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Looking Back

Visual history

When the Ayala Museum opened in 1974, its cutting-edge crowd drawer were dioramas, three-dimensional representations of 60 events in Philippine history chosen by historian Carlos Quirino, the museum’s founding director. Experienced by two generations of schoolchildren and visitors, the dioramas have been updated with a multimedia tunnel that bridges the 60th diorama from 1946 to the postwar period, to the martial law years ending with the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolt. The static dioramas now feel modernized, with additional wall texts from primary sources, a nuanced audio guide and, lately, a virtual reality (VR) component billed as the Future of History.

The full diorama experience presents the Philippines as a young nation with a long history. From cavemen in Cagayan and Tabon, thousands of years ago; to Filipinos, formed by three centuries of Spanish rule, whose defining moment was their declaration of independence in Kawit, on June 12, 1898. Realizing that it was one thing to declare independence and another to know what to do with it, Filipinos established the first constitutional republic in Asia in 1899 and, like before, waged more battles in the Philippine-American War and against the Japanese in World War II, eventually leading to the United States recognizing their independence in 1946 as a free country.

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Through trial and error, the story of the Filipinos is about how they strived to be the nation they want to be.

Relating the full breadth of Philippine history in a visual way is not new, but the Ayala Museum made the leap from the tired pages of school textbooks and made history come alive with its dioramas. Each was exquisitely crafted and painted by an army of carvers from Paete, Laguna, who froze moments from the past based on a mass of primary sources — archeological, archival, cartographic, cultural, ethnographic, historical, social, cultural and visual — collated over seven years, resulting in the first three-dimensional history of the Philippines.

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Furthermore, these dioramas broke ground in that not all were about great men, epic battles and politics that often pass for textbook history. They also introduced scenes to show how the narrative of the nation was also driven by social, cultural and economic factors.

For example, models of various boats, often overlooked on the way to the dioramas and depicted on the important Murillo Velarde maps of the Philippines of 1734 and 1744, highlight the physical foundation of the nation and the influence of the sea in history. These argue convincingly that, contrary to previous definitions, the early Philippines was an archipelago of islands and peoples connected rather than separated by water.

Museums of old were custodians of the past, infallible authorities of the national narrative. In tune with its times, the Ayala Museum acts as a venue for interrogation and dialogue. “Diorama #35,” the execution of Jose Rizal on Dec. 30, 1896, represents an image seared into the Filipino psyche. With VR technology, the inert comes to life, the unchanging scene now open to the spectator’s questions: “How would I react if I were there? Would I look away? Would I cheer or mourn? Was the national hero’s sacrifice worth it?”

The dioramas depicting Andres Bonifacio’s cry of revolution and his court-martial months later are motionless, but with VR, the spectator is able to relive the events and hopefully comprehend how two heroes, Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo, took different paths toward the same goal: freedom for the motherland. Whose side do we take? Why? What do we do with the independence and freedom we enjoy today, bought at the price of so much sorrow?

There are as many histories as there are historians, because each generation makes and writes its own history, forming it, rightly or wrongly, into its image and likeness. Two decades ago, the future of history seemed simple: to rummage through the past in order to understand the present and confront the uncertain future. However, the digital age is like no other. In the past two decades, information has exploded, or has become viral, overtaking the human ability to process and digest it.

This week, the Ayala Museum closes temporarily for renovation, and I look forward to the reopening next year to experience anew the future of history.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, Ayala Museum, dioramas, Looking Back, Philippine history
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