Friday, October 01, 2004

Two exhibits

Two exhibits

Updated 01:36am (Mla time) Oct 01, 2004
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the October 1, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THERE have been two landmark museum exhibitions this year. The first was the National Museum exhibit on Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, and the second is the ongoing exhibit at the newly opened Ayala Museum.

An assemblage of objects from various collections abroad were brought to Manila for the Legaspi Exhibit, the most interesting for me being a chest or “baul” from Mexico whose inside lid was painted with the earliest image of Intramuros. While the painting is quite naive, it provides a bird's eye view of life in the city at the time. The walls are there and so is the Pasig River, but what drew my attention is the Chinese ghetto outside the walls. Until then, I had only seen this chest in photographs, so I went to the museum thrice to see it and people around wondered what I was so excited about since other exquisite objects like “salakot” [native head covers], religious images in ivory, church pieces in precious metals, etc. all competed for attention.

Walking through the Legaspi Exhibit evokes mixed feelings. Many of the artifacts are so rare, and we do not have specimens of the same quality in museums in the Philippines. I know it is asking too much to even wish these were in our National Museum, but knowing our history, these objects would have been destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945.

In a sense the Legaspi Exhibit was like a time capsule. These objects from the Philippines were brought to Mexico and Spain centuries ago. They survived and were cared for there. And they returned to Manila almost in the same state in which they left. Rather than scream and press for repatriation, we should appreciate the care that went into their preservation.

One would wish that more people came to see the exhibit, that it could have been brought to the Visayas and Mindanao, that a complete catalogue be made available in English and Filipino. I know I am asking too much, but then we should not stop dreaming.

It took great effort and tact to bring all these artifacts together. It was a coup that some of the artifacts from Spain itself which had never been loaned to museums in Madrid were allowed to travel half the world away to Manila, proof that the long historical ties between the Philippines and Spain remain warm despite the overemphasis in our history textbooks on the Philippine Revolution (1896-1898). If we were to believe Teodoro Agoncillo, there was no Philippine history before 1872 and the foundation of the nation lies in the period 1896-1898, but when placed in a time-line that stretches all the way back to 1565, these are only two landmark years in 333 years.

There is much more to our shared history that remains to be unearthed, studied and appreciated.

Ongoing at the Ayala Museum is an exhibit of objects back in the Philippines for the first time in over a century: an album of watercolors by Justiniano Asuncion from the New York Public Library, an album of watercolors by Damian Domingo from the Newberry Library in Chicago, and actual clothing as recorded in these watercolors from the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden. Both albums show the different types of people and their clothes in the early 19th-century Philippines. In an age without commercial postcards or a camera, these were brought home by tourists as souvenirs. That they were made by early Filipino artists is now a bonus. Since libraries are not the primary concern of Filipino tourists who go to the United States, very few people (mostly scholars) have been able or interested enough to see these wonderful albums. Now that they are home, Filipinos should take the opportunity to see and enjoy them.

Two decades ago, I requested to see the album of Philippine costumes in the New York Public Library. They were not properly labeled and there was a small note on the flyleaf that said they were by Damian Domingo. When I inquired about photoduplication, I was advised to bring my own camera and take pictures myself. Perhaps the library didn't know how valuable they were at the time, because anyone who walked in could gain access and handle it.

Now we know better, and if people study the albums further, perhaps we will know more. The Newberry Library set has each plate individually signed by Damian Domingo, but since these did not resemble any of the costume albums extant in Manila, I did not pay much attention because the Newberry had many more valuable treasures like Jose Rizal's medical and surgical notebooks and hundreds of documents on the Spanish period that can make any Filipino historian ecstatic.

On a Fulbright research grant in 2000, I was able to do some research in Newberry. It was quite an experience to be asked to wear gloves when handling rare material, to have certain books on special pillows on my desk. No wonder everything in their care live so long. (Last semester, I placed my books in the school library for the students' use and all were ruined by rough handling and photocopying.)

That these two institutions have allowed these albums to travel home for a visit should encourage other institutions that have Philippine material to do the same in the future. Now may be the time to draw up a wish list so that we can be inspired by old objects and make inroads into the future.


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