Documentation Center of Cambodia






Museum Networks and Preparation for the 100th Anniversary

of the National Museum of Cambodia


National Museum of Cambodia, January 04, 2013



Koh Ker temple

Photo by DC-Cam Staff

Cambodia’s Cultural Heritage is still at Risk


By Rud Hubbard

J.D./M.A. University of Michigan


At first glance, there is little left of the once glorious ancient Royal Palace at Koh Ker. Jungle has overtaken the ancient stones expertly tiled roofs. Yet, buried under the jungle floor, the palace remains. With a bit of effort and a good guide, the outline of this monumental building slowly emerges from in between the trees. Despite its massive central temple and a far-reaching temple complex of stunning beauty and design, Koh Ker remains relatively unknown. With the area’s landmines fully cleared only in the past few years and significant looting of its treasures Koh Ker remains off the beaten track. Through the hard work of Dr. Chen Chanratana the Founder/President of Kerdomnel Khmer Foundation, efforts to excavate the Royal Palace are beginning and the entire temple complex is slowly being recovered. This reclamation of the Royal Palace at Koh Ker offers a powerful example of the strength of Cambodia’s culture heritage.


The current state of Koh Ker is the result, in part, of the political and social upheaval Cambodia has experienced in recent history. The Genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge targeted much more than people. In addition to burying nearly two million of the countrymen and women, the Khmer Rouge sought to bury Cambodian culture as well. Through deliberate action and malign neglect, places like Koh Ker were lost to jungle, trapped in mine fields, and even actively destroyed. This Cultural Genocide has long undermined the process of reconciliation and forgiveness in Cambodia. Today, as Cambodians work to move past the horrors of that period, Cambodia’s cultural heritage is likewise is re-emerging to play a significant role in achieving reconciliation for all Cambodians. In places like Koh Ker works are beginning to preserve and protect this heritage.


On January 4th, 2013, DC-Cam - together with The National Museum of Cambodia and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, broke ground on a very different type of excavation, but with the same goal of cultural preservation. Bringing together representatives from museums and cultural centers in all 24 Provinces, a new initiative was launched to share Cambodia’s rich culture heritage to all corners of the country.


For the past 15 years, it has been the mission of DC-Cam to preserve memory, promote Justice, and achieve reconciliation for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Working to provide documentation to the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, DC-Cam has helped to see this process of Justice realized. By documenting crimes of the Khmer Rouge era, memory and justice have grown together.


Reconciliation however, must go beyond justice for the Khmer Rouge’s worst perpetrators. If justice separates the guilty from the innocent and identifies perpetrators and victims, reconciliation is about bringing people together to build a better society. Achieving justice is a necessary step to bring to a close the terrors associated with the Khmer Rouge period and allows Cambodia to move forward. But, like clearing the land mines in Koh Ker, it is only the first step.


Art and culture must play an important role in reconciliation. In bringing together the key actors in Cambodian cultural preservation, DC-Cam hopes to reclaim the legacy of Cambodia’s culture heritage. DC-Cam’s vision, shared with the conference by Savina Sirik, is a network of robust museums throughout the country, allowing locals and foreigners alike to draw strength and inspiration from Cambodia’s culture and art. This process includes three broad initiatives.


First, together with the National Museum of Cambodia, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and museums in 24 provinces, DC-Cam will develop exhibits commemorating the Khmer Rouge period. Having this heritage available to all will facilitate reconciliation and provide education for younger generations to learn from the mistakes of the past. Second, DC-Cam will establish a permanent exhibit in Phnom Penh commemorating the forced transfer of urban populations to rural areas during the Khmer Rouge period. Stories from Civil Parties are being collected and will be shared through this exhibit and in the provinces as well. This museum space will also serve to coordinate DC-Cams’s genocide education project, equipping younger generations with the tools needed to combat genocide and through knowledge of the past. Third, DC-Cam will help these provincial museums to expand their role protecting and sharing Cambodia’s cultural heritage.


During the all-day conference, a wide variety of stakeholders contributed to mark the beginning of this important new iniative. Opening speeches by H.E. Hab Touch, the Director General of the Department of Cultural Heritage and Kong Vireak, the Director of the National Museum of Cambodia set the tone for the conference. The day was certainly to be an important day in the cultural life of Cambodia. As the conference progressed Phann Nady and Lim Ky provided useful technical details on the process of identifying and archiving historical materials respectively. Christopher Dearing and Terith Chy discussed the dangers that continue to face Cambodia’s cultural treasures, in the forms of looting and neglect. A discussion period at the end of the day highlighted many of the challenges and opportunities faced by museums and cultural centers in Cambodia’s provinces. It was this closing dialogue that opened the doors for future collaboration.


During their presentation, Christopher Dearing and Terith Chy asked the gathered representatives if it was possible to have a country without culture? The implication was, what would happen to Cambodia if its cultural heritage is lost? Cambodia’s cultural heritage is still at risk. The ugly specter of cultural imperialism threatens to swallow Cambodia’s rich history in a sea of popular culture. One conference participant admitted that despite living in Phnom Penh, he had never even been to the National Museum. Yet, there at the conference, it made him proud to see the strength of his own culture, a strength he knew little about. DC-Cam and its partners hope to bring this culture awakening to Cambodians all across the country, combating cultural imperialism with education, resources and cultural outreach.


Cambodians suffered a great deal during the Khmer Rouge period and the wounds from that time are far from healed. Cambodia cannot afford to lose its cultural heritage. After all, the glories of Angkor and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge both make Cambodia the country it is today and both must be preserved if Cambodians are to achieve a better future. The ground that was broken at the National Museum of Cambodia at this conference was not the beginning of this process, but it was the beginning of a new period of collaboration and a new chapter in DC-Cam’s quest for Justice, Memory and Reconciliation. In Koh Ker, archaeologists hope to one-day reconstruct the beautiful Royal Palace on its ancient foundations. So too does DC-Cam hope to construct a future of reconciliation and hope on the buried foundations of Cambodia’s culture heritage.


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The Documentation Center of Cambodia’s Museum of Memory aims to play a central role in promoting peace and reconciliation by rebuilding Cambodia’s cultural heritage. Since the 8th Century A.D., Cambodia has had a rich and vibrant artistic culture. Cambodia’s cultural life has included ornate temples, lively art galleries, splendid museums, rigorous art schools, graceful and distinctive royal dances, rhythmically complex chanted poetry, multi-genre plays, and abstract orchestral music.

The Khmer Rouge deliberately targeted Cambodian cultural resources, destroying temples, forbidding traditional dances and music, and leaving no space for cultural expression beyond propaganda for the regime. As the quote above suggests, this cultural devastation deepened the suffering of Cambodians as they mourned the loss of their loved ones and attempted to reconstruct society.

The crimes of the Khmer Rouge have been addressed legally, through the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (better known as The Khmer Rouge Tribunal) among other efforts, and societally through memorials and national remembrance days. Yet the enormous cultural losses inflicted by the regime have been largely left unexamined. The Museum of Memory seeks to fill this gap by focusing on Cambodian arts and architecture, national identity, and history as a foundation for truth and reconciliation.

The Museum of Memory currently has three components. First, it seeks to expand upon its current exhibits and educational activities at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, including through interactive discussions between Documentation Center of Cambodia lecturers, experts, survivors, and museumgoers; screening films about the Khmer Rouge regime; and exhibiting photographs from the Democratic Kampuchea era. Second, the Museum of Memory aims to install a Khmer Rouge history exhibit at twenty-four provincial museums. This would include permanent and temporary exhibits on the Khmer Rouge era, meetings with local staff to assess and review exhibits, and documentation of stories and photos of Khmer Rouge survivors including the civil parties in the various regions. The Museum of Memory also aims to establish an archaeology museum in Cambodia. Finally, the Museum of Memory will play a central role in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Museum of Cambodia. The Museum of Memory aims to celebrate this milestone accordingly, through comprehensive research on the history and collection of the museum, thorough analysis, and extensive recommendations consistent with the Museum’s cherished legacy.

Collaboration with Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts

The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) established a formal collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in 1996. Subsequently, we were granted permission from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to establish a project to provide educational elements and visual-audio activities to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum through a history classroom, photo exhibitions, and film screenings.


Extending from the project at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the Center also received permission to work with involved ministry experts and staff members to develop twenty-four provincial museums nationwide and establish an archaeology museum. Finally, in July 2012, the Royal Government of Cambodia permitted DC-Cam to collaborate with the National Museum of Cambodia to undertake programs to organize events for the hundredth-year inauguration of the Museum.


Based on this collaboration, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and DC-Cam have engaged in discussions to develop concrete programs to contribute to the preservation and promotion of culture and fine arts in Cambodia. The ministry is tasked with responsibilities to create and nurture programs that contribute to these purposes. DC-Cam will work closely with the representatives of involved departments and museums to implement the project.


This workshop is organized by Documentation Center of Cambodia cooperating with National Museum of Cambodia and Ministry of Fine Arts. It is funded by The Sleuk Rith Institute’s Endowment Fund ( with the core supports from United States Agency for International Development (USAID).


For more information, please contact:
Kong Vireak, Director, National Museum of Cambodia; Tel: 012 982 766
Sirik Savina, Director, Museum of Memory of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.; Tel: 012 688 046


Tentative Agenda