Monday, January 21, 2008

Culture Interrupted: The DWU Museum In Retrospect

by Raul Agner (9/07)
Twelve years ago, the Eastern Visayas saw the lamented closure of its largest university, the Divine Word University of Tacloban, an institution run by the SVD congregation. With it inevitably came the locking up of the Leyte-Samar Museum and Library, an integral part of the university, a helpful educational tool and an important repository of East Visayan heritage. Attempts to keep it open to the public in spite of the university's closure hit a snag. Budget for personnel and upkeep was simply hard to come by.
Unofficial sources say that today the collection remains intact and in fact could still be viewed albeit by appointment only. Which is good news, if true, for enthusiasts, students and serious researchers of local history and culture alike although nothing can be more ideal than a restoration of its regular or daily accessibility. With no solution in sight, crossing one's fingers appears to be the only alternative for the eventual full reopening of this painstakingly assembled labor of love also known as the DWU Museum.

Birth and Growth
The museum, which would have been 41 years old this year had it continued operating, opened on November 26, 1966 to fill up a cultural vacuum. Fr. Anthony Buchcik, SVD, a German priest assigned at the university's Graduate School had challenged his students to gather artifacts that, if pieced together, would tell the story of their culture. As if mortified that they were more conversant with Longfellow and Shakespeare than local writers or that they knew more about the Taj Mahal or the pyramids than their own past material culture, the students responded with an encouraging initial salvo. One came up with an antique stoneware jar. Several lugged along different old wooden santos to school. Still others presented Chinese ceramic wares, rare traditional household implements like a sandstone water filter, yellowing manuscripts of poems and short stories by vernacular authors and an array of gold thread-embroidered church vestments and vessels. In a few months, the pieces were numerous enough to be exhibited in their entire quaintness and historical richness in a one-room museum.
After the formal opening, more items kept coming in as news of the museum's acceptance of donations spread. A huge hardwood door panel depicting in high relief a purgatory scene was turned over, ushering in the arrival of two wheel bells that further increased the cache of religious items. Wartime artifacts like Gen. Carlos P. Romulo's flare gun, Pres. Sergio Osmeña's leather shoes, a Japanese bayonet and machine gun found their niches in the exhibition room. But the more significant acquisition was a portion of the archaeological finds from the Sohoton caves complex in nearby Basey, Samar. Karl Hutterer, SVD, head of the excavation team that conducted research in that area around 1968 generously donated funerary materials that included a calcified skull and another one with a flattened forehead. Also in that inventory were stone tools (adzes, flake tools), rust-eaten iron blades, personal ornaments made of shell, glass beads and metal, and gold-plated teeth. The whole package was a veritable gold mine of the region's pre-colonial practices. Animistic belief, for instance, was apparent in the phallus-shaped shell pendant worn by women to induce fertility. Personal ornaments and heirloom pieces like large bowls lying side by side with human bones were clues to the widespread custom of having the dead buried with their wealth to ensure comfort beyond the grave. Just how artistic the so-called Pintados (the ancient tattooed inhabitants of Leyte and Samar) appeared was indicated by the abundance of personal ornaments recovered from the diggings: rings, earrings, pendants, bracelets.

Literature Round-up
The gathering of literature about the region for the library section hauled in a slew of rare pieces. Among these were the original manuscripts of local literary luminaries of the '40s and '50s like Iluminado Lucente, Eduardo Makabenta, Francisco Alvarado, Casiano Trinchera, Jaime C. de Veyra and Vicente de Veyra, to name a few. Copies of rare publications were a prize catch: Eco de Samar y Leyte, the Philippine Commission Reports, the Henry Allen Papers and old Waray-Spanish dictionaries. Entrusted to the museum was the voluminous Daniel Z. Romualdez (DZR) memorabilia, a compilation of speeches, correspondence, legal documents, news clippings, photographs, cards and various items about this former Speaker of the House of Representatives from Leyte. One highly valued manuscript was the "Las Islas e Indios de Bisaya…1668" written by Spanish Jesuit missionary Francisco Ignacio Alcina. It is a lengthy and richly detailed description of the local flora, fauna and way of life of pre-Spanish inhabitants of Leyte and Samar supplemented with drawings the author himself made. A typewritten English translation by Cantius Kobak, OFM was donated by the translator himself, a Franciscan missionary who worked for some time at the Christ the King College in Calbayog City, Samar during the '70s.
Fr. Raymund Quetchenbach, SVD, an American, was the second curator of the Leyte-Samar Museum and Library. Growing by leaps and bounds under his care, it was allotted a special place in the main building. Fr. Quetch collected vintage photographs. He also edited the Leyte-Samar Studies journal and other university publications. It was during his stewardship that the DWU Museum Foundation, Inc. was established. Prof. Marlu Vilches took over Fr. Ray's responsibilities and came up with her own accomplishments, including the editing and publication of the book "Readings in Leyte-Samar History." This writer became the next curator in 1979 when Ms. Vilches left. In a year's time, the museum relocated to its new home at the third floor of the VOR Hall, a new building named after the university's first law dean Vicente Orestes Romualdez. Wide, airy and well lighted, the third floor had more than enough space for the office, library, main exhibit hall, temporary exhibit hall, memorabilia section, museum shop and storeroom.

After some time, the museum had to take on a different tack. New approaches began ditching the idea of museums as mere repositories or showcases, adopting instead the view of a museum as a living extension and affirmation of a community's culture, identity and memory. Along that more culturally correct line, the DWU Museum underwent a makeover in 1991. Tapped to do the redesign were Bobi Valenzuela, writer and then curator of Hiraya Gallery in Manila and Manny Chaves, graphic designer and then assistant curator of Hiraya. Later, the artist Mario de Rivera lent his fine touch in the arrangement of objects. Several brainstorming sessions later, "Sungdu-an" materialized as a working theme and title. A Waray term that refers to "the meeting point of two rivers," it can as well be the equivalent of the more abstract "confluence." The designers capitalized on the richness of its meaning, design possibilities and its aptness as a metaphor. First, the flat whiteness or usually drab interior of museums was avoided. To breathe color into the DWU Museum, the local banig (mat), which symbolizes folk artistry, cultural resilience and confluence, was extensively used as a design motif. One sees them as timeline markers and wall accents. Utilizing the banig (a local craft that even the chronicler Pigafetta took notice of during Magellan's Homonhon Island landfall in 1521) created a light atmosphere redolent of a Pinoy fiesta. Secondly, several small platforms (painted with the colors of the banig together with the boxes and pedestals) were joined together to form a wide central platform on which the various artifacts were displayed chronologically and in a clockwise direction. Around the platform were the narrative texts. The entire layout allowed for a smooth segue from one historical period to the next and a visual crossover to the opposite side, thus, like the local mat, hinting at the "sungdu-an" or interweaving of historical periods, indigenous elements and foreign influences in the local culture.

Users and Researchers
Many people looking for cultural and historical information about the Eastern Visayas found them at the museum's library. Part of historian Rolly Borrinaga's background info on the "Balangiga Massacre" in Samar was researched in that library, (in the process stumbling upon his potentially controversial hypothesis that the redoubtable Lapu-lapu was possibly a Waray!) Poet-writers Vic Sugbo and Nino de Veyra extensively explored the nooks and crannies of vernacular writing in the works of Lucente, Makabenta and other Waray writers. Marlu Vilches used the Waray riddles collection for her University of Leeds M.A. in Literature thesis, later published in 1981 as "A Collection of Visayan Riddles from Leyte and Samar." Prof. Nenita Tamayo made the museum's collection of Waray proverbs the subject of her master's thesis. Gregg Luangco edited "Waray Literature: An Anthology of Leyte-Samar Writings" and "Kandabao: Essays on Waray Language, Literature, and Culture" both in 1982, two books sourced largely from the library's compilation. Local artists like the Atitipalo Art Group, whose artmaking sought inspirations from local history and culture, thankfully found the museum a rich source of texts and images. Leo Villaflor, known for his tuba paintings, used the file photos of Leyte's past governors for his oil portrait series. When the Pintados Foundation was planning the first Pintados Festival of Tacloban in 1987, the museum library's source materials on the early pintados proved very helpful. Countless other people did research in the museum's library.

Save the Heritage
Today one wonders where those who want to take a glimpse of Leyte-Samar's past (and its connection with the present) or those who need information on East Visayan history and culture go. Sure there are other museums in Leyte and Samar but none compares to the DWU Museum and Library collection's quantity and quality. U.P. College-Tacloban's Leyte-Samar Heritage Center has local literature and traditional implements in its collection. Imelda's expensive objet d'art are what the Sto. Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum in Tacloban keeps (or shows off). The Zaldivar Museum in Albuera town in Leyte is a family collection of heirlooms, travel souvenirs, antiques, ceramic wares and curiosities. In Calbayog City, Samar, the Christ the King College Museum has archaeological pieces, church articles, ceramic wares and various items from Samar but doesn’t have a library section that made the DWU Museum truly informational. Biliran town in the island province of Biliran is just starting a museum with a few artifacts gathered so far.
It's bad enough that people of Leyte, Samar and Biliran can't have ready access to their own heritage. Allowing that same heritage to deteriorate would be even worse. No one knows if the DWU Museum collection, since its closure in 1995, has been cleaned up or checked for damages or given preservation treatment. If not, then the materials are in danger of disintegrating due to intrinsic and extrinsic factors and eventually lost. It is high time that concerned individuals, cultural organizations, academic institutions, the provincial and city governments and government agencies in the region join hands and take action. Among the things they can work on are the museum's possible reopening to the public, making a digital version for easier access, having the status of the collection examined and even moving the collection to a better location. They can coordinate with the SVD congregation that legally still owns the collection.
It's the people though who are the real stakeholders. If the Waray people wake up one day and find their heritage missing, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

The author is former curator of the DWU Museum of Tacloban from 1979 until its closure in 1995, current archivist at Adamson University and co-authored the coffee table book "Adamson University: 75 Touchstones at Year 75."


Gerry Ruiz said...

Very interesting. What a shame, indeed, if these treasures are left to rot! Perhaps a group of concerned Warays can be organized and spearhead the cause for its restoration, preservation and professional management. If such a group is formed, I'd be most interested to join and pitch in my 2 cents worth. ;)

r. agner said...

thanks gerry for your comment. i am now based in manila so i can't really do much about the collection. i hope people like you who have real concern for our own local arts and culture can start something.
btw, i'm the rda that commented on your blog once. great thing you're doing. you are a modern day pigafetta, a contemporary chronicler of images that we warays will forever hold dear. keep them coming!


Carl Jamie Simple S. Bordeos said...

Hello. Thanks for this article. Yes, we have to join our hands in preserving our heritage! I pray that one day the artifacts and other treasures that we have in DWU Museum and other museums in Samar and Leyte are still there. Even I was encouraging my bosses at CKC to reopen its Museum to the public. It's our heritage! By the way, just an information, though, CKC Museum has no library museum as what stated in the article, Father Cantius J. Kobak donated a very rich collection of his translations on Samar and Leyte history, other books, etc., to DWU Museum. I guess, by the kind gesture of Father Cantius, CKC has done its part. Father Cantius was co-founder of the DWU Museum. Best Regards

Nightingale's lamp said...

Hello. Thanks for this article. Yes, we have to join our hands in preserving our heritage! I pray that one day the artifacts and other treasures that we have in DWU Museum and other museums in Samar and Leyte are still there. Even I was encouraging my bosses at CKC to reopen its Museum to the public. It's our heritage! By the way, just an information, though, CKC Museum has no library museum as what stated in the article, Father Cantius J. Kobak donated a very rich collection of his translations on Samar and Leyte history, other books, etc., to DWU Museum. I guess, by the kind gesture of Father Cantius, CKC has done its part. Father Cantius was co-founder of the DWU Museum. Best Regards