Stephanie Caspelich

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Cambodian American Heritage Museum: A Story of Remembrance and Renewal

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Cambodian American Heritage Museum

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The Cambodian American Heritage Museum has been a place of refuge and renewal in the northwest side neighborhood of Albany Park since 2004. It has been a source of inspiration and hope for many.

The current exhibit dubbed “The Killing Fields Memorial” was conceived by the Cambodian Association of Illinois and born out of the willingness of genocide survivors to share their stories and the determination of family members to make sure their voices are heard.

“Our building was located at Lawrence and Winthrop in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago from the 80s to the early 90s,” said Anneth Houy, CAI director of youth programs and arts and culture coordinator. “Then there was a campaign to find a center for healing and cultural activities that would be central to community members in Albany Park and Uptown. We moved to 2831 W. Lawrence Ave. in 1999 and expanded, into what was once a vacant lot, to build the museum.”

The two-story building, which combines brick, black steel and intricately carved stone sculptures, houses the only public museum and memorial in the United States dedicated to the remembrance of Cambodian people, history and culture.

John Kelly Architects designed the building, Amy Richards conceptualized the exhibit and a group of Cambodian American graphic designers reproduced the photographs on display.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were 2,879 Cambodians living in Illinois. Houy believes the community was “underrepresented” and estimates close to 5,000 Cambodians residing in Illinois at present, 3,500 of which live in Chicago.

“In 2006, CAI conducted oral life history interviews with 48 genocide survivors living in Illinois,” said Houy. “We chose four individuals and one couple based on their unique experiences, the different regions they are from and difference social classes they belong. The quotes in the exhibit are theirs and videos show the testimonies of these survivors.”

The exhibit is divided into four sections based on the timeline of events that occurred during the genocide: Clearing the Cities, Destroying Society, Constant Fear and The Killing Fields. Each section shows life during the genocide through photographs on which survivor’s quotes are printed; artifacts used to eat, plow the land or most cases torture prisoners are displayed; and propaganda slogans printed on red banners overhead.

It is designed to take visitors on the same dark journey Cambodians started on April 17, 1975. The story on the panels begin with displacement, loss of identity, humiliation then gradually turn into indoctrination, mistrust, denigration and end up in violation, torture and death.

Guests and community members alike are drawn to the back of the exhibit area where the unmitigated presence of the Buddha statue provides peace and solace to all those who enter the Wall of Remembrance.

According to Houy, 90 percent of Cambodians practice Buddhism while the rest are a mix of Muslims and Christians.

“This space has been a constant source of healing for us,” said Houy. “It took our community 30 years to feel comfortable sharing these painful experiences. The support we receive has allowed us to share the stories with the younger generation, move past these events and promote Cambodian arts and culture.”

The wall consists of 80 glass panels arranged in four rows. Each panel can hold up to 25,000 names bringing the total names memorialized to two million upon completion. The panel in the front row is filled with names submitted by residents of Illinois. CAI is working to collect more names from survivors all over the U.S. and Cambodia.

In the center, dividing the glass wall, is a stone pillar etched with a lotus flower (In Buddhism, the lotus is the symbol of purity and enlightenment.) along with the Cambodian American community’s mantra: We continue our journey with compassion, understanding and wisdom.

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Written by Stephanie Caspelich

February 15, 2012 at 6:36 pm

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