The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Picture postcards and the true collector

Joel Montague is a collector, and I mean a true collector.

Sure he has between 1,600 and 1,700 picture postcards of Cambodia from the French colonial era as well as the world’s largest collection of hand-painted Cambodian shop-signs, but you really know he’s a collector when he talks about and holds one of his postcards.

“It’s a little window on the world that people have ignored,” Joel, 77, tells me. Through his postcards, he reimagines how the French imagined Cambodia and traces the evolution of these projections.

The German cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of a true collector that as he holds his objects in his hands, “he seems to be seeing through them into their past as though inspired.” And Joel certainly sees into every postcard its distant past, imagining the sender, receiver, photographer and subject.

Joel is trying to renew interest into the French colonial era, telling me that too many historians have ignored the French influence in Cambodia. Benjamin writes that “to renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire,” and though Joel is not nostalgic for colonialism, he is giving rebirth to these postcards, giving them another chance to tell a story.

Benjamin calls collectors the “physiognomists of the world of objects”—but a postcard collector is literally a physiognomist, interpreting the personalities and prejudices through the faces of others.

The Benjamin piece I’ve been quoting from is about his library and his enthusiasm for old books, and I can have those bibliophilic leanings as well. I suspect the first place where I’ll get to reunite my books from college, Portland and Asia will be the first place that will feel like Home and not some temporary dwelling. But I’m no “genuine collector”, in fact, I’d never met someone before Joel who was. For me, books are akin to souvenirs, but for Joel, I think, postcards are something more.

“Not that they [the objects] come alive in him; it is he who lives in them,” Benjamin wrote about collectors.

Read about Montague’s postcards here

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