The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: UNESCO Memory of the World Program and the Reorganization of the Museum
The UNESCO Office in Phnom Penh hosted a celebration on 7 February 2011 to launch the new visit circuit of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This was the culmination of a 2 year intensive project “Assistance to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Memorial of Khmer Rouge prison known as S-21)". The UNESCO Memory of the World Register inscribed the Museum Archives in July 2009 to honour their historical importance. The UNESCO Office in Phnom Penh, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, are particularly grateful to the government of the United States of America for their financial support.
The project had two main objectives: first, capacity building of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to conserve, preserve use for educational purposes the historically unique and most complete documentary collection from the former S-21 prison and interrogation centre, which are synonymous to the Pol Pot Regime. It is estimated that over 15,000 prisoners were detained during the regime and the collection illustrates the fate of the detainees, who were held in the compound from 1975 to 1979. The Democratic Kampuchea is estimated to have claimed well over 1 million lives– through execution, starvation and disease – as the Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia back to the middle ages. The second objective of the Museum project was the facility improvements to ensure the best working and storage environment for the collection. However, the actual prison is being conserved as a symbolic icon; without altering its initial structure.
The very successful application and completion of the project’s objectives have ensured the Museum’s future capacity to engage with the country’s harrowing past; and to establish a dialogue of social reconciliation and healing for Cambodia. It is vital for Cambodia’s future generations to learn about their past, for it impossible to think of the future, if the past is not understood. The quotation from George Orwell, "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, London: Harvill Secker, 1949, p.309), captures the essence of the approach needed for Cambodia. There is hope for the future that the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum will become a Peace Museum where peace and reconciliation discussions can begin through the engagement of all members of Cambodian civil society.