I would like to warmly thank the Design History Society for supporting my research. The funding went towards covering a ten-day trip to Cambodia at the beginning of January 2020, looking at Cambodia’s history of dress and textiles under the Khmer Rouge regime. I spent my time in Phnom Penh at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (TSGM), working especially with the conservation team on the museum’s textile collection. The documentation and interviews produced during my period of fieldwork will be used to write a chapter co-authored with American textile conservator Julia Brennan in an upcoming anthology about Tuol Sleng/S-21. Tuol Sleng was originally a secondary school turned into the secret prison S-21 in 1976 by the Khmer Rouge regime. An estimated 15,000 people were imprisoned, tortured and killed on site until the fall of the regime in 1979.
S-21 became a museum and memorial site of the Cambodian genocide in 1980. Since 2018 the prisoners’ garments have been undergoing an ambitious textile conservation plan to become an essential part of the museum’s collection. Julia Brennan has devised a unique plan to treat approximately 3,000 pieces. She has trained the collection care specialist Kho Chenda in textile conservation and collection management and continues to work with her on new developments.
The testimonies and reports about life at S-21 have revealed that people (men and women, sometimes with children) were taken for custody and meticulously registered and photographed. The guards would then confiscate their clothes, leaving the male prisoners only in their underwear. Women were more often allowed to keep their pants and sarong. Comprised of a majority of military uniforms, caps, belts, male pants and shirts, and a range of more unusual fragments, the clothes found in Tuol Sleng mainly belonged to the prisoners before their incarceration.
In my research, I have focused on an inclusive approach combining interviews, observation and object-based study to document the conditions and effects of the textile conservation plan. Nearly nine hundred objects have been conserved, stored in a climate-controlled environment, photographed before and after treatment, and inventoried. I was also able to study a selection of objects including mended shirts, shorts, caps, children’s garments and fragments of silk scarves. What struck me was the materiality of some of these pieces, how the heavy signs of tears and repairs and the marking of stitched names unlock narratives embedded in the prison’s history. By discussing with the conservation team, I was also able to address the sensory experience and the emotional weight of handling this type of artifact. I concluded my time at the archives to examine photo portraits of prisoners to compare them with the typology of clothes in the collection.
Approaching this newly recovered material, my research establishes these objects as precious evidence of Cambodia’s dark times providing an intimate understanding of the Cambodian people in the 1970s. My research trip was a challenging yet illuminating experience, which convinced me even more of the crucial value of textiles in the embodiment of loss and trauma in individual and collective hardship.
Magali An Berthon is a PhD candidate in History of Design at the Royal College of Art.