Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

News Release

Contact: Ann Wright-Parsons, NIU Anthropology Museum
(815) 753-0230

September 27, 2007

NIU Anthropology Museum debuts new exhibit
on post-Khmer Rouge life in Cambodia

Cambodia Born Anew

DeKalb, Ill. — The Anthropology Museum at Northern Illinois University is preparing to launch “Cambodia Born Anew,” a major exhibit on Cambodia’s remarkable recovery from the devastation of war and revolution.

The public is invited to an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5, at the Anthropology Museum, located in the Stevens Building on the NIU campus.

NIU Cambodian students, anthropologist Judy Ledgerwood and political scientist Kheang Un will be on hand to speak briefly about the exhibit, which will run through May. The museum is free and open to the public, with normal hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays or by appointment.

“Cambodia Born Anew” examines the country’s recovery in the wake of the Vietnam War and later the horrors of the Khmer Rouge-led genocide. The genocide claimed the lives of about 2 million people between the years of 1975 and 1979 and resulted in widespread destruction of institutions and infrastructure. The period was followed by 12 years of civil war.

“The exhibit takes a broad look at aspects of rural and urban life in present-day Cambodia, illustrated through exceptional photographs and artifacts,” said Ann Wright-Parsons, museum director. “We all gain a bit more understanding about ourselves, our institutions and our social systems by viewing exhibits about other ways of life.”

The exhibit depicts the revival of crafts and institutions as Cambodia races to catch up with its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Crafts and weaving are crucial for the reconstructed rural economy.

“In many ways, Cambodia’s recovery has been quite remarkable,” Ledgerwood said. “The country was devastated, its infrastructure destroyed and a quarter of its population dead or missing. Today Cambodia is reclaiming its vibrant heritage. The education system has been slowly rebuilt, and young people who were part of a post-Khmer Rouge baby boom are coming of age, replacing a generation of intellectuals who were killed or fled during the war years. The Buddhist religion is experiencing resurgence as well. About 4,000 temples have been rebuilt and about 60,000 men have been ordained as monks.

“All this is happening as war crimes tribunals are only now convening and the perpetrators of the genocide are being brought to trial,” Ledgerwood added.

Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998, shortly after Cambodia’s government asked for the United Nations’ help in setting up a court to prosecute regime leaders. Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second-in-command, was arrested just this month.

The NIU exhibit was made possible by a $115,000 grant from the Henry J. Luce Foundation in support of the Cambodia cultural heritage project, directed by Ledgerwood and Wright-Parsons, both specialists in Southeast Asia.

The NIU museum collaborated on the exhibit with the Cambodian American Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial on Chicago’s North Side at 2831 W. Lawrence Ave.

Representatives of the two museums traveled to Cambodia to collect artifacts and are launching complementary exhibits. “Khmer Spirit”—depicting Cambodian fine arts, including sculpture, painting and music—opens this month at the Chicago museum.

The NIU exhibit is divided into four major themes: fishing and marine ecology; the revival of traditional silk weaving; agricultural life, the primary occupation of most Khmer people; and Theravada Buddhism, the religion of some 90 percent of Cambodians. Photographs taken by renowned Cambodian photographer Chan Vitharin add vibrancy to the text and artifacts.

The exhibit also boasts photographs from the collection of May Ebihara, the only American anthropologist to conduct research in pre-war Cambodia. Ebihara lived in a Cambodian village for a year in 1959-60. Her writings remain as classic sources on pre-revolutionary society. Ebihara died in 2005, leaving her collection of photos and field notes to Ledgerwood.

With the assistance of an NIU Venture grant, Ebihara’s photos are being scanned by the Digitization Unit at Founders Memorial Library and will be made available to the public online as part of the library’s Southeast Asia Digitization Project.

Throughout the coming year, NIU will hold a series of lectures and films on the Cambodian genocide and Cambodian society. And, under the direction of Ledgerwood, NIU graduate students have been enlisted to work with the Chicago museum volunteers on collecting the stories of survivors of the killing fields who now live in Illinois. The oral histories exhibit will debut in 2008.

NIU has long had a research emphasis in Southeast Asia. The university’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, founded in 1963, is the second oldest of its kind nationwide and one of seven National Resource Centers for Southeast Asian studies.

"It is a pleasure for me to work at NIU with scholars who willingly share their expertise in exhibit development,” Wright-Parsons said. “NIU is fortunate to have a well-established institution like the Center for Southeast Asia that supports scholars and students who add to our knowledge base in the exhibits.”

More information on the “Cambodia Born Anew” exhibit is online at