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Rediscovering PH artifacts in foreign museums

How my heart sank when it was announced at the recent Zoom launch of “Mapping Philippine Material Culture” by the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS), that a global inventory of Philippine cultural items shows that 90 percent are in large museums overseas, and a mere 5 percent have been on public display. There is also a substantial number in private collections.

Looking back at Philippine history, it is easy to see how we “lost” these cultural treasures to foreign shores. Manila was in ruins after World War II. These pieces were brought out of the country as treasures from expeditions, as war booty, or as souvenir items. And even as late as the 1970s, there was little local interest in such cultural material.

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That’s no longer true today, which is encouraging, as much work is needed to track down and annotate these items and do research work. It has been a a colossal loss for us as a people and a deprivation in our cultural memory, stressed independent curator Marian Pastor Roces, whose lifetime work and passion continues to be the identification, archiving, and contextual description of cultural objects, all toward leading the Filipino to discover his true cultural heritage.

Having no access to artifacts housed internationally deprives us of the knowledge of and appreciation for the high levels of artistry demonstrated by our people long before the arrival of colonizers. It does not allow us the joy of discovering the full range and variation of our artistic traditions. For example, of the 300-plus textiles handwoven by the Bagobos, one of the largest indigenous tribes in southern Mindanao, only a dozen are in Manila.

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We are blessed enough that the Ayala Museum and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas have collections of archaeological gold.

But all need not be totally lost with this new SOAS digital archive, an open-access online inventory of Philippine objects circa 1500-1950 in overseas collections around the world. Take this journey (https://philippinestudies.uk/mapping/charts) and be amazed at the high level of artistry and exquisite work of Filipino artisans. It becomes especially impressive with Pastor Roces’ reminder that these beautiful cultural objects used in everyday life were fashioned by a people who did not build kingdoms and had no royalty or caste-like social hierarchies. Their communities nurtured their talents.

It is a growing collection, with 1,461 items in the database as of this writing. There is a globe-shaped, honeycomb-like figure on the opening page, and as one navigates the site, every cell offers a new discovery, from a silver earring from the Horniman Museum in London to a 1300 gold headdress from NY’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, an 1850 Igorot backpack from the British Museum, a spoon of unknown date and material from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, etc. Every click shows a brief annotation—still a work in progress by scholars like Pastor Roces, Esperanza Buñag Gatbonton, Sandra Castro, Florina H. Capistrano-Baker—and a link to the image of the specific object. The work on the annotations is continuing to update politically incorrect or outdated terms.

One can also painlessly search according to the materials used: gold, paper, textile, wood, ivory.

It is fortunate that international museums are today more open about sharing their resources, subject to Intellectual Property Rights Protocols. It helps that SOAS, the project initiator, is highly respected, and that the museums understand the demands of the postcolonial period. It was not hard to convince Pastor Roces to join the professional team on this project headed by Cristina Juan; the project was boosted by initial funding from former senator Loren Legarda, a tireless and passionate advocate of Philippine culture.

Pastor Roces tells the moving story of an Ifugao sculptor she brought to the Smithsonian to view traditional pieces of Ifugao sculpture. The sculptor wept, turned emotional, and became ill, because the experience awakened in him all his connections to the past and everything he revered and valued. That is why this virtual access is important for us to discover who we really are, beyond nostalgia.

Repatriation is not in the conversation, for we are reminded that the Balangiga Bells—three of them taken from a church in the town of Balangiga in Eastern Samar in 1901 as war trophies—were returned only in 2018, after 117 years. That has been the only instance of successful repatriation for the Philippines.

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is founding director of the creative writing center Write Things, and former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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TAGS: Commentary, Filipino artifacts in foreign museums, Mapping Philippine Material Culture, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
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