NMP's mandate and the need to redefine museum engagement

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

The current controversy surrounding the pulpit panels from the Archdiocesan Shrine of the Patrocinio de Maria Santisima in Boljoon, now in the possession of the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP), highlights the NMP’s confusion regarding its mandate, and hints at an underlying elitist approach to cultural heritage management.

The panels' removal and eventual ending up in the possession of the NMP have already sparked significant outcry from local Catholic church authorities, the provincial government, and heritage conservationists, all of whom assert that the panels were stolen. Instead of directly addressing the concerns raised by stakeholders, the NMP is asking for patience and more time from the public, saying that is engaged in "constructive dialogue." The NMP, through the chairman of its board of trustees, is now even cautioning against hastily labeling the pulpit panels as “stolen”, according to a report by Rappler.

While the NMP is open to dialogue, it is important for them to come clean and engage transparently with the Cebu community. Negotiations for the preservation of these heritage pieces are welcome. But they must be predicated on the unequivocal acknowledgment by the NMP that it has no rightful claim over the panels, which belong solely to the Archdiocese. Any attempt at negotiation without this acknowledgment is disrespectful to the stakeholders. Moreso, it is dismissive for the NMP to suggest how the public should refer to the panels, especially when the term “stolen” simply reflects the community's outrage and sense of loss.

Heritage lawyer Kay Malilong, interviewed by Rappler, is right. In response to statements by NMP chairman Andoni Aboitiz, Malilong told Rappler that the owner, the Archdiocese, already confirmed the panels were never permitted to be removed or sold. This assertion holds unless there are documents proving the Archdiocese authorized the sale, she said.

As I previously mentioned, the unfolding controversy seem to reflect an elitist approach to the management of national museums and heritage conservation in this country. We have a tendency to treat heritage and art as exclusive privileges, to be enjoyed by a few of those who can afford to go to museums --reserved for enjoyment in air-conditioned halls or at classy cocktail evenings, with guests dressed in their finest. Meanwhile, heritage experts and advocates from academia are relegated to the roles of mere documenters and curators, valued like commoners and only recognized or engaged when their expertise is deemed necessary.

The NMP is mandated to establish, manage, and develop museums and collections that cover the breadth of the Philippines' artistic, cultural, and natural heritage. The same mandate underscores the importance of conducting research and disseminating knowledge related to these areas.

Yet, the museum's handling of the Boljoon panels issue appears to deviate from its implied objectives of fostering appreciation and ensuring the ethical stewardship of cultural properties. In fact, the NMP’s approach to engaging with the Cebu community over this issue shows a disconnect with the very stakeholders it is meant to serve.

By stating it is open for "constructive dialogue," yet without first acknowledging the panels' disputed ownership and the community's claims, the NMP may have inadvertently revealed its tendency to be an insular or inward-looking gatekeeper of cultural heritage. Their stance not only alienates the local community and stakeholders, but also contradicts the museum's role as a custodian of the nation's cultural heritage, which should inherently respect the principle of accessible and inclusive cultural heritage preservation.

Professor Elizabeth Crooke, Senior Lecturer in Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Ulster, in her book “Museums and Community: Ideas, Issues, and Challenges,” (2007) gave some insightful pointers that support a more community-centered approach to national museum management and heritage conservation.

“Within this study I consider how the connection with community in?uences the meaning of museums, both when museums are a community construct and when they attempt to integrate themselves more fully with the needs of community,” Crooke said. Crooke observed that the ongoing relevance of issues from her earlier studies, concerning the need for museums to forge stronger ties with their communities and understand their social role, reflects how museum practices like valuing heritage and building collections are influenced by social and political contexts.

In light of the controversy surrounding the Boljoon panels, there is a need for the National Museum to be more attuned to the said social and political contexts within the communities.

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