Looking Back

History, heritage never objective or innocent

Throwback Thursday (#TBT) is a social media hashtag that accompanies the posting, on Thursdays, of nostalgic pictures. Last Thursday, I posted one from a handful of file photos of Emilio Aguinaldo’s Kawit home, circa 1900; it drew a quick response from many who were surprised to learn that the declaration of Philippine Independence, on June 12, 1898, was read from the central window of a modest home with a thatch roof.

The “Independence Day Balcony” was added in 1919 when Aguinaldo remodeled and enlarged it into the sprawling mansion we know today. While most people were happy to learn something “new,” others demanded historical accuracy. They suggested the removal of the now iconic balcony to return the house back the 1898 “original.”


If the balcony was added on or proposed last week, heritage advocates would rightfully rise in revolt, but it has been there over a century, now “sanctified by usage.” So how do we resolve the issue? Can we, at least, balance the conflicting demands of using the past in the context of the present?

Contrary to popular belief, history and heritage are not objective; they are never innocent. As (re)constructions of an idealized past, they always have a point of view, which may be popular at one time and unpopular in another. Thomas Jefferson, one of the prominent founding fathers of the United States, has come into review in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Some people have called for the removal of existing Jefferson monuments and memorials because he was a slave owner. Jefferson has also run afoul of the #MeToo movement, having sired six children with his slave Sally Hemings.


Another target of #MeToo is the French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, whose dreamy paintings of 19th-century Tahiti are now presented as visual evidence of pedophilia. Gauguin had sexual relations with a string of underage girls, married two, had children with them, and, worse, infected them with syphilis. Should we judge Gauguin with the laws of the 21st century, or understand the context and mores of 19th-century Polynesia?

A similar argument can be made against the “Spoliarium” and all of Juan Luna’s works that have pride of place in the National Museum of the Philippines. Should we have all of his paintings removed from public view because Luna was a convicted murderer, who fatally shot his wife and mother-in-law? Likewise, should we destroy the 19th-century coral stone monument to Magellan in Mactan to highlight the victory of Lapu-Lapu next year, the 500th anniversary of those events?

Hindsight is tricky and raises many issues, when history and heritage are made to judge the past from the lens of the present.

In 1989, E. Arsenio Manuel stirred the imagination of an audience who came prepared to be bored by a lecture on “Subterranean Structures in Intramuros.” He recalled that before the destruction of the Walled City in the 1945 Battle for Manila, he was a young assistant to H. Otley Beyer, and was made to enter a tunnel that led to an underground passageway big enough for a carriage to pass through. Based on that one descent, Manuel concluded with a mischievous wink that underground passages in Intramuros connected the religious houses of men with those of cloistered women. He added that, in the tunnel he entered close to a nunnery, he had seen small skeletons that he concluded were the unplanned and unwanted result of nuns and friars having met secretly underground.

Manuel concluded by encouraging archaeological excavations at the site he visited, to validate what he claimed to have seen many decades earlier. Fired by the enthusiasm of the audience following his lecture, Manuel added that UP Manila, the National Museum, and the Intramuros Administration should focus on excavating Fort Santiago to find what remained of Rajah Soliman’s palisades. When told that we might not find the palisades even after destroying Fort Santiago, Manuel pulled out the nationalism card and declared that Manila predated the arrival of Legazpi and his foundation of Manila in 1571.

Intramuros, to Manuel, is an intrusion into the long history and heritage of Manila, a reminder of colonialism that should not be there in the first place. I am more understanding now, and tell everyone to simply let those ruined walls be.

Next week on the 449th anniversary of the foundation of Spanish Manila, we remember Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, who rightly pointed it out as an “Araw ng Kastila,” not “Araw ng Maynila.”


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, e. arsenio manuel, History, Looking Back, objectivity
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