Monday in a Picture – Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

One of the hottest tickets in town is to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s the newest of the institution’s museums, having opened its doors in 2016. While I heavily anticipated the opening, I started for service a few months before the grand opening. The internet and friends shared some of the hype and hoopla with the museum first opening. The long lines. The massive visitation numbers. The quality of the museum itself. The forethought put into its curation. I knew that I had to go. I thought that I’d just be able to walk up and get in. Passes are still needed to get in, as the museum is still drawing very high numbers of visitors.

One of the ways to get tickets is from the daily release of same day, timed passes (which are released around 0630 EST). The passes are free, and they are usually claimed within ten to fifteen minutes of release. I woke up early and tried to get passes for several days, but the internet decided it wasn’t my time. One day last week, I woke up a bit later and decided to check the website for passes. Lo and behold, there were some available. I successfully claimed a pass, got dressed, and had breakfast before excitedly biking down to the museum.

It was suggested that I start on the lowest level and work my way up. This allows for following the journey chronologically. The exhibit begins with history of African kingdoms and royalty, and includes snippets of everyday life for many West Africans whose descendants would be enslaved. Along the walls and in the background of the exhibit were the details of several slave ships that crossed the Atlantic. The museum does an amazing job of telling the story of the African journey to America including a highlight of a vessel carrying captured people that shipwrecked off the coast of South Africa. Walking through the levels allows one to walk through history with several artifacts on display. As I approached the end of the chronological history, I shed a few tears. There was something special about seeing parts of my life and childhood highlighted in a museum. Something special about hearing Tupac as the musical backdrop to the 1990s display.

For lunch, there is the Sweet Home Cafe. It’s a bit pricey, but it’s very tasty. I had the shrimp and grits, and it was delicious. Going up to the second floor, there was an exhibit on hip hop culture and an interactive experience with call and response stepping. I spent most of the day (> 5 hours) at the museum and didn’t get to see it all. I definitely plan to return once I get more passes. The above photos were taken during my day at the museum.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

The Story of War

What a story tells often depends on who is telling it. In the 1960s and 1970s, a war was being fought in Vietnam. There were disagreements about which groups and ideologies would rule the country. I’d always known this event as the Vietnam War.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a museum documenting the event. At the War Remnants Museum (and around Vietnam), the event is known as the War of American Aggression. War era aircraft and artillery are on display at the museum. This is in addition to other artifacts, pictures, and stories. One display shows the service medals of a U.S. soldier, who donated them to the museum and apologized for his role in the war. Two exhibits stood out to me. One featured the photographs from various photojournalists who documented the war, and captured the day-to-day essence of the happenings on the ground. The other exhibit featured the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people during and long after the war.

Here are two of the pictures I snapped on my visit to the museum. The first is named “Mother”, and was made from bomb fragments. The second is of one of an aircraft in the courtyard of the museum.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

S21 and the Killing Fields

Trigger Warning: The following post discusses the violence perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Some pictures are included at the end of the post.

I can’t remember when I first learned of the Khmer Rouge. I do remember several people telling me that I had to visit the genocide museum and the killing fields when I got to Cambodia. One guy suggested that visit the museum first to better understand the killing fields. I followed his advice.

Mixed into the capital city of Phnom Penh is what is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also called S21. The site was originally a school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into one of their prisons in an effort to cleanse and rebuild Cambodia. All intellectuals and professionals were arrested. Even people with glasses were arrested. People who were suspected of not being loyal to the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, were arrested. Anyone and everyone was at risk of being arrested. They were then interrogated and tortured. It was suspected that the prisoners had ties to, or were assisting, the CIA or the KGB. After it was determined that they had no more useful information, they were killed.

At the museum, there are artifacts from when the facility was used as a prison. Some metal beds still have the shackles used to restrain prisoners. Next to the bed is a munitions box that was given to be used as a toilet. There are also pictures in some of the rooms from when they discovered the prison. They are pretty graphic. At some buildings, they put up barbed wire fencing to prevent prisoners from jumping to commit suicide. The regime wanted to maintain total control. They also had the practice of killing entire families, including children. The rationale was that they didn’t want anyone from that family to come back seeking revenge.

When S21 ran out of space to bury prisoners, they began taking prisoners outside of the city to kill them and bury them in mass graves. Because bullets were so expensive, they stopped using them and killed with whatever tools they had. Executions were conducted on the edge of the mass grave so that the prisoner could fall in. The regime sprayed toxic chemicals on the recently deceased to mask the smell and to kill anyone who wasn’t dead yet. There’s a tree close to the centre of the killing fields known as the killing tree. It was used to smash babies until they died. Although the regime was ousted in 1979, there are still bones and bone fragments being unearthed due to rain and shifting soil.

At both sites, they have some of the skulls of the deceased on display. Some have cracks or bullet holes. Some are missing portions. They also have various torture devices on display at the genocide museum. They are both really somber places. One point that stuck with me is that Cambodia lost about a quarter of its population during the Khmer Rouge regime. From eight million people, that’s two million gone. And it’s not ancient history. This was 40 years ago. That’s extremely sobering. Another fact that blew my mind: S21 and the killing fields are part of a much larger network. In other words, there were prisons all over Cambodia and there still are mass grave sites all over the country. Not all of the mass graves have been uncovered because of unknown locations or inaccessibility.

If you ever have the opportunity to go to these sites, definitely go (if it’s line with being kind to yourself).

Here are some pictures from both sites.

The munitions box. To be used by the prisoners as a toilet.

One of the remaining headstones from the cemetery before it became the killing fields.

The killing tree. There’s a mass grave to the right of the tree.

One of the skulls on display at S21.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.