For the last two decades, Cambodians and human rights activists scoured the country for photos, documents and artifacts to document the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s.
All of that information was used as evidence at tribunals meant to bring perpetrators to justice.
Khmer Rouge members and survivors live today as neighbors. The tribunals are winding down. And a small group of Cambodians at the Documentation Center of Cambodia is working with faculty at the University of Wyoming to turn hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence into a means of both remembrance and reconciliation.
They call it the Museum of Memory.
The building, modeled after the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, will be constructed in the capital, Phnom Penh.
Isadora Helfgott, an assistant professor in the UW Department of History, and Nicole Crawford, curator of collections at the University of Wyoming Art Museum, have the technical expertise to help the Cambodians create their museum.
“(They) have the extraordinary weight of a complicated history and a more complicated present,” Helfgott said. “They want to do justice to, not only the victims, but the survivors. But, they also understand that a lot of the people in the Khmer Rouge continue to be part of Cambodian society. So, they are, in fits and starts, trying to move past (the genocide).”
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During the Communist group's reign, about 1.7 million people died, according to some estimates.
Organizers working to build a museum have close connections to that period in the nation’s history, Helfgott said. They have managed to place their personal accounts in the context of the rest of the country’s history.
The University of Wyoming College of Law has been helping the Documentation Center collect information for the last half decade. As the center's mission moved from legal support to archiving, Helfgott and Crawford stepped in to help.
During a June trip to Cambodia, Helfgott and Crawford will help teach workers how to conserve objects, how to decide what should be included, how to plan exhibits and how the story will be told.
“They are personally motivated, and the job they have has national implications as well,” Helfgott said.
The nation is ready for the project, Helfgott added. Phnom Penh has seen a remarkable amount of modernization in the last two decades. Residents enjoy modern technology and transportation. The museum will be a bridge to the country’s past. The workers are raising money now, and they are a substantial way to their goal, Helfgott said.
Right now, the group has limited space and technology for using modern archival practices, but the exhibits on display in nearby provinces are impressive, Helfgott said.
One exhibit explores the lives of people forced from their homes in the city into work camps in rural villages. Another is a contemporary art exhibit containing pieces that respond to the genocide. A third exhibit is on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Helfgott and Crawford’s work with the Cambodian group earned them the University of Wyoming’s Award for Faculty Achievement in Internationalization. They are going to be presenting their work at Oxford University this summer.
Helfgott and Crawford said their involvement with the project wouldn’t be possible without the university’s recent shift toward encouraging collaboration between different departments.
“That means our sets of expertise can meld together,” Helfgott said. “In the old days of university, you wouldn’t be able to do this. You’d be stuck in your own academic unit.”
Students will also benefit. A visiting scholar will introduce students to the Museum of Memory. In January, they will visit Cambodia.
Students will study artifacts looted from ancient temples, learn about Cold War history, discover Buddhist and Hindu art and participate in hands-on museum studies lessons with the Cambodian group.
“The genocide is living history. It’s not something that’s over,” Helfgott said. “It’s one thing to read books and histories of what happened, but to talk to (people) about their family history … the students are going to learn so much.”
More information about the Museum of Memory is available at www.cambodiasri.org.