Monday, January 12, 2004

Dead Things, Dead People

Over the Christmas break I made my students visit the National Museum in Manila. This was a departmental requirement and neither I nor my students had much of a choice regarding the matter. I confess to never having stepped foot in the museum, content with the knowledge that all I needed to know about Filipino culture is stored in between my ears. But I went nonetheless, so I could think of questions to ask my students and at the very least to be able to say I myself paid visit.

I teach a foreign language far-removed from the Philippine experience other than at one point French ships were anchored in Manila bay (along with the British, German and American fleets) awaiting the results of the Spanish-Philippine war, and there were French diplomats/spies “surveying” the islands in the late 19th century. So one would ask what in the hell our chairperson was thinking making a visit to the National Museum a must. There was a list of questions that needed to be answered to make sure people actually went and looked for the answers but I scratched out this part and instead asked my students to write a 500 word essay on something, anything NEW they learned in this little exercise.

My own little discovery was finding out about the Butuan Boat, a vessel about 2 meters across and 10 meters long (my own estimation) dated back to 300 AD. I was impressed. It looked like a Viking ship. I’ve always had this notion that for an archipelago our ship-making capacities were strangely retarded. I thought, here is a concrete proof of indigenous technology comparable to any other sea-faring people.

Last Tuesday I got the papers. What this activity meant to do was stimulate some reflections about culture. Our own culture. The answers I got were mostly bullshit, but here are some interesting “insights” from 17-20 year-olds.

Rachel: In the world, the past is past. We can never relive it…True, it helps that physical manifestations such as paintings, letters, and don’t ever forget the jars, and other antiquities are preserved for later generations. But this new generation can only breed a shallow regard for the past, never capturing its true substance…Even if historians examine and re-examine the past to its minutest detail, we would always be outsiders.

Here is a distressing statement, this ambivalent regard for history. We can never truly cut off the events of the centuries ago and create a divide from the events of today. But what she says is true, to an extent we are outsiders, disjointed from our own roots. Our very own roots are alien, “the other.”

Kat: Early Filipinos lived prosperous lives before the western colonizers came. Social classes existed but they are probably unlike the ones that are in the present, no masses of people below poverty level. Even after the colonizers left, the lifestyle has been changed and the old one could not easily be brought back. It makes me wonder what the big change was, and what really happened during that time.

Jong: As time passes by, the Philippines keeps on moving backwards instead of forward. Most of our ancestors progressed financially though bartering with foreigners, and Manila was the envy of other port communities. Now, eighty percent of Pinoys are below the poverty line, and Manila is the Philippines’ shameful capital.

This is an instance of the missing events that would bridge Manila being a “rich port” to Manila being the “shameful capital.” Unfortunately Jong didn’t attempt to make any kind of reflections on how this came to pass. Again distressing is the use of the word shameful.

JR: The thing I learned through this experience is valuing your own culture. You are born a Filipino and you should be proud of it. By being proud, you should nurture and develop the capacities of the country, not neglecting and giving up and choose to stay somewhere else.

It is not a given that just because we are born Filipino we are obliged to remain so. Millions would undoubtedly get rid of their citizenship without so much as a blink. The French are proud of their heritage because they are successful in inculcating pride in their nation’s accomplishments. This “socialization” exercise is apparent from cradle to grave.

Theresa:Filipinos of old had their own culture. No particular culture is superior, no matter what anyone says.

The problem is, this anyone is often Filipinos themselves.

Carlo: My recent visit to the National Museum was a great opportunity for me to rekindle the somewhat lost pride I was supposed to have for our rich cultural heritage.

Joseph: I’m not particularly knowledgeable about my country but a trip to the National Museum encouraged me to have a few insights about my mother land.

Sheryl: …makes me wonder what would have happened to us if we were not colonized but were instead allowed to develop without outside influence.

Grip: As I went around the museum, I couldn’t help but realize that it was unfair for the Spanish colonizers to say that colonized states were uncivilized before they came. They called themselves the “savior” of the people. What these colonizers failed to admit was that the colonized people had a civilization before they came…We already had the barangay and sultanate systems, a system of trade and various technological advances.

What these thoughts reflect is a schizoid self-image Filipinos have. It is a picture of contradictory elements without knowing why it is so. It is disturbing how young educated Filipinos (doubtlessly belonging to a class who will become one day leaders of government and industry) are totally clueless about the culture and people they were born into.

There are more than 7,000 museums in France. Paris alone boasts of 177, the highest density of museums per square foot. The entire Philippine archipelago only has 290 museums. I say, why don’t we build more?

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