"Jose Rizal loved to go to museums," recounts John Silva, senior consultant and tour guide of the National Museum. "When he was studying in Europe in the late 1800s, he visited the museums and described in handwritten letters all that he saw to his family in the Philippines. So I tell children today, if you want to be like your national hero, you must love the museum!"
One of Rizal's observations, for example, is that "Filipinos lost their ancient tradition and learned an aesthetics different from their climate and ways of feeling. Thus, they became ashamed of what was their own. Their spirit became dejected and surrendered." A lost culture? Surely, we could find it here inside the National Museum.
Unknown to many, the Museum of the Filipino People is the last refuge of the ancient culture of the Philippines before the coming of the Spaniards in 1521. In the archaeological section, for example, elephant bones, limb bones and tooth were discovered in Palawan, Cagayan Valley and Rizal provinces. Elephants in the Philippines? Unlike Thailand, Elephants are nowhere found today in the country except in zoos. John continues to explain about the Austronesian ancestors of present-day Filipinos.
"Our ancestors ate a lot of shellfish," said John, pointing to a shell midden in one section of the diorama. A midden is a large dump created by ancient human beings. Skeletal remains dated 22,000-24,000 BC were found in Tabon Cave, Palawan. Known as "Tabon Man" this is perhaps the earliest recorded human existence in the Philippines. Next, John points to a small, wooden breast mask composed of several breast-shaped corners.
"Our male ancestors were also obsessed with breasts." he says. It seems to me that time hasn't changed man's biological instincts, hasn't it? Nor has time changed the Filipino's typical diet of fish (or shellfish) with rice.
But there is one thing that time had virtually erased in the Philippines - an ancient script known as Alibata or Baybayin. Filipinos once wrote on tree barks, palm leaves, bamboo and rocks using this ancient script. Think of the Thai script, the ancient Baybayin looks a little like it. Today, the museum visitor can see this ancient script next to the English signs inside all sections of the museum. Alas, this ancient script is alien to modern-day Filipinos as a result of colonization and conversion to Christianity or Muslim.
Spaniards introduced the Roman numerals and the Latin alphabet to Filipinos when they colonized the country for nearly three hundred years. It was not so when they first arrived in 1521. At that time, almost all the natives could read and write in the ancient Baybayin. Unlike in Thailand, China, Japan or Korea, ancient Filipinos used the Babayin writing system mainly to communicate and write poems, and not as a means to record history, science or politics like in a monarch state. Thus, it is easy to understand how this ancient form of writing would be extinct by the late 18th century under Spanish rule.
Now that the Philippines is a free country, surely Filipinos could learn more about their ancient script and culture without persecution and punishment from colonizers? John recounts an anecdote about a group of women from the Bagobo tribe of Mindanao visiting the museum one day:
"The women were very surprised to find their tribal clothing displayed inside the museum. According to them, their ancestors were forbidden to wear such clothing when the Muslims conquered Mindanao because it was considered sinful to have parts of their bodies exposed. It was a sad thing to know that a culture had been lost. Six months later, a group of young boys and girls from the Bagobo tribe came to the museum and asked that they be allowed to touch the clothing of their ancestors. So I opened the glass case and allowed them to get up close. They told me afterwards that they were studying the beading patterns of the ancient clothes so that they could learn how to make them! Imagine, there is hope after all."
There is so much to see and understand about the Philippines inside the Museum of the Filipino people. From the award-winning painting of national artist Juan Luna (called Spolarium) to the genius of young Filipino painters as shown in the Philip Morris Art Awards section (see photo) of the museum. An artist, like a writer, paints his own view of how he sees the world. An event like the arrival of the Spaniards in the island of Cebu can be seen in two different perspectives; whether as an acceptance of Christianity (as painted by Carlos Francisco) or with resistance or rebellion as in the case of the Muslims in Mindanao (as painted by Manansala). The tourist may not easily see the culture of the Philippines on the streets as he may see it inside museums. Indeed, even Filipinos discover their own culture inside the museum. Such is the impact of the Museum of the Filipino people.