Skull Map at Museum May Be Removed

The “skull map” of Cambodia at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum may be dismantled and replaced with a satellite-generated map in an effort to preserve the skulls, improve Cambodia’s image and respect the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

The skull map hangs in a room at Tuol Sleng, the former high school used by the Khmer Rouge as a torture chamber and prison. More than 16,000 men, women and children were taken to the prison and almost all were later executed.

Constructed in 1979 with about 300 skulls and other bones, the map’s effect is chilling. But it is also dehumanizing, said Youk Chhang, director of the Docu­men­tation Center of Cambodia.

“I personally would not want to see my sister’s skull hanging in a museum,” Youk Chhang said.

He said the map’s message is misleading. “It’s emotionally powerful, but it’s not scientifically accurate. When people think about Cambodia, they think about skulls. We do have skulls, but we also have the beauty of the country and the gentleness of the people.”

The Documentation Center wants to replace the skull map with a map compiled from Global Positioning System geographic data and five years of field work, including interviews with surviving witnesses of the genocide, Youk Chhang said.

The center’s research has pinpointed the locations of 19,440 mass graves and 167 prisons used by the Khmer Rouge, as well as 77 memorials erected by survivors. These places would be identified on the proposed map.

Smaller versions of the map could be distributed to visitors to Tuol Sleng.

The museum has long wanted to take the skulls off the wall. They are suspended from wires to form the shape of the country. Many of them are dark with dirt or shiny from wear.

The museum’s deputy director, Pho Tep, said they are decaying and should be preserved. He also said the skulls could be relevant to the upcoming Khmer Rouge trial.

Pho Tep said museum director Sopheara Cheay is drafting a proposal to submit to the Ministry of Culture, which oversees the museum.

The skulls would be arranged on shelves in a glass case in the middle of the room, which would take on the air of a Buddhist stupa, with vases of burning incense and people praying for the souls of the victims.

The museum needs permission and money—about $5,000—from the government to take apart the skull map. If the government approves but won‘t pay for it, the museum will appeal to private donors, Pho Tep said.

The museum’s plan for the skulls has not yet reached King Norodom Sihanouk, who in the past has requested that the bones of genocide victims be cremated so their souls can pass on to a new life.

The King has voiced support for the satellite map. In a letter to Youk Chhang, dated October 10, he wrote: “I would like to express my profound gratitude and warm appreciation of your unique state-of-art initiative in zooming the map of Cambodia with genocide sites to replace the existing skull-map being displayed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.”


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