths informing and emerging from the interpretive process itself—truths that could encompass competing truths.” The voice of the perpetrator, the Khmer Rouge, is carefully selected, limited, and controlled in the exhibit’s narrative. The only presence of a Khmer Rouge “voice” is represented by banners of regime slogans throughout the exhibit [End Page 102] (e.g., “to keep you is no gain, to destroy you is no loss”). Individual voices of soldiers or leaders are not included, which to a certain degree contributes to the construct of Khmer Rouge as single-minded, emotionless perpetrators. The curatorial team deliberately minimized the Khmer Rouge voice, choosing to give priority to the voices of survivors and the community.

3. Lon Nol was the president of the Khmer Republic (1970–75). The Khmer Republic was the new government established after General Lon Nol led a coup to overthrow King Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 (Dy 2007; Kiernan 2002).

4. Khmer Rouge is the label King Norodom Sihanouk gave to the Communist Party of Kampuchea or cpk, who opposed his government in the 1960s (Dy 2007). Khmer (Khmae) is the term used to refer to the ethnic majority of Cambodia and the language spoken by this majority, and Rouge is French for “red,” “Red Khmer” thus signifying their Communist affiliation. The Khmer Rouge regime leaders referred to themselves as Angkar (the organization). The Khmer Rouge government is referred to officially as Democratic Kampuchea. Later referents (post-1979) include the “Pol Pot time” (named after the infamous leader) and the “Killing Fields” (a reference to the mass graves in which Khmer Rouge soldiers placed the dead; also the title of a popular film).

5. Cambodia’s total population prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975 was approximately 8 million, including ethnic Khmer, Chinese, and ethnic minorities, making the death toll between one-fift h and one-quarter of the population. See Kiernan 2008 and Dy 2007.

6. Some debate revolves around the terminology used in the case of the Khmer Rouge period, whether it technically fits the definition of “genocide” or “autogenocide.” In this article, I use “genocide” as that is the term used by cai and the museum.

7. Somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000 people were imprisoned at s-21 during the Khmer Rouge period.

8. The term 1.5 generation refers to individuals who were children during the Khmer Rouge period or were born in refugee camps after the end of the Khmer Rouge. Second-generation Cambodian Americans were born and raised in the United States.

9. Some of Ledgerwood’s involvement with Cambodian communities includes work in Refugee Resettlement in Tacoma, Washington; dissertation research on culture change among Cambodian refugee communities in the US, specifically on conceptions of gender and social order; work for the Cornell University Library Conservation Project in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (1989–91); and work as an information officer for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (1992–93). She has also served as a professor of anthropology and/or Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University (1991), the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (1992, 2002–3), and Northern Illinois University (1996–present).

10. When prisoners arrived at the s-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison and torture center, their names and ages were recorded, they were given a number, and they had their “mugshots” taken. These mugshot photographs have since been archived and featured in many exhibits in Cambodia and around the world. The mugshots have been used in several other ways, including in exhibits and art projects that do not exploit the victims photographed nor engender sensationalism (see Benzaquen 2013; Caswell 2014; Ly 2003 and 2008).

11. Given space limitations, it is difficult to go into more detail or give further examples of critiques of the moma exhibit and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

12. For example, in early stages Section 2 of the exhibit was titled “Breaking Down the Social Order,” but it was later changed to “Destroying Society,” a less academic and more [End Page 103] concise phrase. The original theme section titles were generally created by the anthropologist, and then revised together with museum professionals on the advisory committee, and then approved by the cai and museum boards and staff.

13. The quotation selection was a long and agonizing process of narrowing down pages and pages of life history interviews into tiny snippets of stories, but the museum professionals involved stressed the necessity of reducing the amount and length of quotations because they knew visitors would be unlikely to stand and read extensive texts for extended lengths of time. The process of condensing interview text into limited quotations was extremely difficult for Ledgerwood and the survivors involved because this meant losing a great deal of detail and context found in the full interviews.

14. The curatorial team, cai board, and museum board and staff, particularly the Cambodian Americans, stressed the importance of having authenticity in artifacts because if the artifacts presented are real then they represent what really happened, the truth, and thus when visitors view and touch them they come closer to understanding what really happened. Ty Tim’s personal investment in acquiring authentic artifacts for the exhibit may stem from his personal belief that the reason he survived the Khmer Rouge period was so that he could produce this very exhibit (Judy Ledgerwood, pers. comm.; Kaoru Watanabe, interview). For the survivors involved in the exhibit, there was a very personal need for the exhibit to be seen as truth. This is their memory work, and it becomes both politically significant in terms of contributing to the evidentiary archive and personally and communally significant as a way of transforming trauma (Yamada 2010).

15. In tour groups, especially ones with survivors, the wooden dirt-carrier or yoke artifact in Section 2 is highlighted. Kaoru Watanabe has said that every survivor who walks through the exhibit picks up the yoke and starts to tell stories about how they used this type of tool during the Khmer Rouge time.

16. Rithy Panh is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and writer.

17. Needham and Quintiliani (2008) have demonstrated that the use of photographs is recognized as an appropriate and trustworthy way of depicting history in Cambodian culture, particularly in the diaspora (see also Ottenheimer 2013). Cambodian Americans have expressed that photographs convey truth: “this shows what happened [and] no one can change them” (quoted in Ottenheimer 2013: 225).

18. Initially members of the curatorial team and the museum and cai boards disagreed about whether the Vann Nath sketches should even be purchased, since they were reproductions (the originals had already been sold). This brought up questions of authenticity (see note on authenticity in the discussion on artifact selection). There were many conversations between Ledgerwood and the members of the cai and museum boards about the prints, and Ledgerwood ended up buying the prints, not knowing if they would make it into the final exhibit. When Vann Nath passed away, the decision to include the prints became about commemoration, and there were no longer disagreements about including them.

19. For example, within Cambodian communities there are sometimes strong disagreements, or contrasting opinions, about what happened at the end of the Khmer Rouge period or how to best describe the period—for example, did the Vietnamese “liberate” or “invade” Cambodia in 1979? [End Page 104]


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