FIELDNOTES: Protesting Museums

September 6, 2018

 

Tito Genova Valiente
titovaliente@yahoo.com


IN 1988, I came back to the Philippines with a Certificate in Museology from Rikkyo University in Tokyo, Japan.

Museology and museum studies are vast fields of scholarship. To be a museologist does not necessarily mean one has to study prehistory or ancient statuaries. In my case, I was inspired by the work of a friend from my year as an exchange student under the International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE), which was based in Switzerland. This friend, Renato Antonio Pirotta, an Italian with Swiss nationality among the many nationalities he possesses, is an architect and an artist. After our exchange program, I received from him photos of Japanese farmhouses or minka.

It was amazing to see how particular prefectures (the equivalent of provinces in the Philippines) would have farmhouses possessing different structures and forms. For Renato, it appeared that the farmhouses were built to adapt to the geographies and weather conditions in the site. Up north, for example, there were farmhouses called “magariya,” which referred to how the house was constructed in an L-shape. The north wind blew from the shorter part of the “L,” where the horses and other animals were kept. The animals, in a way, warmed the cold wind so that by the time it reached the longer area of the house, the wind had lost some chill already.

In Rikkyo University, as with other post-grad institutions in Japan, there were the so-called Joint Seminar. This was a class where three or four professors worked as mentors. Although I was working with Professor Hiromitsu Umehara, a specialist in Human Geography and a Philippine Studies scholar, the program allowed me to consult or, at least listen to, the other academics in the cluster. There was an archaeologist, an ecologist and an anthropologist.

My fieldsite was Yamanashi Prefecture, where I studied up in the mountains the distribution of farmhouses and the corresponding industries the owners were into. There were farmhouses devoted to rice production; there were also farmhouses that used to be sites for silkworm industry. During this term, my mentor and guide was Sadahito Tanaka, who is now my brother in-law, as he is married to my sister, Lilibeth. This is an altogether different tale and has nothing to do with museums.

When I was not doing fieldwork, I was interned in an Open-air Museum in Kawasaki, which was called Minka-en. In that place, many farmhouses stood, after having been removed from their original locations. I was given an arm-badge, which officially permitted me to enter any farmhouse, inspect, observe and study them. There were no off-limit areas for me as a researcher.

When I returned to the Philippines, I realized many people were into museums and antiques. Everyone was into “artefacts.” My first personal task was to tell people that the word “artefact” does not necessarily mean “rare” and “ancient.” Anything that is made by man is an artefact. A chair crafted in Tinambac is an artefact. A basket woven in Ocampo is an artefact. A “kalamay” cooked in Pili is an artefact.

I wanted to disabuse people of their narrow and naïve perception of artefacts. But people were obsessed with artefacts and antiques. Everywhere I went, I would encounter people who wanted me to date jars and pots, chairs and tables.

I got invited to towns with citizens all eager to have museums that would contain, well, artefacts.

I related to them my experience about living museums and do away with the “escaparate” kind of display. Why not gather all cooks with good reputation and have them prepare “natong.” Why not show children how “dinailan” was manufactured?

I shared my thoughts with my brother, Pempe, a good cultural worker, who, in turn, talked about it with some councilors, my idea of living museums, where farm implements would be put on display. Manong Pempe even went on further and suggested a forum where he would invite makers of plows and ask them to demonstrate how these tools were made.

One night, he came home visibly amused. Local art patrons were not interested in his ideas. They wanted jars and pots and coins and ancient, ancient – there it was again – artefacts. In escaparate, to be worshipped with detachment.

When I returned to Naga, this was the time I met up with Danny Gerona and Jess Volante. We were all intrepid “scholars” and we travelled all over the region to talk about Bikol history and culture. By that time, both concepts were still accepted to be in singular forms. Presently, it is theoretically sound to call them “cultures” and “histories,” to heal us of the monolithic malaise we find ourselves as unwilling victims.

In one town we visited, there was a museum but no object on display. The “artefacts” were in another place, in a convento, guarded by a priest. Why he had those objects, there was no explanation. Who authorized the excavation? Ask Indiana Jones.

The problem with museums is Indiana Jones. When we talk about artefacts, we think always of grand sleuthing, of explorations worthy of National Geo documentation, of sexy adventures instead of critical introspections.

The problem with museums is that, once more, we enslave ourselves with the Western notion of civilization. We hallucinate in eras that have no equivalent in our own narrative. We glory in a history that is vetted by archives that are found in distant lands, in fantasies that are written in languages that are not ours.

Museums are natural to nations with imperial evil ways. Museums are organic to conquering forces. They are the loot from the attacks, the spoils from the murderous pillaging.

There must be a way to display the stories of our land. There must be a path to dramatizing our communities, however imagined they are, without following the footsteps of those who needed to conquer other lands in order to organize their arts and heritage. Perhaps, it is in the degree to which we have imagined our villages, towns and cities that we can free ourselves from the conquistador’s taxonomy or classification.

We need to be critical about this so-called heritage. Already, National Artist F. Sionil Jose has raised the dangers of curating: one is limited by one’s class structure and clique and aesthetics when choosing the artists to represent the Nation, which is another imagined aggrupation. Jose has ruffled many feathers, and rightly so, because in this polite society of well-coiffed fowls, a blown kiss is valued more than a real intellectual cockfight.

In a museum, it is easier to count the omissions of those who matter but are out there in the distance than the inclusions of those who are known by citizens of cocktail parties and glam opening nights. Which is what this nation is all about – an exhibition of arts and artists who know and love each other unconditionally.

Unconditional love, of course, is not a prerequisite to a good critique.

Museums are like sophisticated tools; they need enlightened and rebelling mind to be utilized properly.

Museums are entombment. They kill memories and moments. Imagine those statues of saints and martyrs. Cart them off from churches and you amputate them from their sacred context. In museums, displayed for the craftsmanship and details on their figures, the saints are transformed into – now, this is the right term – mere artefacts. They lose the devotions and, instead, they earn labels and documentations.

The opposite happens to statesmen, politicians and pundits. Construct museums in their name, put their medals (in case of war achievements), their blood-stained shirts (for those shot and assassinated), and their lowly slippers (as memorabilia of a kind of politics), and you convert these persons into divine saviors and saints.

Next time, you curate, cure yourself first of a colonial, antiquarian mind. Better still, build minds rather than museums, for the rest will, freely, follow.

Or build a Museum of Subversions!


 

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