Resurrecting the dead
History is text-heavy. It’s unappealing to a generation focused on the present and wired to sound and images. In my case, even if I was a reader from childhood, textbook Philippine history was a challenge, because the few illustrations that broke the boring text were so badly drawn or reproduced to be useful. When I asked why history could not be sugarcoated to be palatable, I was advised to take it like ampalaya: If it tastes bad, it’s good for you.
Fortunately, most of my history teachers were good storytellers who made the past come alive in the classroom. One always started class by showing us a pile of books he read and telling us what was worthwhile in it. Another ignored the prescribed high school textbook and gave us Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s “The Philippines and the Filipinos” (1977) to read. In the library I discovered books on my own: Nick Joaquin’s over-designed, illustration-heavy “Almanac for Manileños” (1979); Gilda Cordero Fernando’s trailblazing coffee-
table book “Turn of the Century” (1978); and E. Aguilar Cruz’s “Maynila and Other Explorations” (1978).
From my childhood, Gemma Cruz’s “Makisig: The Little Hero of Mactan” (1963) stands out. Before “Makisig” I believed Ferdinand Magellan was the bida against the half-naked Mactan warriors, who were the kontrabida like the Indians in Hollywood cowboy movies.
Three decades of classroom experience taught me that it takes more than libraries and archives to engage young people. Seeing artifacts at the National Museum helps. Walking in historic sites like Intramuros, Taal, and Vigan is more effective than PowerPoint slides. Visiting shrines and landmarks like the Emilio Aguinaldo house in Kawit, the house of Apolinario Mabini relocated from Nagtahan to the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, or the three Rizal shrines in Fort Santiago, Calamba, and Dapitan provides insights into these individuals who changed the course of our history, for better or for worse.
When the Ayala Museum opened decades ago, its crowd-drawer were 60 episodes from history rendered in dioramas that were made in great detail by artisans from Paete. This was then considered so cutting-edge that the National Museum of Singapore ordered a version of their own history from Paete. But such work has since been relegated to storage, because with new technology and research, a different historiography has made it obsolete. The Ayala dioramas are still up, this time supplemented by virtual reality that puts the visitor in as a spectator to, say, the execution of Rizal in 1896. You can also witness Andres Bonifacio losing his cool at the Tejeros Convention.
Students with internet access have so many resources that I did not have while growing up, and some apps make previous attempts to make history come alive look like the Stone Age. Archival documents can be enhanced and made legible, old photographs can be colorized. This week, the latest app allows you to animate old photographs. This reminded me of the 19th-century “recuerdos de patay” or souvenirs of the dead, which were portraits in oil of people in a bier, like that of the dead child by Simon Flores in the National Museum. Then photography made these recuerdos more accessible. Some artists were commissioned to make the dead people in the portraits come alive by opening their eyes. This is what the new app does, which is so creepy that I could not even try it on old photos of my lolo and lola, so I uploaded a high-resolution image of Rizal’s famous 1890 studio portrait. The app cropped and enlarged the face and made the eyes blink. The movements of the head up, down, and sideways were amazing, and for good measure the mouth would twitch and form a smile.
Next I uploaded the famous studio photograph of the so-called “Triumvirate of the Propaganda Movement”: Rizal, M. H. del Pilar, and Mariano Ponce. Rizal was the least convincing, because the app made his bite and jaw prominent and the eye and head movements were almost feminine, like a hooker offering a trick. Del Pilar with his handlebar moustache looked like a cuddly teddy bear, while Ponce, wearing glasses, became the fairest of them all. It all looked so sick that I deleted it immediately.
When I ran out of free trials on the app, I wondered what the next technological step would be. Make these images 3-D? Make them speak? I’m glad I will not see the day when historians will become obsolete with the invention of a time machine.
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