History’s formidable collections
Otley Beyer is a name not memorized by schoolchildren anymore, because his “wave migration theory” that once explained the peopling of the Philippines in prehistoric times has been debunked and replaced by yet another theory.
Nevertheless, Beyer remains a formidable name in the history of Philippine anthropology and archeology because at the time of his death in 1966 he was the acknowledged Dean or grandfather of these disciplines.
He had spent most of his adult life in the Philippines collecting all sorts of materials from Stone Age tools to tektites that found their way to the Philippines from outer space.
He collected books, magazines, manuscripts, and all sorts of Filipiniana including term papers of his students from the prewar University of the Philippines that were arranged by topic or region and bound into 150 volumes now a resource known today as the “Beyer Ethnographic Papers” now preserved in the National Library of Australia.
Beyer and his obsessive collecting resulted in a collection once housed in the old Watson Building, near Malacañang, before it was dispersed after his death.
Now all I have to go on are photographs of Beyer in his library and museum. His grandson, and two former students: E. Arsenio Manuel, the eminent anthropologist; and Alfredo Evangelista, archeologist and for a time acting National Museum director related what the museum was like.
The late Fr. Bernardo Ma. Perez, OSB, once recalled his meeting with Beyer that led me to dig up a series of articles on collectors and collecting he published in the Sunday Times Magazine in 1961.
Beyer, then almost 78 years old, received Perez in his pajamas on a Sunday morning and showed him what I can only imagine to be Ali Baba’s cave that was described as:
“a vast assemblage: fossils, porcelain fragments, and ceramics representing several hundred thousand years of history, all housed in glass cabinets and bathed in the dim, grayish light that filters through frosted glass and oyster shell windows… dim corridors… sitting room overflowing with his collection: books of all sizes lining the walls, cardboard and wooden boxes containing tektites stacked on desks and tables, piles of large boxes on the floor, Igorot wood-carvings here and there…The Beyer collection and, indeed Prof. Beyer himself inhabit the second floor of the somewhat Neo-Classic Watson building on what is now J.P. Laurel St., formerly known as Aviles. The place is officially called the Museum and Library Institute of archeology and Ethnology of the University of the Philippines. In these more scholarly than cheerful surroundings, Prof. Beyer works, sleeps, and takes most of his meals.”
Like the Beyer collection, another that did not survive division was that of Felipe Resurreccion Hidalgo, nephew of the great 19th century Filipino painter Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo.
He kept a house on what is now R. Hidalgo Street near San Sebastian Church bursting with all manner of things: from precious paintings to stamps, from gold coins and religious images in ivory to cigarette labels. Perez described the place as follows:
“One evening I stood before the front door [of a fine old stately house from Plaza del Carmen or from the yard of San Sebastian Church] a door high enough for a carriage of state to pass through and massive enough to shut intrusion… On my right as I entered was Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s replica of Christian Virgins exposed to the populace… on my left was the Barge of Charon… both paintings are not only the largest Hidalgos in Don Felipe’s collection, but the most famous as well…The paintings are under glass. The evening reflections on them seemed to give them a curious animation. Directly in front of me was a grandiose arrangement: a large colored sketch of Juan Luna’s Roman wedding, and elegant and ferocious Chinese bronze lion, a pair of wooden saints, and surrounding all these a carved gilded Chinese arch, dripping with fruit flowers, leaves and birds. Beyond this was the staircase, its dark polished, glimmering wood adding to the heavy air of antiquity. Light came from one solitary lamp over the arch, and the paintings and sculptures seem to float on shadows. I felt like one who had discovered a long abandoned treasure chamber… ”
These great collections are but a faded memory now, just like the cheeky remark left by the Smithsonian director in Don Felipe’s guestbook: “there are many things in the Hidalgo collection that are not in the Smithsonian.”
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