It’s just a little more than a week ago that More Than a Number opened. As always, the work was very hectic at the end, getting all the labels done and mounted, figuring out what to do about hanging the labels on the fabric “wall”, and spending way more time than I expected mounting one of the art pieces. I was absolutely exhausted by the end, as were many others who helped put together and mount this exhibition. But, I learned so much in the course of working on this exhibition that I can only be grateful for the experience. And I know that however tired I may have been—or however hungry I was on that day I didn’t have time to stop for lunch—it was nothing compared to the experiences of the people who are the focus of the exhibition.
Like many people, I suspect, I knew that there had been a genocide in Cambodia, and I knew that many, many people had died. What I didn’t realize was that nearly a third of the population died one way or another, though forced labor, starvation, or execution. I thought when the Khmer Rouge took over, people fled to the borders and ended up in refugee camps. But that wasn’t right either. It wasn’t until the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia late in 1978 and drove out the Khmer Rouge that Cambodians had an opportunity to escape. The whole country had been a sort of prison between 1975 and 1979, with no way out.
When we were working on the labels, I helped edit survivors’ personal stories for presentation. The hardships, resourcefulness, and perseverance of people, some only children and on their own, is astonishing. I find it hard even to imagine learning how to handle an AK-47 or swimming across a river to find food. And I struggle to understand how or why someone would target another human being just because they were an artist or teacher. It seems incredible that a government could evacuate people from cities, much less think it a good idea. And why would they try to eliminate color and make everyone dress in black, especially in a culture that so values bright and brilliant colors?
At the preview reception, we were lucky to have many of the survivors whose stories are told in More Than a Number. Each one’s life is a testament to human courage and determination. They are truly remarkable people, and I thank every one of them for being willing to share their stories with the rest of us.
Diane Fagan Affleck
Director of Interpretation