On cultural accountability: The stolen panels of Boljoon

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

Rappler, through Cebu-based journalist and tech publisher Max Limpag, first broke the news about the resurfacing at the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) of the religious panels stolen from the church in Boljoon, Cebu, in the late 1980’s. Rappler reported that the panels were donated to the National Museum by private collectors. The discovery has prompted demands from Cebuanos, especially Boljoon residents and cultural advocates, for their return.

Yesterday, The FREEMAN reported about efforts of the Cebu Provincial Government to reclaim these long-lost historical panels. Governor Gwen Garcia has initiated consultations with the NMP after the museum announced it had received the panels as donations from private collectors. Expressing the cultural and historical significance of these panels to Cebuano heritage, Garcia aims to negotiate their return to their original home in Boljoon church.

According to the NMP, these panels, depicting Saint Augustine of Hippo, trace their origins to the 19th century and were once part of the Patrocinio de Maria Santisima Parish Church in Boljoon. The controversy on the panels’ resurfacing highlights the complexities and sensitivities involved in dealing with cultural heritage objects, especially those that have been questionably removed from their original contexts.

Indeed, the controversy surrounding these panels underscores the need to reevaluate and possibly strengthen our policies and procedures regarding the acquisition, display, and repatriation of national treasures and cultural objects. Have the existing guidelines been adhered to? Are there any gaps in our policies that need to be addressed?

Republic Act No. 10066 or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, prohibits “the importation, sale, distribution, procurement, acquisition, or exportation of cultural property that is stolen or otherwise lost against the will of the lawful owner.” Likewise, the law addresses the illicit exportation of cultural property listed in the Philippine Registry of Cultural Property or those that may be categorized as such, emphasizing the protection against illicit activities involving cultural heritage.

In Section 22 of Republic Act No. 11333 or the National Museum of the Philippines Act, the law mentioned the steps to ensure the legality and appropriateness of cultural acquisitions by the National Museum. One of the steps is the NMP through its head must certify that the item to be acquired by the museum has not been illegally acquired or trafficked. This law, however, merely implicitly addresses concerns about the legality and ethical acquisition of cultural properties.

While the ongoing negotiations for the panels' return to Boljoon are commendable, the people also deserve to find out how these religious-cultural treasures went missing and ended up at the National Museum years later. Accountability matters, especially considering that this is not an isolated incident. I’m sure several other religious-cultural treasures in our country face a similar fate.

While we adhere to the principle of separation of church and state, the Supreme Court, in the case of Renato Peralta versus Philippine Post Corp. (2018), has recognized the principle of benevolent neutrality. The court in the said case ruled that the design of a religious commemorative stamp is constitutionally permissible based on its intrinsic historical value to the nation. The state may acknowledge the significant cultural, historical, or social contributions of a religion without equating to the state sponsoring or endorsing the religion, the Supreme Court declared.

This principle provides ample leeway for our cultural and heritage agencies to proactively protect and preserve our religious-cultural treasures, particularly those owned by the Catholic Church. As a nation predominantly Catholic since the Spanish period, our churches today possess and display these various national treasures.

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