Philippines, International Expositions, Identity Politics


A review of Identity Politics in the Architectures of Philippine Displays in International Expositions, 1887-1998, by Edson Roy G. Cabalfin.

In his dissertation Cabalfin explores how the Philippines was represented in different International Expositions in both the colonial and postcolonial eras. He explores the narratives embedded in no less than 15 different exhibits in which the Philippines was either represented as a colony or an independent sovereign country. He therefore explores how the islands’ identity, particularly national identity, was articulated in the architecture of the ephemeral pavilions. He carries out a systematic description, analysis and comparison of the different narratives, themes and cultural expressions found at different international exhibits of the late 19th century to 1998. He pays particular attention to the unstable dichotomies of modernity versus traditionalism, as well as civilization versus nature, both abroad and in the Philippines.

Cabalfin is not the first scholar to study International Expositions. His dissertation is therefore part of an important scholarly body of work on the subject. Yet, although these other works often explored the representations of the others, looking at the rhetorics of “exoticism” from an anthropological perspective, Cabalfin focuses on the architectural constructions as sites of negotiation between the colonized and the colonizer. His work is therefore an important addition to the existing studies of International Expositions. Although Cabalfin also looks at the human aspects of the displays, he contextualizes these human exhibits by situating them within the space of the pavilions themselves as well as their architecture, including their material, styles and locations within the greater International Exhibits. Cabalfin shows how the architectural displays, including the reconstruction of “authentic” villages, is an important part of the colonial and post-colonial discourses on the Philippines’ identity construction and the visitor’s experience. Cabalfin’s study is therefore an important analysis of the buildings as physical manifestations of colonial justification for their presence on the islands, as well as national identity formation in the postcolonial era, exposing the transforming, as well as sometimes stagnant, narratives behind the country’s representations for both Filipinos and colonizers visiting these International Expositions.

In his dissertation Cabalfin takes a historical and stylistic approach to the Philippine pavilions at different national and international exhibits, especially in the United-States and Spain, Philippines’ former colonial powers, focusing on qualitative, visual and discourses analyses of visual and textual documents. Cabalfin’s archival work is impressive and he brings important new or revisited primary sources of material from different world exhibits where the country was represented. From a theoretical and conceptual perspective, Cabalfin looks at the construction, representation and the strengthening of national and colonial ideologies. The study of nationalism and national ideologies is an important part of postcolonial studies. What Cabalfin brings that is different from other works however is also his focus on ephemeral architecture and displays, as most international exhibits were temporary structures. Further complicating the space of encounter, these temporary structures exposed the tense power relation, between colonizer and colonized, where Filipinos on display were subjugated to the colonial or “elite” gaze.

In Chapter one, Cabalfin situates his own work within theoretical research on nationalism, mostly from an anthropological perspective, focusing on the importance of strong homogeneous space and time so that nationals can, following Benedict Anderson (Imagined communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso Publishing, 1983), “imagine” a strong, unified national identity. In his introductory chapter Cabalfin brings the idea that the national pavilions were meant as important homogenizing spaces and symbols. Yet he also criticizes this representation of homogeneity as a product of standardization leading to marginalization, indeed a product of modernity, in a quest to show a unified nation. This tension between a need for homogeneity and the process of marginalization of heterogeneity is an important part of Cabalfin’s work.

In the second and third chapters, Cabalfin looks at international exhibits during for the Spanish (chapter two) and American (chapter three) colonial eras. In chapter two Cabalfin looks and compares two exhibits, the Exposición General de las Islas Filipinas of 1887 in Madrid and the Exposicion Regional de Filipinas of 1895 in Manila. Cabalfin starts by looking at both expositions, their architectures and displays. He argues that although the two exhibits were intended for two different audiences, the spanish colonizer for the first and the Filipino elite for the second, the two exhibits had the same goal, that is to justify Spain’s colonial control of the Philippines. Cabalfin shows that for the first exhibit, visitors could experience a strong visual and conceptual contradiction went it came to the Philippines. This contradiction stemmed from the representation of both a more “civilized” europeanized Philippines, including more european style architecture as well as a focus on industrialization, and a “primitive” indigenous Philippines, mostly found in the reconstruction of indigenous and romanticized villages, where small huts could be found in pristine gardens. This architectural differentiation therefore used the already known nature/civilization dichotomy to justify Spain’s colonial control of the islands. The “primitive” Philippines needed Spain’s benevolence to achieve civilization, while the more “europeanized” Philippines showed how Spain could also gain, economically and industrially, from its “benevolence.” In comparison, the exhibit in Manila, did not have the reconstruction of indigenous villages, therefore focusing mainly on industrialization and possible economic ventures. The use of indigenous village in Madrid’s exhibit reinforced colonial hierarchy, while the absence of the village in Manila, reinforce colonial power. The experiences of the space and architecture were therefore different, but the result was ultimately the same.

In chapter three, Cabalfin looks at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition of 1898 in Omaha, the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis, the Alaska-Pacific International Exposition of 1909 in Seattle, and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco. Again, for each exposition, Cabalfin looks at the exposition in general, its history, the architecture and the displays. It is clear to him that the “benevolent” aspect of the expositions found in chapter two is still strong in the American exhibits. Except for the San Francisco exposition, Cabalfin emphasizes the strong spatial division, as well as the difference of material used for the huts situated in its own organic environment. Indeed, expect for the 1915 exposition, the Philippine villages were not part of the formally planned Beaux-Arts section, as the colony was, on the contrary, separated from the other countries and often located in the entertaining section of the exposition. Again, the colony was represented through the construction indigenous villages, with indigenous inhabitants, supporting a racial hierarchy, and once again supporting the benevolent effort of the United-States towards its new ‘primitive’ colony.

In chapters four and five Cabalfin looks at post-WWII international expositions. In chapter four, Cabalfin looks at the Philippine International Fair of 1953 in Manila, the Universal Exposition of 1958 in Brussels, the World’s Fairs of 1962, 1964 and 1970, in Seattle, New York and Osaka respectively. He then looks at the Universal Exposition of 1992 in Seville. Again Cabalfin looks at each exposition in its historical context and then describes the overall exposition and the pavilion of the Philippines. In this post-colonial context, the focus is now on modernity, expressed most often through modern architecture and aesthetic, embodying a new narrative for the country, one now, Cabalfin explains, focusing on the future, with an emphasis on the country’s development and progress. In this section, Cabalfin emphasizes the tensions between modernism and traditionalism, as well as the heterogeneity of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country as the Philippines and the need for a unified national identity. The choice of the expositions was interesting, as some pavilions had traditional forms constructed with modern mediums, such as concrete and aluminum, while others had a strong modern aesthetic, yet using more traditional materials, such as wood and mother-of-pearl. These differences, Cabalfin argues, show the difficulties to define the country as a modern one while at the same time looking for authenticity and “essence” in its pre-colonial past. Cabalfin also introduces the idea that certain colonial discourses of the previous era still existed, through the self-exoticism, as well as different rhetorics regarding the country’s essential material culture, climate and natural surroundings. His argument regarding self-exoticism is also present in chapter five.

In chapter five Cabalfin looks at the architecture of fairs and theme parks in the Philippines during and after the Marcos Presidency. He explores and compares the Nayong Pilipino (The Philippine Village) in Manila and the Expo Pilipino and the Philippine Centennial Celebration of 1998. In this section, Cabalfin looks at the Philippines’ search for authenticity and unity. Once again Cabalfin situates and contextualizes the exhibits and then does a thorough description of the site and specific buildings. The Philippine Village, constructed under the Marcos Presidency, was conceptualized as a tourist park, promoting an authentic setting, with the reconstruction of geographical landmarks. Different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds were also represented. Cabalfin explores once again the tension between homogeneity and heterogeneity of the Philippines’ national identity formation, where specific cultural elements of the pre-colonial past were chosen as points of departure for the search of national identity. Cabalfin explores the country’s transformation and expression of itself, from an heterogeneous past to a unified present, where the urban christian elite took on the role of internal colonizer over, once again, “exotic” minorities. The Expo Pilipino, with its centennial celebration, was also a source of national expression. With its three sections, the Chosen island (ethnological exhibit), the Colonial Plaza (Spanish influence) and Global Plaza (international pavilions), the exposition once again dichotomized the modern and the traditional in the country’s search for national expression of identity. Cabalfin sees a strong relation between the early village constructed for the Spanish and American expositions of the colonial eras, and the ethnological section of the Expo Pilipino, with their replicas of indigenous houses inhabited by individuals participating in different daily activities, including crafts. Cabalfin once again explores the political act of exhibiting and representing a unified and homogeneous modern country, while the reality of the Philippine’s cultural experience is based on heterogeneity.

In the last chapter, chapter six, Cabalfin brings together his observations and arguments and looks at the analogous elements and diverging themes found in both the colonial and post-colonial eras of international as well as national expositions. Cabalfin again reiterates the difficulty of bringing vernacular rhetoric to a modern context. This process, he argues, is not only biased in its choice of what constitutes authentic vernacular, but there is also an hegemonic power relation in the choice process itself. Furthermore, Cabalfin argues that traditional forms as found in many international expositions cannot, by themselves, constitute authenticity, as it is fixed and does not adapt to contemporary lives, leading to the difficult dichotomy between traditionalism and modernism. Interestingly, Cabalfin proposes his own vision of less problematic and more dynamic pavilions for future International Expositions. He argues that a stronger and less problematic way to deal with traditional material is to focus on the process of bringing materiality to the expression of national identity formation instead of looking for authenticity. By focussing on the process, Cabalfin argues that the dichotomy of tradition versus modernity he saw in previous expositions could be lessen, since by focusing on the process, one can focus on the movement and dynamism of national culture instead of its essentialization. Therefore, instead of only comparing and analyzing past expositions, Cabalfin takes from his own conclusions and opens a new direction for future expressions of national identity.

Overall, Cabalfin’s work is an important examination of a complicated and yet still current problem of national identity formation, without reducing this identity by way of essentialism and marginalization of the other within and between nations.

Genevieve Gamache
Assistant Professor in Asian Studies
Asian University for Women

Primary Sources

Library of Congress Digital Collection:
Smithsonian Institution Digital Library:
Collection of the Museum of Filipino Architecture, University of the Philippines

Dissertation Information

Cornell University. 2012. 628 pp. Primary Advisor: Mary Woods.

Image: Philippine Village at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A. Library of Congress.

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