AmSpec contributor Doug Bandow mentions today the blogs I've posted here recently about the trial of Khmer Rouge jailer Kaing Guek Eav, who ran the Phnom Penh torture chamber that was S-21, or Tuol Sleng. Doug recounts his own visit a few years ago to the prison, and his descriptions accurately capture the horror and despair that Tuol Sleng -- now a museum -- conveys. I've been twice in the last two years and you can easily imagine what the place was like in the late 1970s: the gritty linoleum floors; the haphazard, quick-bricked cells; the crumbled walls; and of course the black-and-white photos of the victims.
In contrast, yesterday I happened to be in the Washington area for a brief family visit and decided to visit DC with my children for the day. Our first target was the Jefferson Memorial and on the way we passed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, so we decided to take a brief stroll through.
I am fairly new to the study of the genocide issue so I am in no position to make value comparisons between the worth of one museum over another. Both have significant contributions to make to the education of society and both should burden visitors with how and why questions, and with puzzlement that such evil could exist.
But as for effectiveness in placing you at the scene of the crimes, there is no comparison. Tuol Sleng, as minimal and as undeveloped as you could imagine such a museum to be, overwhelms you. I imagine the experience is similar to what you would feel visiting Auschwitz, untainted. In contrast the U.S. Holocaust Museum, overflowing with facts and displays, and about as professional and slick as you can imagine, only conveys information. It's a modern building with modern interactive techniques in spiffy displays which clue you in, but place you far away from the events it covers.
Obviously you couldn't put a Tuol Sleng in our country, and have it have the same meaning. And the U.S. Holocaust Museum serves a great purpose in educating those who are unable to visit the sites of these historic horrors. But I guess my point is, in order to understand the gravity and magnitude of the mass murder -- you have to visit the places where it happened. At least for me, that was the case.
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