UD: Who initiated this work?
JP: Julia was asked to come and do a consultation by someone
who worked at Choeung Ek - the "Killing Fields" -- where clothing is
often found as it surfaces from the unexhumed mass graves. She did a
consultation there and the director of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum --
Visoth Chhay -- met her there. He told Julia that they had this clothing
at S-21 and asked what they should do with it.
UD: What have you learned about Tuol Sleng?
JP: People from all walks of life were detained and tortured
here. High-profile prisoners, men, women and children -- even Khmer
Rouge cadre accused of being traitors. There were prisons and torture
centers like this all over Cambodia. But the amazing thing is --
Cambodia is beautiful. Phnom Penh is beautiful. The people are
wonderful. It is really hard to believe that just 40 years ago this was
UD: What sort of work have you been doing during this initial visit?
JP: We have been leading a workshop with several participants -
two recent university graduates, a collections manager at Tuol Sleng,
employees of the museum, a person who is in charge of the textile
department at the National Museum of Cambodia, for example -- and
talking about the basics of textile conservation, storage and handling,
environmental monitoring, pest management -- almost everything you cover
in the first year of the Winterthur at UD program, but here in just a
couple of days.
UD: Could you tell us about some of the items in the collection?
JP: It is mostly clothing, but we have only begun going
through the collection. There is a large number of caps, the green
military style with a small band, and we have been going through a box
of pants and shorts that almost all have elaborate patchwork repairs.
Nothing was thrown away here, clothing was reused over and over again.
We're not seeing many shirts. There are a lot of fragments of textiles
that were collected, lots of small shoulder bags, military style for
water bottles, ammunition and guns. Some have inscriptions or markings
on them. As we look through those, the process of documentation will be
really important so other researchers have access to the collection and
can see what is there.
UD: What sort of inventory protocols do you observe?
JP: We have been teaching the basics of textile conservation
-- how to look at objects, how to move objects, the importance of
everything having an inventory number so that we know what we have. The
paper inventory form has a place for the number and a series of boxes
that get checked, a place for a written description of the object, notes
about accretion, surface dirt, holes from insects. Every object will be
photographed with a digital image record. We are trying to remove heavy
accretions and nasty surface dirt, but that is pretty minimal. All of
the dirt we remove is being saved. Basic information about each object
is then entered into a digital database for easy searchability.
UD: Is it hard to decide how to treat these items?
JP: We made the definitive decision not to 'wet clean'
anything because it would be too invasive. You never know what human
data is present and that wouldn't be appropriate.
UD: Will all of the objects be salvageable?
JP: We're going to save everything whether or not it will
serve a purpose in the future. You never know who will be interested in
researching what. If may not be conservable by the Western definition --
what you might put on display at a fine art museum -- but it is
conservable in a box long-term in a managed relative humidity situation.
This collection hasn't been looked at at all, but the archives have
UD: Have you talked with - or will you talk with - family members of these prisoners?
JP: It was so recent -- 1979 was not that long ago -- and it
comes up a couple times every day. The people we are working with --
everybody has a story about it. People my age or younger may be more
removed, but really personal stories are coming out as we get to know
the people we're working with.
UD: What impressed you as you entered the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum for the first time?
JP: I had been trying to prepare myself for months. I was
nervous about how I would handle it emotionally. But it is in the middle
of the city. There is a boisterous neighborhood all around it, with
cafes and shops. It's a residential area. But you walk through the gates
-- it is a sizable complex -- and the buildings are kind of rundown. It
is really quiet. You walk in and it's extremely peaceful, there are
flowering trees in the courtyard and it's kind of lovely. Then you walk
into the buildings - and it's just so hard to believe.
UD: Those buildings were where much of the suffering occurred. What is it like now?
JP: It's a huge tourist destination. Tour busses drop people off.
It's kind of bizarre, but it's important to keep this memory alive. The
audio tour gives a lot of information about the different locations and
the compound and the survivor testimonies. It was difficult to go there
for the first time. Then you go outside and there are benches all around
the courtyard. Visitors sit and almost everyone has the same expression
-- quiet contemplation.
UD: What will happen next with this project?
JP: We hope to come back in September for the second phase of the
project. We will be here longer then, using a desiccant (drying agent)
adopted from the agriculture industry. We put all of the garments into
plastic boxes with gaskets -- airtight -- and use desiccant to reduce
the relative humidity in each box and create a microclimate that should
protect them from mold growth and hopefully limit insect activity.
UD: As you reflect on this - what are your thoughts now?
JP: It's such an honor to be part of this. It's one thing to
work with fine art collections in fine art museums in the U.S. or
Europe. This just feels a lot more necessary and a lot more important.
This is an effort that needs our help. It is difficult and I'm tired.
But to work with this collection is an honor and pretty inspiring.
Article by Beth Miller; photos courtesy of Julia Brennan