‘Dynamic ownership’ and the moral and legal controversy over Boljoon's heritage panels

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

The fate of the four Boljoon church pulpit panels, now in the possession of the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP), can be considered by heritage experts as a 'historical injustice that has not been undone.'

The Archdiocese of Cebu has already formally requested the immediate return of the panels to their rightful place inside the Patrocinio de Maria Santisima Parish Church in Boljoon, with Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma describing their removal from its original context in the 1980s as a 'sacrilege'.

One could argue that the panels ending up in the hands of private collectors occurred through the unilateral actions of a priest or a church insider. However, this does not amount to authorized or good-faith possession years down the road. The Archdiocese’s statements made it clear that the panels were 'removed without permission from the Archdiocese.’

While both the Archdiocese of Cebu and the Provincial Government of Cebu have expressed openness to negotiate and amicably settle the matter with the National Museum, I hope that in the end, those panels will be returned to their rightful place --the church in Boljoon.

However, if we read between the lines of the NMP's recent statement on the issue, it seems they want to hold on to the panels. What intrigues me is their use of the term 'dynamic ownership,' referring to its application with regard to the possession of the panels from hereon.

The NMP's statement, I believe, is a classic example of gaslighting, akin to the passive-aggressive tactics seen in China's statements on the South China Sea dispute. Here is what the NMP said: “We acknowledge the historical vulnerability of church artifacts to looting and improper disposal in the past. While ethical concerns may arise, it is essential to consider the intricate historical context influencing these actions… The dynamic ownership and circulation of these cultural assets underscore the necessity for open dialogue and collaborative initiatives to address these complexities.”

Capitol consultant Atty. Ben Cabrido is right --there is no such thing as dynamic ownership over items possessed through theft or robbery. “Even if they will say that we bought these from this person, it will not change the character of that thing and make it a valid object in a contract of sale,” Cabrido told the media.

If one were to search for the meaning of 'dynamic ownership' online, one would find a scarcity of materials or sources that directly mention the said principle. However, the principle of dynamic ownership can be inferred from the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (Rome, 24 June 1995).

Dynamic ownership aims to 'balance the rights and interests of various stakeholders in cultural heritage, ensuring that items are preserved and appreciated while respecting the sovereignty and cultural rights of origin communities and nations.'

It would benefit the parties currently involved in this issue to be guided by the framework established by the UNESCO Convention and the UNIDROIT Convention during their negotiations. Based on these international conventions, and in the context of the Boljoon panels controversy, “dynamic ownership” could imply “shared ownership” or joint administration among the national government, local community, and the legal owner, which is the Church. This arrangement might encompass agreements on the sharing of custody or alternating possession of cultural items among stakeholders. Beyond mere legal ownership, it could also entail designating the Church or the NMP as stewards of the nation’s cultural artifacts and heritage items.

But for me, the key to resolving this controversy lies in justice --by working toward the return of these cultural and heritage treasures to their communities of origin, ensuring fair treatment for both previous and current possessors who acted in good faith, and holding accountable those responsible for the items' loss from their original location and their concealment for over three decades.

As I mentioned in my previous column, the principle of benevolent neutrality, as outlined in Renato Peralta vs. Philippine Post Corp. (2018), offers the NMP and other agencies considerable flexibility to actively protect and preserve our religious-cultural treasures. However, I hope that their primary consideration is respect for the communities that originally housed and created these treasures.

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