Chaos threatens Philippines’ myriad cultural treasures

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Chaos threatens Philippines’ myriad cultural treasures

MANILA - Thieves and art dealers are the usual suspects, but mildew and flashbulbs are just as dangerous for some of the Philippines’ beleaguered cultural treasures.

From a 30,000-year-old skull fragment of one of its first human inhabitants to imposing churches built during Spanish colonial rule, the Southeast Asian archipelago has a stunning display of artifacts showcasing its diverse history. But they are under threat on every front.

Even at the National Museum, where half a million archaeological items are supposed to be protected, a lack of funds means they could be as vulnerable as treasures outside its walls, said its chief conservator Orlando Abinion.

“They are in danger, yes, they are prone to deterioration, robbery, vandalism,” Abinion told the AFP inside the rundown hallways of one of the museum’s twin 85-year-old neoclassical buildings in the historic quarter of Manila.

Abinion has devoted the past 10 years to preserving and restoring the museum’s collections, which include more than 100,000 ethnographs, 1,500 pieces of art and hundreds of thousands of preserved plant and animal species. He said he was severely limited by an annual conservation budget of less than a million pesos (less than $23,000), but there had been some inspiring victories.

One of his biggest achievements was saving the “Spoliarium”, a four-by-seven-meter (301-square-foot) oil-on-poplar painted in 1884 by revered Filipino artist Juan Luna that had been damaged by heat and humidity.

Depicting dead gladiators set to be stripped of their worldly possessions, the masterpiece symbolizes the crystallization of Filipino yearning for independence from the Spanish that, in 1897, would escalate into an uprising.

“The ‘Spoliarium’ is now stable, it’s in good condition,” Abinion said proudly.

Similar issues hound the National Library, which moved to its present building near the museum in 1961 with the remnants of a collection decimated during World War II.

Operating on a budget so small that air-conditioning has to be shut down on the weekends, the collection is under threat from fungus, said German conservationist Monika Schneider-Gast.

“It will cost a lot of money to change conditions because they have to rewire the library and have to change the air-conditioning,” the consultant told AFP as she worked on two frayed and moldy late 19th-century books.

Written by national hero Jose Rizal, the books - “Noli Me Tangere” (Touch Me Not) and “El Filibusterismo” (Reign of Greed) - were trenchant criticisms of the Spanish colonial government. The Spanish executed Rizal, then 35, by firing squad in 1896 for writing the books, sparking an armed revolution.

Anne Rosette Crelencia, the library’s rare books and manuscripts section chief, said it had taken a special meeting with the budget minister to get the government to fork out a little money for the Rizal project that was mainly funded by Germany.

Crelencia said she understood that the library may not be the top priority for the Philippines’ economic managers as they battle chronic poverty that sees a quarter of the population living on a dollar a day or less.

“Although we need the funds, the country is facing many problems too,” she said.


AFP
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