BOOK REVIEW: Curating Recent Memory in Cambodia


Arnold-de Simine, Silke. Mediating Memory in the Museum: Trauma, Empathy, Nostalgia. Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Ledgerwood, Judy. “The Cambodian Tuoul Sleng Museum of Genocidal Crimes: National Narrative.” Museum Anthropology 21, no. 1 (1997).

Ly, Boreth. “Of Performance and the Persistent Temporality of Trauma: Memory, Art, and Visions.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 16, no. 1 (2008): 109–30.

Thompson, Ashley. “Forgetting to Remember, Again: On Curatorial Practice and ‘Cambodian Art’ in the Wake of Genocide.” Diacritics 41, no. 2 (2013): 82–109.

Uk, Krisna. “Aesthetic Forms of Post-Conflict Memory.” In Interactions with a Violent Past: Reading Post-Conflict Landscapes in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, edited by Oliver Tappe and Vatthana Pholsena. Baltimore, Maryland: Project Muse, 2013.

Um, Khatharya. “Exiled Memory: History, Identity, and Remembering in Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian Diaspora.” Positions 20, no. 3 (June 20, 2012): 831–50.


This week’s readings center on museums and the curation of memory. Silke Arnolde-de Simine examines new trends in museum and memory studies and demonstrates the challenges of contemporary museums to represent a broad social or political consensus of memory with a respect to diverse heritages and traumatic individual and collective experiences. Arnold-de Simine highlights the primary critiques of museums to decontextualize living traditions, alienate people from their past, disseminate hegemonical national narratives, instrumentalize bodies of knowledge, and to commodify culture and history. These critiques underlie recent trends to develop alternative forms of memory making and curation seen in the other articles. How do we facilitate inclusive processes of memorialization without objectifying experiences and trivializing objects of ‘authentic’ trauma’?

Arnold-de Simine explains how museums function as public educators but are tasked with the impossible balancing act of “providing a secure environment in which people can encounter difficult histories, of passing on marginalized memories without alienating their visitors and of reflecting a flux of identities but nevertheless distilling the heterogeneity of their visitors’ experiences and attitudes into a consensual discourse around discernible core values and sensibilities.” (Arnold-de Simine, 9) This attention to visitor’s experiences aligns with Walter Benjamin’s analogy of memory as excavation and archaeology. By shifting the attention from ‘what’ is uncovered as an object of historical positivistic truth to the ‘process’ of excavation of memories, Benjamin reveals the active and participatory process of memorialization. However, his analogy is a bit disjunctive since archaeology often privileges the found object as expression of past realities. This connects with Arnold-de Simine’s commentary on the veneration of ‘authentic’ and iconic objects of memory within museums.

In comparison Krisna Uk’s work on aesthetic memory draws attention to the excavator or craftsman rather than the archaeological object. Uk examines how the aesthetic acts of sculpting, painting, and weaving in the communities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail offer a creative experience of individual and collective memory. The material engagement and creation of warfare objects such as statues of planes enable the maker “to harness their intrinsic power for positive purposes, thus turning them into signs of life.” (Uk, 222) Yet Uk concludes with the recognition that many of these aesthetic practices exist within the market of war fare tourism. Rather than subsuming these agents within a capitalistic model of commodifying culture, Uk emphasizes how the maker can be their own consumer of memory. This connects with Bernard Cohn’s study of the ‘objectification’ of one’s own past in “The Census, Social structure, and Objectification in South Asia.”[1] Cohn demonstrates how the British colonial census contributed to the reflexive process of Indian self-identification. Through census questioning and classification, Indians made ‘legible’ their identities, heritages, and pasts for ‘official’ documentation. This communication of one’s identity parallels the process of producing memory to different audiences.

This shift to participatory practices of memorialization are important especially for recent memory such as the Second Indochina War and the Khmer Rouge regime. Khatharya Um discusses the concepts of exiled memory and identity within diasporic communities of Southeast Asians. What happens when imagery of belonging is intertwined with memory of death and deprivation “signifying both an indelible connection and, simultaneously, a rupture?” (Um, 833) Um highlights the challenges of a diasporic community to make meaning out of their own identities and histories tied with individual trauma and collective suffering. The case of the Cambodian American Heritage and Killing Fields Memorial Museum embodies the presence of a diasporic community—their pursuit of meaning, relevance, and experience of loss and nostalgia. “Diaspora is thus a site inhabited simultaneously by continuities and discontinuities — ghosts,

memory fragments, interruptions, and contradictions.” (Um 836)

The attention to the institutionalization of memory in these readings sheds significance on the pedagogical approaches to teaching of war. As mentioned in Arnold-de Simine’s work, museums have move towards exhibiting the experience of war and trauma rather than explaining its geo-political and ideological underpinnings. This approach can be integrated in teaching history in a critical and reflective manner. Rather than including ‘objects of memory’ such as memoirs, oral histories, and experiences of diasporic communities as a decorative piece of ‘authentic’ history, contemporary memory should be a subject of discussion and debate in itself. This reflection on history and memory can then reveal new perspectives on the practice of history and offer an alternative reading to standard narratives of war.

[1] Bernard S. Cohn, ” The census, social structure, and objectification in South Asia” in An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays (Delhi; New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1987).

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