On June 28-29, the National Museum welcomes the public – and students in particular – to attend a handicrafts exhibition by the Cambodian women’s handicraft community where they will have the opportunity to meet the women artisans in person.
The focus of the exhibition – called Community Culture Meeting: One Product, One Identity – will be the use of palm leaves in Cambodian culture.
“Our goal is to promote Khmer weaving handicrafts which originated from ancient times and have only slightly changed technically over the years but mostly keep their original form. We’ll introduce the weavers to the visiting students and to the public,” Chhay Visoth, director of the Department of Museums at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told The Post.
Also taking place that day are the pre-exhibition lectures, which will bring students to visit, learn and practice weaving with community experts with the outing organised by the museum in collaboration with Nomi Network Cambodia and Villageworks, according to the Visoth.
“Regarding the topic of palm leaves this time we will bring about 200 students from public and private schools to meet with villagers or artisans who are weaving palm leaves and they will learn to do certain things that are easy for beginners to understand and get to know how it all works,” he said.
This is the second time that the Community Culture Meeting: One Product, One Identity has been organised by the museums department.
The first programme was the exhibition of silk handicrafts made by the Khmer community. That event was attended by about 300 students who came to learn about silk weaving as part of Cambodia’s intangible cultural heritage in May, 2022.
Visoth expects that the organization of the event this time around will help the palm leaf weavers find markets for the products made by the community artisans as well as attract domestic and international visitors to the National Museum.
“In the future, when there are a lot of tourists in Cambodia again, we will organize monthly events like this. This time we’re only bringing one community group to exhibit, but next year we will make it bigger by bringing many communities from different provinces that rely on the use of palm leaves or practice other traditional cultural handicrafts,” he said.
Nom Bunnak, executive director of the Sangkeum Handicraft Village Social Enterprise – an organization exhibiting their palm leaf products at the museum for the event – said that the Khmer Women’s Handicraft Association in Sre Ta Sok village of Chumreah Pen commune in Samrong district of Takeo province has been around since 1996.
He said that the association started out by crafting mats, but they have now made palm leaves and other plant materials into many other products such as bags, packaging, ornaments and daily necessities.
“This community was initiated by women weavers, young and old, who are housewives or were jobless, but now they can work together and make money. Palm leaf weaving is also part of our national identity and it requires a great deal of skill due to the patience required for the art of weaving. It also helps to protect the environment and keep the community alive with fewer people having to migrate for work to support the family,” she said.
An Raksmey, an official of the Department of Culture and Fine Arts of Kampong Thom province, said that there was a strong basis for the idea that palm leaves have been an important part of Cambodian culture for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years as evidenced by the Angkorian inscription at a temple in Siem Reap province designating an area the “district of palm trees”.
“The name itself indicates the importance of palm trees because they were prominent enough in the lives of the residents to have that become the identity of the district,” the alumnus of the College of Archeology explained.
He also noted that palm leaves are associated with traditional Khmer culture from daily use to religious ceremonies and have traditionally been considered useful to Cambodians from birth to death.
“Even though nylon mats are imported to Cambodia, palm mats are still preferred here, especially in the rice fields. And when women give birth, they traditionally sleep on a palm mat while warming themselves by the fire.
“Palm leaves can also be used in light construction such as funeral pyres for cremations and the palm leaf mats are used inside of coffins to wrap the bones of the dead. In the past, the dead were buried for two or three years and then dug up and the remains would be taken to be cremated, but when the bodies were exhumed people used palm leaf mats to pack them in,” he said.
He further noted that palm leaves are used in religious ceremonies as altars and for practical purposes such as umbrellas or bedding.
“Kantorng are small bowls made of palm leaves used as containers for food, tobacco or betel nut. And symbolic amulets are made from palm leaves at times as well. They are also cut into black birds for religious ceremonies or the ceilings are decorated with various animals made of palm leaves,” he said.