Editorial: Value national treasure

UPROOTED. We should demand answers from ourselves and our leaders why our national cultural treasures increasingly end up adorning private individuals or private collections instead of being studied by scholars and appreciated by citizens for the ways these connect us to our roots. / INSTAGRAM
UPROOTED. We should demand answers from ourselves and our leaders why our national cultural treasures increasingly end up adorning private individuals or private collections instead of being studied by scholars and appreciated by citizens for the ways these connect us to our roots. / INSTAGRAM

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The proverb’s meaning received a recent polishing. Last July 22, actor and vlogger Beauty Gonzalez posted on Instagram images of herself in her attire for the GMA Gala, captioned to set off the necklace as the centerpiece: “My look... is an appreciation for Philippine Ancestral Gold (accompanied by heart emoji). My Centuries old Gold Neck Piece (sic) and Earrings are Excavated Eye and Mouth Covers from distant places like Butuan and Surigao.”

Denunciation was swift and scathing but it surprisingly did not come from officials of the National Museum, granted by Presidential Decree (PD) 374, also known as the Cultural Properties Preservation and Protection Act, with the mandate of “preserving and protecting the cultural properties of the nation.”

On July 25, art critic and independent curator Marian Pastor Roces called out Gonzalez in a post on Facebook: “How on earth is this an homage, exhibiting impunity and crassness? Wearing archaeological gold death pieces, flaunting excess, is odious. Ignorance (blended with arrogance) can’t possibly be fashionable.”

Roces also pointed out in the same post that Gonzalez’s necklace had around 10 eye and mouth covers, implying that Gonzalez’s “favorite jeweller,” Riqueza Jewellery, used grave goods that came from more than one grave site.

Standards of beauty are not objective. Yet, based on PD 374, signed by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. on Jan. 10, 1974, relics from the “contact period, the Neolithic Age, and the Paleolithic Age” are legally considered as “priceless cultural treasures that properly belong to the Filipino people as their heritage.”

Commercialization of cultural properties is abetted by many factors: the pervasive network of treasure hunters, middlemen and private collectors that have ready cash and lack of scruples to be more than a step ahead of the authorities in acquiring relics stolen from churches, excavated from prehistoric graves, or unearthed in the tilling of a farm or installation of drainage; the curious apathy and inaction from the National Museum, local governments and academic institutions in safeguarding tangible heritage; and the indefensible ignorance of many Filipinos about the irreplaceable wealth we lose to thieves with deep pockets and good connections.

Decades ago, a known Visayan collector of prehistoric Philippine gold purchased a full-faced death mask from a “suki (regular dealer)” who said that it was recovered from road-widening operations in the uplands of a town in Visayas.

The man operating the backhoe that unearthed the stash did not go to the authorities with his discovery. A smart man, he sought someone who knew someone who eventually brought the death mask to the Visayan collector.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the middleman caught the collector before she was set to purchase a new pick-up. She had cash on hand, which exchanged hands albeit for an unanticipated commodity.

The Visayan death mask, rare for being intact and covering the whole face and not just the orifices of the dead, went into the locked drawer of a cluttered desk in an office innocuous with the tools of the collector’s trade.

The law defines relics as “cultural properties... intimately associated with important beliefs, practices, customs and traditions, periods and personages.”

Private collectors and owners of important cultural properties, such as schools and museums, are required by PD 374 to register their collections with the National Museum.

Long after the Visayan collector passed away, nothing about her extensive prehistoric gold collection, including the Visayan death mask, has surfaced in public. No one — not her daughter who wears a 16th-century gold bangle as everyday wear, not the citizens who would not view with consternation an actor parading pre-hispanic grave goods as mere accessories — knows who the Filipino is except perhaps for the shadowy insides of a drawer in a forgotten office.

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