Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum’s infamous skull-and-bones map of Cambodia, built with the remains of Pol Pot’s victims after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, is scheduled to be taken down Sunday as museum officials move ahead with a scheduled renovation.
Workers will begin moving the skulls to two specially made cabinets Sunday morning, said museum deputy director Pho Tep. Museum officials are worried the bones will decay more quickly if they are left in the open air, he said.
The museum has long wanted to take the skulls off the wall. It has undertaken a $3,920 renovation project that includes building a $1,400 stupa, removing, cleaning and reconstructing the skull map and building an $800 wood-and-glass cabinet for the skulls.
The approximately 300 skulls and bones were assembled and hung with wire on a wall in 1979 and 1980 at the former S-21 prison after the Pol Pot regime was driven out of Phnom Penh.
Many of the skulls and bones used in the map were dug up from the Tuol Sleng courtyard. Red paint in the middle of the display marks the Tonle Sap lake and the areas where the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers flow.
Last November, museum director Chey Sopheara asked for permission from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to move the skulls. Pho Tep said Tuesday the ministry recently granted that permission.
The museum has also asked for private donations to fund the renovation. Pho Tep said small donations from visitors have helped, but the museum is still seeking financial help from local and international NGOs.
For many foreign tourists, viewing the skull map is the most moving experience of their visit to Cambodia.
The display is very upsetting—almost sickening—but also an excellent way to document the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime’s prison, said Michelle Kay, a British citizen who visited the museum Tuesday.
“It is a symbol of Cambodia’s genocide,” said another tourist, Canadian Julie Corriveau.
About 16,000 people were tortured and killed at the former high school turned torture chamber and prison. Only a handful survived, including artist Vann Nath, whose paintings depicting the horrific deeds of Tuol Sleng prison officials now hang near the skull map.
Vann Nath has agreed to testify if Duch, the Tuol Sleng prison director who has been detained by the government for almost three years, is ever brought to trial. Vann Nath said Wednesday he supports the museum’s renovation.
“Whatever has been broken should be fixed and put in good condition,” he said. “I don’t want what happened to be forgotten and to lose its meaning.”
Some Cambodians have said the skull map dehumanized, rather than memorialized, the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. But several Cambodian museum visitors said this week they believed the skull map’s shock value is appropriate, considering the magnitude of the Khmer Rouge regime’s crimes.
“It was very frightening to see. I don’t want something like that to happen again in Cambodia,” said 30-year-old Van Savit, who wants the skull map to remain as it is.
Sok Khorn, 23, was born just after Phnom Penh was liberated from the Khmer Rouge. He said he also did not want to see the skulls and bones put in a cabinet.
“If it is moved, we would then only see the skulls, but not the map,” he said.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, has suggested the museum use another wall-size map of Cambodia that shows where every mass grave, killing field and prison was located during the Khmer Rouge regime. Museum officials have been receptive to the idea, he said.
Vann Nath said the skulls should be taken down from the map permanently. He suggested cremating the skulls and bones. But he also said displaying them in the wooden cabinets is a good idea since it shows respect to the victims.
The museum had Cambodia’s Buddhist tradition in mind when it decided to build the cabinets and the stupa, said Pho Tep.
“We will keep this memorial for a long time,” he said.