Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros19ReviewsMichael Falser, Angkor Wat: A Tra...


Michael Falser, Angkor Wat: A Transcultural History of Heritage

Vol. 1: Angkor in France. From Plaster Casts to Exhibition Pavilions, Vol. 2: Angkor in Cambodia. From Jungle Find to Global Icon, Berlin; Boston, MA: De Gruyter, 2020
William Carruthers
Référence(s) :

Michael Falser, Angkor Wat: A Transcultural History of Heritage, Vol. 1: Angkor in France. From Plaster Casts to Exhibition Pavilions, Vol. 2: Angkor in Cambodia. From Jungle Find to Global Icon, Berlin; Boston, MA: De Gruyter, 2020

Entrées d’index

Index géographique :

Asie, Asie du Sud-Est, Angkor, Cambodge
Haut de page

Texte intégral

1This book about the making of a monument is monumental in both size and ambition. In two hardbound and (very) heavyweight volumes, over the course of almost nine hundred pages of text—and with reference to over a thousand (!) images—Michael Falser authors “a transcultural history of heritage” focused on Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex. Detailing the life and development of Angkor during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Falser makes plain the French colonial entanglement that helped to constitute the monument that visitors experience today, in addition to the global heritage discourse within which that entanglement—and Angkor itself—has become situated. Emphasizing the ways in which Angkor Wat took shape in relation to colonial exhibitions in France, Falser draws on the work of Timothy Mitchell and others to argue that practices of “translation” and “‘back-translation” (vol. 1, p. 32) were imperative to that process. He does a convincing job, and one which more than amply covers the range of French and Cambodian material that supports his case. I suspect, however, that very few people will have the time to digest—or pay the cover price for—all the material on offer.

2That said, Falser’s monument to the making of Angkor Wat is clearly, helpfully, and logically structured. Over an introduction, eight chapters, and an epilogue, the first volume, “Angkor in France,” discusses the career of Angkor Wat in Cambodia’s colonial metropole as French officials, archaeologists, and architects set about “discovering,” documenting, and displaying what would become the world’s largest archaeological site. Falser moves through this process chronologically, addressing the interplay between French expeditions to the site—and their relationship with the local population who lived and worshipped there—and the ways in which displays of the complex took place in successive French universal/colonial exhibitions: Paris 1867, 1878, and 1889; followed by turn-of-the-century exhibitions in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Rouen; Marseille in 1922; and back to Paris again in 1931 and 1937.

3Falser details the shifting place of Angkor within the French metropolitan imaginary, convincingly illustrating the twists and turns of the site’s reception history. Angkor initially possessed an uncertain and marginal place in France: some time in 1873–74, the Louvre refused to take into its keeping any number of original objects from, or molds of, the Angkor complex that had been shipped back to the country (vol. 1, p. 96). By the end of the nineteenth century, however, metropolitan exhibits of Angkor had not only placed visitors to them “within the French-colonial vision” (vol. 1, p. 176). They had also helped to transform Angkor “from a living, religious site to a dead archaeological ruin … canonised as a French cultural patrimoine” even before, in 1907, Siam had officially retroceded Angkor to the neighboring French Protectorate of Cambodia (vol. 1, p. 176).

4As Falser argues, moreover, it is the image created of Angkor in France that proved so vital to “Angkor in Cambodia,” as his second volume is entitled. Over the course of four lengthy chapters and an epilogue, Falser shows how the vision of Angkor created in France was “back-translated” to the site itself. This process took place not only as the French became involved in Angkor’s preservation through their École française d’Extrême-Orient (efeo), but also as Cambodia entered its (post-) colonial era under King Norodom Sihanouk. Concurrently, this back-translation became tied to debates about conservation related to the Dutch East Indies and the site of Borobodur. As Falser details, “the paradigm change from archaeological site conservation to full-scale architectural reconstruction had already been spread through technical manuals … and a new coalition of archaeologists, architects, and engineers was announced. Angkor would not be spared from this in the decades to come” (vol. 2, p. 98).

5The upshot of this process—and of the entanglement of Angkor within French-colonial notions of grandeur more generally—was the continued valence of the site within newly independent Cambodia and the ability of the efeo to continue work there until 1972 and the rise of the Khmer Rouge. After Cambodia’s struggles over the following decades, it was also this process of back-translation that enabled the site’s ultimate 1992 listing as unesco World Heritage. Building on Foucault’s concept of the (spatially and temporally) palimpsestic heterotopia, Falser shows how, due to that listing, Angkor has become something akin to a heterotopic heritage theme park. Consequently, he notes how the site has become ‘further commodified to death’ (vol. 2, p. 452). It is a startling conclusion. But it is also a relevant and accurate one, which begs questions about colonial heritage-making and its aftermath more generally.

  • 1 I am thinking here of Lynn Meskell’s valuable “UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention at 40: Challengin (...)

6Parts of the second volume, moreover, raise valuable questions about the role in this process of unesco itself. In league with a wide variety of actors—not least, once more, Norodom Sihanouk, but also Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann and a global cast of others—Falser implicates the much-maligned Paris-based organization in (a process which some have termed) neo-colonial practice in Cambodia. He does so in a way that is not only empirically substantive, but which also provides a useful counterpoint to recent accounts of how groups of countries currently propagate their own particular aims through membership of unesco’s World Heritage Committee.1 World Heritage, lest we need any reminder, has long been unesco’s own organizational priority as much as one manipulated by its member states.

7Making use of unesco’s surprisingly accessible archival material on the matter, Falser shows how (at least some of) the organization’s staff worked behind the scenes to ensure that Angkor Wat was placed on the World Heritage List (vol. 2, p. 328, and throughout chapter 12). Taking place at a time when unesco had a relatively new Director General (Federico Mayor, appointed 1987) eager to press the organization’s global role at the end of the Cold War, the often cynical workings of this process are plain to see. Drawing on the discourse of spectacle that poweredunesco’s previous heritage campaigns and, no less, on the European spectacles that had developed around Angkor throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, making Angkor Wat World Heritage involved public proclamations of intent sometimes staged in front of what had itself become a staged archeological complex (vol. 2, p. 350). Likewise, the (premeditated) process of listing Angkor began to take place even before the 1991 Paris Peace Accords marking the end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and the arrival of the 1992-1993 United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. The negotiation of the listing—which saw Angkor concurrently placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger—occurred, too, despite internal disquiet over that process within unesco and its consultative bodies (vol. 2, p.  367-368).

8unesco’s listing of Angkor has not, suffice to say, been a winsome story. In merciless detail, Falser explains why. Yet perhaps even more pressingly for a contemporary world which has increasingly—and more and more wearily—come to question such forms of imposition, Falser shows how such global(ist) premeditation and intrigue led to the site of Angkor Wat being placed “under direct supervision of an international control mechanism” linked to this unesco-backed process (vol. 2, p. 385). Explaining that imposition, Falser suggests that “Cambodia might be the only country in the world to have its most prestigious national site of cultural heritage” managed in this way, and “far beyond [at the time of writing] any emergency action” has been deemed necessary there (vol. 2, p. 385). In contrast, however, I would suggest that Falser’s case study of a by-this-point globalized Angkor in fact invites useful comparison with other colonial heritage sites that have become global, theme-park-like attractions: not least, since the publication of Mitchell’s (1991) Colonising Egypt, in the country which has become almost the poster-child for the development of heritage as a form of colonial exposition.

9unesco’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, which began in 1960, led to a renewed foreign archeological presence in Egypt: including, in 1967, the opening of the Franco-Egyptian Centre at the Luxor temple complex of Karnak, part of the World Heritage Site inscribed, in 1979, as Ancient Thebes and its Necropolis. A collaboration between Egypt’s (now-) Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and France’s cnrs, the Franco-Egyptian Centre not only works to research and preserve Karnak, but also—as its own description states—is “the structure in charge” (est la structure qui a la charge) of that work, prolonging a French presence at the complex that began in 1895 with the arrival of Georges Legrain as directeur des travaux.2 Less globalized, perhaps, than Angkor’s own control mechanism, the French presence at Karnak nevertheless derives from French control of Egypt’s colonial-era Antiquities Service, an imperial characteristic itself central to events in Cambodia: where, in the 1990s, the efeo itself became happily involved in the renewed, internationally controlled, work at Angkor (vol. 2, p. 375). It is not too huge a jump, therefore, from Karnak to Angkor, and one which potentially invites a productive comparison.

10Falser’s achievement in drawing this work on Angkor together should be lauded, then, both for its analytical synthesis and for the future possibilities it offers. I am concerned, however, with the question of the publication’s readership. The two volumes at hand are lavish, printed on high-quality paper and enclosing numerous stunning images. Coupled with their price (at last glance, an eye-watering £157), the books seem almost coffee-table worthy; not necessarily a criticism, given the illustrations. Yet—more perhaps than many other academic monographs—it seems unlikely to me that a large audience will be able to read these volumes in their entirety. Granted, it would be easy for readers to find the chapters and sections of interest to them. Even then, however, this is a dauntingly lengthy work, which better editing could have made shorter: in its apparent bid to be comprehensive, the book contains much information that, while interesting, does not necessarily aid its argument. Consequently, some of the chapters in the two volumes are almost certainly overlong. Given the differences between Anglo-American and German publishing—and the institutional requirements that drive those endeavors, within which I myself am embedded—it is unfair for me to criticize the volume on some of these fronts. It strikes me, however, that a different, shorter monograph could emerge from these two volumes, one that would appeal to a broader audience. Building on the monumental work of research that this monograph represents, Falser would be well-placed to write it.

Haut de page


1 I am thinking here of Lynn Meskell’s valuable “UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention at 40: Challenging the Economic and Political Order of International Heritage Conservation,” Current Anthropology, vol. 54, no. 4, 2013, p. 483-494.

2 Accessed 20 October 2021.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

William Carruthers, « Michael Falser, Angkor Wat: A Transcultural History of Heritage »ABE Journal [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2021, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


William Carruthers

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Department of Art History and World Art Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom
Orcid ID: 0000-0003-3075-9432

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search