Termites, mold and typhoons have been blamed for the rot that reportedly damaged some 150 boxes of clothes, shoes and other personal effects of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos that were recently rediscovered at the National Museum. The stuff was left behind by the Marcoses when they hastily fled Malacañang in February 1986 at the height of the Edsa People Power Revolt, transferred two years ago to an unused, padlocked hall in the museum, and left there untouched. Not until the room was flooded by recent monsoon rains through a leak in the ceiling was the stash brought to light by shocked, apparently clueless employees.
The news, first reported on the wires, has been bannered by international media such as the BBC, the Guardian and the Los Angeles Times. The world has always been fascinated by Imelda Marcos’ legendary collection of shoes, which “became a symbol of excess in a nation where many still walked around barefoot in abject poverty,” as the report put it. At least 1,220 pairs of shoes, along with gowns, designer bags and scores of the late strongman’s signature barong, are among those found to have suffered extensive, perhaps irreparable, damage.
Who to blame for this? Some curators and employees of the National Museum have pointed to museum director Jeremy Barns and his deputy, Ana Labrador, as the culprits for their failure to follow “basic, standard museum best practice and procedure” when they initiated the transfer of the Marcos belongings to the museum. The transfer, said the employees, was done “without their knowledge,” and thus, no proper inspection and conservation measures were performed before the collection was stashed away.
Malacañang has tried to downplay the incident by saying the clothes had “no historical significance,” except perhaps some of the former first lady’s gowns made by prominent Filipino designers such as Pitoy Moreno and Joe Salazar. This is deeply disingenuous, and symptomatic of the culture of neglect for history and memory that continues to afflict not only officialdom but also the citizenry.
What was Malacañang’s basis, after all, for the hasty dismissal of the historical value of the Marcoses’ personal effects? No proper inventory has been made, let alone any cursory attempt to determine how these figured in the day-to-day goings-on of the conjugal dictatorship.
Extravagance has become the catch-all explanation for the staggering volume of possessions that the couple, especially Imelda, had accumulated. But that is only half of the picture. In their time, the Marcoses were determined to use optics and imagery to burnish the myth of the New Society and the Filipino “royal family” that ruled over it. Imelda famously said she needed to be dressed in all those fancy gowns and jewelry because: “I am my little people’s star and slave. When I go out into the barrios, I get dressed because I know my little people want to see a star. Other presidents’ wives have gone to the barrios wearing house dresses and slippers. That’s not what people want to see. People want someone they can love, someone to set an example.”
And Marcos? He junked the Western formal attire in favor of the indigenous barong, sometimes modified with a Mao collar, not only to appeal to nationalist sentiment but also, and more crucial to his authoritarian designs, to affirm the self-made legend of himself as the simple boy from Batac, Ilocos Norte, who rose to become the quintessential Filipino—bemedalled soldier, lifelong patriot and world statesman.
Might the fine ternos and gowns Imelda brought on her many international travels—to meet with Muammar Gadhafi, say—be among those decaying clothes at the National Museum? Or any of the barong that Marcos was invariably seen in—when he went on a state visit to the Reagan White House, for example, or when he appeared on TV a couple of days after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination, sick and bloated, to peddle the story that it was the communists who did it to embarrass his administration?
With the likes of Juan Ponce Enrile revising history with his newly released memoir—and President Aquino and other personages attending the launch—losing more physical evidence of the Marcos years is a sure way to further rob us of memory. “If we lose our memory, we lose ourselves,” the author Ivan Klima warns. Termites and typhoons are getting the blame, but the fault, dear Brutus, is in ourselves.