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Kris-Crossing Mindanao

Making museums matter

Any talk of museums brings to mind the most familiar brand names in the Philippine museum world. The “capital city syndrome” easily narrows down our knowledge of museums to only those that are in Manila.

But provincial museums are the ones with the most engaging community value. They instantly connect with their museum publics because guests and tourists wanting to know about a locality’s identity find that in a “local” museum, which is a processor of information. So much of our country’s history lies in museums. And since what is history outside Manila is easily shrugged off—derided may be the more exact term—as “local,” the country’s museums outside Manila do not get the attention they so rightly deserve.

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The fact is, they are also the museums with the poorest resources. The low funding adversely affects the capacity-building plans of their professionals. It is also true that so many of our museums in the provinces are downright ugly. But that is because our country operates from the culture that the center of resource is Manila. All the expertise is in Manila and is focused on Manila. But myopia is a disease. And like any disease, it can contaminate. Centrism, for example, creates marginalization because it sees value only in its own prism. It cannot look beyond itself.

A recent off-the-cuff remark symbolizes exactly the wrong attitude that has plagued some of our national cultural “experts.” A recent regional event invited museum workers of the regional branches of a national cultural agency. The invitation was reportedly sneered at by a top bigwig of that agency. Since the event was not organized by that agency, the official withheld approval by saying, “What will you learn from there?” Meaning, only Manila is capable of teaching? How light-years away we are from a truly inclusive act of nation-building.

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But Mindanao’s museums, driven by the spirit of self-determination, have decided that they can challenge Manila by setting a trend. This previous weekend, the 25-year-old Mindanao Association of Museums (MAM), the country’s oldest regional association of public and private museums, launched a museum accreditation system. Once fully instituted, it will be the first in the country. MAM was founded in 1989 by two well-known Philippinists whose works have contributed much to the Philippine cultural scholarly world. Francisco Demetrio was a Jesuit priest whose field was Philippine folklore. Mamitua Saber was a Maranao educator who studied at the University of Kansas and established Mindanao’s first museum, the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts, which was endowed by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV of Pakistan.

The Philippines has no museum accreditation system. Accreditation is not part of the mandate of the National Museum of the Philippines. The government’s cultural arm, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, does not have that mandate either.

Accreditation is the professional practice of raising institutional standards. Applied to museums, it increases a museum’s credibility and raises its value to both its publics and its peers. It ensures that professional practices required by the science of museology are in place.

Museum work requires so much technological capacity-building among its professionals. It is not just all exhibition which is the public face of museums. Behind that public face is where much of the nitty-gritty takes place like the precise conservation skills needed to be applied. The work of interpretation is another meticulous behind-the-scene museum facet. So much knowledge and skills are required in putting in place methods for such varied needs as storage, laboratory work, collections policies, documenting collections, to name a few such needs.

In the United States, museum accreditation is not a function of government but of the private sector-led American Alliance of Museums. It assists small- and medium-sized museums by promoting standards of professionalism and recognition. It provides pathways for museums to institute best practices.

There are accreditation schemes in United Kingdom countries such as England and Wales where they provide a baseline quality standard that helps guide museums “to be the best they can be.” Some of the Nordic countries also have their own museum accreditation systems. Other countries have established their accreditation system by national legislation, as in the case of Latvia.

It has been said that “the museum network cannot function as a static model with precisely dominated museum establishments. It has to be treated dynamically.” That is precisely what is wrong with our Philippine museum system. Lately, a private attempt to reach out to provincial museums has been initiated by some of Manila’s topnotch museums which have banded together to educate museum professionals in the provinces. The Zero-In Program of Ayala Museum, Kaisa Heritage Museum, Lopez Memorial Museum and the Ateneo Art Gallery aims to build the capacities of provincial museums and to assist them become effective community-based institutions. That is an example of a step in the right direction from Manila, albeit a private sector effort that is not hobbled by a disempowering bureaucracy and by the in-fighting paralysis ailing our national cultural agencies.

A museum accreditation program initiated by Mindanao may not be the earthshaking news of the day from Mindanao, but Mindanao setting a trend in the Philippine museum world should be provocative enough a development for the rest of the country’s museums.

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