Friday, 30 June 2017




How do we deal with painful topics in museums? Is it the duty of a museum to memorialize atrocities? What do we validate? Who is the victor and who is the victim, and how do we make those choices to present these issues?

This is not just an issue in North America. We have our own dark histories on this continent to face and come to terms with, such as the residential school system, the Chinese head tax, Japanese internment camps, and more. However, in thinking about how we should tell these stories in Canada or the United States of America, I believe looking abroad can be helpful. Too often institutions turn in on themselves to try and figure out the best way to present a painful story without realizing that help with difficult topics or problems can be found with the aid of other institutions.

After all, it is sad to say, but dark and painful histories reside in almost all corners of this world.


The concept of museums and remembering is an interesting and important topic. The idea of collective/national memory is not a real thing, and yet museums often simplify their stories to sound this way in order to get a point across, even with good intentions. "Collective" implies that that dominant narrative concerning memory is the only narrative, particularly with regard to traumatic times. It is a fine line that a museum must walk when displaying atrocities, taking particular care that stories that might not otherwise be told are brought to light. 

In Southeast Asia there are many museums dedicated to memory, contentious or not. With histories of colonialism, war, occupation, and genocide, there are a variety of museums that try to tackle these topics in different ways. I am looking at only 3 examples, but there are many more.

1. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

Having visited these sites myself, I can say that I've never experienced anything like what I did here. Tuol Sleng is a school-turned-prison during the Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge Regime in the 1970s. After Pol Pot was overthrown, some sites were kept in their state, which was often abysmal. Tuol Sleng, for example, has cells that had been built for prisoners and objects like torture tools are left in the rooms they were used in. There are photographs of all of the Cambodians still missing as you walk the space.

.Cells built in the old classrooms. Photo courtesy of Kristen McLaughlin

Tuol Sleng. Photo courtesy of Kristen McLaughlin

The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek are approximately a half an hour away from Tuol Sleng. It is a memorial that was built around the mass graves of thousands of Cambodians. There are informative signs and tributes throughout the park.

The Killing Fields Memorial and mass graves. Source.

These two are not quite museums but rather monuments of memory with information for visitors unfamiliar with the history. They stand to remind visitors and younger generations of the genocide and that it can never be forgotten or repeated. The subject matter is incredibly difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to imagine. However, the impact of the Khmer Rouge is still being felt throughout Cambodia and the country feels such reminders are necessary.

2. Tokyo, Japan: Women's Active Museum on War and Peace

This is a private museum focusing on the tense subject of comfort women. Comfort women, as they are euphemistically called, were girls and women captured by the Japanese army (in South Korea, Manchuria, and the Philippines, mainly) who were then forced into militarized sexual slavery in World War II. For many years, the Japanese government ignored these events and still argue against the facts. This lack of acknowledgement for years of abuse against women is intricately tied into the idea of nationalist pride in Japan and how the nation commemorates memory. For example, the Yasukuni Shrine--a museum-type shrine dedicated to the memory of Japanese veterans--is also the burial site of war criminals; Japanese leaders continue to visit the site, which has become a source of debate. They acknowledge the controversial figures as heroes and ignore more difficult topics.

WAM Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Source.

This museum is a strong statement against the government memory. The exhibits are stories told by survivors, many of whom have struggled their entire lives to get over the trauma. It is the only museum in Japan that collects, saves, and exhibits evidence and materials concerning comfort women. It holds special exhibitions once a year. It is also a socially active museum against sexual violence. This is an example of a museum that must take a political stand to get the point across and to make sure that certain events in history are not forgotten. After all, silencing and forgetting can be just as politically charged as remembering.

Recently, the Japanese government has agreed to pay surviving comfort women for their pain. However, this is not enough for the women and they want Japan to admit it committed crimes, which the government continues to refuse to do. Read more here.

Different women who suffered, during occupation and today.
Photo 1 source and photo 2 source.

3. Seoul, South Korea: Architecture, the Seoul Museum of History, and The National Museum

South Korea was officially occupied by Japan from 1910-1945. Although South Koreans were theoretically Japanese citizens, they were more frequently treated as a conquered nation. From the 1930s until 1945, a process of assimilation was implemented by Japan, forcing them to speak Japanese and attempting to erase many aspects of South Korean culture. This also led to much South Korean art and artifacts to be taken by Japan and subsequently placed into their museums. Today there is still a fight to regain ownership of these by South Korea.

So how does South Korea attempt to tell this story of colonialism through their museums?

Despite the horrors and repression under Japanese colonialism, South Korean museums do not focus heavily on this time period, focused more on obtaining their artifacts. Still, unlike Japan, the painful occupation period is noted in museums, such as in the Seoul Museum of History permanent exhibitions. Korea's National Museum has also held exhibitions on Japanese colonialism, such as "Collecting Asian Objects in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945" that ran in 2014. However, even then the museum director adamantly denied the exhibition was political.


Buildings can also be places of memory, whether they are kept as reminders or demolished. The South Korean government demolished the Governor-General's Building in 1995, a building that was created under Japanese occupation. It was decided this demolition would create a new "national spirit and energy"; another way of looking at how countries choose to remember (or not remember) events. This also led to the creation of the new National Museum, which was at one point housed in the GGB.

 The GGB before it was demolished in 1996. Source.


Through the examples of Cambodia, Japan, and South Korea, we can see how museums, memorials, and buildings are used to remember (or not remember) past trauma. These examples are not meant to show a better or worse way of memorializing such histories, but rather, simply to demonstrate the different ways in which they are told. In some cases, the government is the big push behind remembering, such as in South Korea; in other cases, they are the very obstacle to overcome, such as in Japan.

It is nearly impossible to lump a nation and its people all into one mentality; where some people may want to remember, others may not. Where some want to be political, others may not. It is a fine line that museum professionals must walk when dealing with sensitive and painful issues and memories. What I find important to remember is that heritage institutions all over the world must deal with such issues and that museums should keep up international dialogue to better understand how to (or not to) exhibit such issues. 

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