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Postcards reveal French effort to ‘market’ colonialism

Phnom Penh
A lecture and slide show will be held tonight at Meta House exploring the transformation of Angkor Wat from an obscure archaeological site into a symbol of French colonialism in the early decades of the 20th century.

The lecture will be delivered by Joel Montague, who describes himself as possessing “indisputably the world’s largest collection of Cambodia
postcards from the colonial period”.

Many of these postcards depict replicas of Angkor Wat that were built in France for international exhibitions from 1900 to 1931, and this collection “constitutes the underpinnings of the lecture”, Mr Montague said.

A colonial exhibition in 1906 in Marseilles, for example, featured a nearly full-scale model of Angkor Wat made of stone, and was attended by the King of Cambodia, accompanied by a retinue of royal dancers. The feat of replicating Angkor Wat was repeated in 1931 at an even bigger exhibition in Paris, for which 33 million tickets were sold.

“Through the early 20th century it became increasingly difficult for France to justify to the public why they had colonies,” Mr Montague said.
“Through these exhibitions, the replicas became the logo of Cambodia as a nation. [France’s message] was that they had advanced the goal of their ‘civilising mission’ by rediscovering the great civilisation of Cambodia in the past and bringing it back to life and instilling pride among the Khmer in their great history.”

He said the “rediscovery” of Angkor Wat helped put the French in a positive light, allowing them to claim that they were not in Cambodia to exploit natural resources as they were doing in the other parts of Indochina.

“This was a marketing thing because initially this was not the reason France was in Indochina,” Mr Montague said. “It gave the impression that the French were altruistic, self-sacrificing, not being driven by economics.”

He added that the marketing ploy had repercussions beyond the end of the colonial era. “In a strange fashion, the promotion of Cambodian culture was useful in developing some form of national coherence by the Cambodians.”

Joel Montague will present his “Angkor-Kabuki” lecture and slide show at Meta House (6 Street 264) at 7pm tonight.

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