Looking Back

Artifacts bring history to life

/ 05:12 AM December 01, 2017

Curious people often ask how and when I first got interested in Philippine history, and my answers vary because there was no Big Bang but many initial steps that led to a career as an historian. For me, more than assigned readings and classroom lectures, artifacts played a significant part in bringing history to life. On a grade school field trip to Fort Santiago, while my classmates were busy learning about the birds and the bees from the couples making out in the bushes, I strayed into Rizal’s prison cell and met my first Rizalista, an old man who told me that Rizal was alive and moved around the three mystical mountains: Arayat, Banahaw, and Makiling. He talked about the end of time, when seven suns the color of blood would rise and Rizal would return in glory to judge the living and the dead. Many years later I revisited Fort Santiago with my head filled with dates, names, and events memorized to pass the Rizal course in college that allowed me to view all the exhibits in context.

Long before I paid attention to a piece from Rizal’s backbone displayed in Fort Santiago, long before a chip on it was pointed out to me as the spot where the bullet struck and snuffed out his life and dreams, the first Rizal artifact I remember seeing was a rosary that allegedly accompanied him in his last hours in his prison cell. This rosary was displayed in a glass case in the high school library, loaned by Fr. Jose A. Cruz, SJ, president of Ateneo de Manila University and grandson of Maria Rizal, a sister of the National Hero.


These artifacts reminded me that Rizal was more than a name on a textbook, or a person fossilized into a monument of bronze or marble. In college I cast the net further and visited historical shrines in Kawit, Cavite, and in Nagtahan by the banks of the polluted Pasig river, where museum curators breathed life into the mute artifacts through family lore not found in textbooks.

Apolinario Mabini IV aka “Ka Pule” was descended from his namesake, the “Sublime Paralytic.” On our first meeting, Ka Pule showed me the few keepsakes still with his family: a battered old table, a pair of glasses, a handful of books whose titles escape me now. I was taken aback when he grumbled about the value of these relics that were appraised lower than those of Rizal. “Bakit kay Rizal mas mahal?” (Why do Rizal’s relics cost more than Mabini’s?).


This conversation came to mind recently, in the wake of the announcement of tomorrow’s auction of: four original letters of Rizal to his sister Maria; an antique bed owned by Maximo Viola, who advanced the money to print Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” (1887); and a beautiful portrait of Adelina Boustead by the 19th-century Filipino painter Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. The subject of the Hidalgo portrait was initially identified as Adelina’s elder sister, Nellie Boustead, the better to connect it with Rizal and make it more desirable.

With auction prices overtaking bank interest rates, many liquid investors have been drawn to art, antiques—and now, historical artifacts that have come out of the woodwork and into the art market. Some misguided critics have suggested that these pieces of history should be owned by the state; others insinuate that these were probably stolen from our cultural institutions. Contrary to popular belief, not all Philippine historical material is in the National Museum, National Library, or National Archives. Some stray documents, manuscripts and relics that had little or no material value till today are still in private hands, inherited by descent from various historical persons. These are made doubly rare because a lot of our history was destroyed in the National Museum during the Battle for Manila in 1945. What little survived the war is also threatened by our climate, humidity, pests
like termites, and the most dangerous of all—well-meaning humans.

I am glad that these things have come to light and are preserved in digital form. As an historian, I do not require the original manuscript; I just need the content drawn from a high-resolution image that you can enlarge to study details. Historians given access to all these recovered artifacts may lead to a rewriting of our history.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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