A few passionate individuals are working hard to bring history alive through small private collections. Bridget Di Certo, Lim Meng Y and Rithy Lomor Pich dig out the stories behind Cambodia’s lesser known museums and archives.
Founding a museum was less of a decision and more of a personal necessity for former child soldier Aki Ra. Indoctrinated into the Khmer Rouge in the late 1960s, he was tasked with laying landmines along battlegrounds in the northwest of Cambodia.
Many years later, Aki would go back to the villages where he had laid the mines to uncover the unexploded ordnance. Wearing rubber flip-flops and armed with a stick, he defused the explosives and brought the shells back to his house for safekeeping.
A collection grew and, over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, Aki charged visitors $1 to come and see his house of bombs. The fame piqued the interest of authorities, who had Aki close down the exhibit in 2006 until he met the appropriate standards for finding, defusing and storing the weapons.
It reopened in 2008 as the Cambodian Landmine Museum in Siem Reap province. On display at the museum are Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, German, Czech and American mines. “I don’t even know how many thousands of landmines we have here now,” says project manager Bill Morse.
“The museum exists to tell the story about landmines in Cambodia and the world,” he adds. “And to show that you can make a difference no matter who you are.”
The museum is not the only one of its kind. As the landmine museum came to fruition, another collector was hoarding remnants of war in Phnom Penh.
Sing Kea began collecting shrapnel and bomb casings in 2000 as a form of therapy to deal with bitter memories of the ongoing internal conflict that beset the country after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
After 13 years, with objects overwhelming his house, he revamped it into a tourist café near the Choeung Ek killing fields. The little shrapnel museum had a different take on its exhibits — displaying the collection as everyday items like rocket vases, bomb casing cups and shrapnel clocks and coasters.
“Another purpose of displaying the shrapnel and bombs I have collected is to let people know about the poverty which results from war,” Sing says. “A lot of Cambodian people take shrapnel and other fragments of weapons to use in their everyday life. For example, people use old army parachutes as their sleeping nets.”
“This display tells the story of poverty that is still haunting people in their life after war,” he adds.
Like Aki before him, Sing’s rogue collection drew official attention and is currently under examination by authorities to ensure all traces of explosive are removed. He hopes to reopen his café as soon as the exhibits are deemed safe.
Despite the wealth of fascinating history in Cambodia, small museums can have a hard time garnering the attention of locals and tourists. The National Kite Museum — launched to much fanfare in 2009 — has fallen under the radar.
Once a proud display of Cambodian nationalism and the subject of an extensive book by Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture secretary of state Sim Sarak, the display has effectively been in storage for nearly a year after its former home across from the National Assembly in Phnom Penh was taken over by a Vietnamese art exhibit.
Crammed in a dusty, darkened room at the National Kite Museum offices, hundreds of beautifully decorated kites seem fated for a life in limbo. The collection includes reproductions of ancient styles from the Angkor era, when kite flying was a popular pasttime. The colourful kites span between one and two metres across and are adorned with symbolic patterns and landscape scenes.
“The Kite Museum plays a very important role to house all Khmer kites that people almost forget,” Sim says. “There are 27 different kinds of Khmer kites that we can see in Kite museum. Moreover, it is a place to provide knowledge about kites to the next generation.”
Sim says it is a long process to find the right location and funding for the museum to regain its former glory.
“Museums are storage for knowledge. Museums are important because it is a place to preserve and develop one particular thing or culture,” he says. “In Cambodia, more museums should be made now such as a Khmer food museum, Khmer music museum, Khmer dance museum, for the next generations.”
With more than 14 centuries of history and culture to record and preserve, Sim makes a poignant point.