Sunday, April 11, 2010

CULTURE BLUNDER

(article appeared in Philippine Inquirer Sunday Lifestyle April 11 2010)

For over a decade, the National Museum has delighted, and inspired millions of visitors, particularly schoolchildren with its permanent exhibitions and temporary galleries coming from all parts of the globe and this country as well.

When former President Fidel Ramos assigned three colonial era buildings and the private sector raised over half a billion pesos for its upkeep and maintenance, the once seedy Museum transformed into a cultural icon. It became a steward to the country’s treasures and a fine example of a preserved historical structure. The Museum as the public face of the country has impressed foreign dignitaries and has been the site for banquets in their honor. All our presidents thereafter proudly showed off the Museum to their guests casting us as a nation of cultured citizens. There is unanimous agreement that the museum instills a sense of pride to foreigners and Filipinos alike when they visit or tour the Museum.

The recent unceremonious and downright insulting manner by which the Museum Board of Trustees led by Antonio Cojuangco and the Director Cora Alvina were removed seemed dissonant and crude in contrast to the cultural statesmanship the Museum has exercised all these years.

In a text statement, Alvina said of the move, "I am angry and hurt. I have sacrificed my personal ambitions for the museum and this is what I get. Our planned exhibitions are now in jeopardy given the sudden appointments."

Attempts to trace the origins of this aberrant behavior on the part of Malacanang has generated waves of rumours and gossip. The President is painted as vindictive and petty, in a snit because the nominations of her underling like NCCA Director Cecile Guidote Alvarez for National Artists weren’t approved from agencies such as the National Museum, the National Historical Institute and the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

The President’s abrupt appointment of a new board of directors is seen as further proof that she hopes to stay longer in office.

Other rumors hint that the President still wants to curry favor with her more marginalized supporters who were bereft of earlier plums and now can lick their wounds and bask in these cultural agencies.

Whatever the innuendos, there are some very basic facts that are unassailable.

First, the replacements were done without an explanation or cause. At the National Museum, the Palace decision was met with shock and anger. The staff were in disbelief because they all felt the Board and the Director had been doing yeoman service for the nation. The four-fold increase in visitors, the continuing large donations from the private sector attested to that fact as well.

Palace spokespersons are quick to recite the mantra that appointees “serve at the President’s pleasure.” Whoever coined that claptrap must have been living in the hacienda days where beautiful peasant daughters are offered to the landlord for their “pleasure.”

That worn-out phrase has no place in today’s democracy for it does not suggest people are appointed or removed on the basis of merit but rather on a presidential bad hair day. One grants a President the choice of people in synch with a vision or to get a job done. If such a phrase is bandied about, it certainly implies appointees to be capable people. In the case of the National Museum, the original board members and the Director have made the Museum a popular tourist attraction and a source for patriotic renewal for students and the general public. Curiously when President Arroyo took office in 2004 she retained most of the trustees including Mr. Cojuangco and Director Alvina, signaling her “pleasure” in their work.

The abrupt replacements were done without the slightest sense of decency and good manners, something the President should know of given her Assumption College education and her early years under her father’s presidency. In most quarters, a job well done is usually accompanied by a commendation, a farewell banquet, or, simply, a note of thanks. These acts of civility seem to have escaped her and her social secretary who is reported to now be on the hastily reconstituted board.

Which brings us to the harshest observation that the uncalled for actions are insulting to a venerable institution like the National Museum. There has been a host of recent shuffles and appointments in the various government departments. The National Museum, now victim of such a shuffle, is not like, say, the waterworks or the traffic department.

National Museums throughout the world are treated with kid gloves and have a patina of secular veneration by citizens because of the important role they play in developing and preserving national identity. They can be compared to the Supreme Court in the cultural realm. Museum trustees and executive directors in other countries would never have received the shoddy treatment that ours have undergone. Diplomats and foreign observers witness with astonishment how the Palace has failed to appreciate the guardians of our national treasures and conclude we hold nothing sacred anymore. Arts and culture be dammed.

Unfortunately, foreign and local exhibition organizers and donors will now be reluctant to support future cultural interchanges at the Museum given the cavalier actions of the Palace.

The last and most certain fact is that these unbecoming actions will be politically costly for the President and her candidates. Voters are savvier these days and no longer express their voting preferences because of provincial loyalties or selling their votes. These days, voters also cast their ballots according to how they believe the candidates will perform in the area of education, rule of law, gender rights, the environment, arts and culture and even common decency. The president’s recent actions elevated patronage over merit, sullied a well-loved institution and angered a broad swath of voters who see themselves as cultural constituents. Of all the rumors about her actions, the one certain truth is this is a major blunder uncharacteristic of a longstanding and seemingly astute politician.

John L. Silva is the former Senior Consultant of the National Museum

21 comments:

Hilda said...

Right now, I can't think of a person I abhor as much as I do her…

Anonymous said...

In many countries National Institutions are given Statuary status to protect them from party politics, ensure funding and programming stability and ensure a venue for vigorous national reflection/debate. This increases their independence and allows them greater freedom of speech, to curate stories of history and social events including the matters of state. This independence is necessary to enable democracy and for citizens to learn from the past and go consciously into the future. You are right in saying this action undermines the role of the Museum I personally think it does more, it undermines cultural growth, free speech and democracy. How can anyone act honesty and transparently in any government office if this can happen to the very institution, which should be spared from party politics. It may have bought her a museum board but I fear more that this shocking move may have also bought the compliance of other boards….. Grave indeed.

Anonymous said...

"National Museums...can be compared to the Supreme Court in the cultural realm". Well, now that the Supreme Court has been backhoed alive, the National Museum was the next logical target.

What we have is a systematic demolition of all our democratic and cultural institutions. She is after the nation's soul. It is insidious genocide.

20x30 said...

Appalled but not surprised... this President has been consistently bad, evil, and selfish with all her decisions.

You did mention Assumption. Formal education did not work on this woman. She's also form UP like myself. Whatever she's doing did not come from UP either.

Anonymous said...

I cannot imagine what the National Museum has to offer these "new appointees" can you enlighten us? As I see it, its payback time anyone who has scratched her back gets an appointment whether they are worthy or not. Look whats happening in the CCP. Emily Abrera was just removed when she is highly capable and respectable. A bunch of IDIOTS (many from Lubao, Pampanga) who know nothing about art, culture or the CCP were appointed as well. Look to at Delia Albert a career diplomat who is our Ambassador to Germany. She is intelligent, very capable and dedicated at the drop of a hat she is being changed by an 87 year old millionaire, businessman who is rumored to have dementia. There is nothing being done for the good of the country but only for the good of that Elf whose luck should be running out soon.

Anonymous said...

I am deeply disappointed Uncle John. I have witnessed the hard work you and the Board have done for the development of the Museum.

And to think I volunteered for her before..One act i deeply regret.

Aizel Finch said...

In this case where power is haphazardly and selfishly used by the president how does the constitution protect us? What can we do? It is clear that we can't just let this pass and we cannot let this happen again and again! The greatness of the ambitions of the National Museum in treasuring Philippine art, preserving Filipino artists' works, showing Philippines' history in a highly educated perspective, to say the least, should not go down the drain. This is not just an attack on our present but on our future, on our children. There is so much work to be done to take our country to another level and the National Museum has been an inspiration. It has in so many ways showed the Filipinos and the world, it can be done. What is happening is much lesser compared to the fight. It is challenging but this does not destroy the museum's soul.

ninJAS said...

The phrase "former Senior Consultant of the National Museum" made me cry :(

I'm going to miss your tours (I've taken it five times)

firsttimetravel said...

It is sad that our cultural institutions are used for political favors and machinations.

Ana said...

GMA just showed everyone that she is not a cultured person. For a cultured person will never think of messing with the National Museum.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, PGMA has insatiable desires for power and it's none debatable coz it's obvious. No meritocracy in her government either so I find it fitting that presidential parrots, especially the one named Gary Olivar (lol) would stick to "they're serving at her pleasure" defense... I'm literally incensed whenever I see this guy on TV so much so I already want to chop off his nick... lol. But wait, I'm cultured... Keep moving forward and good luck John

Anonymous said...

You said in your earlier post that the board is being replaced by a new composed of "questionable sorts".

Since you mentioned also that her Social Secretary in also in that new board, it is now more shocking to know that there are actually two from her Palace official household in "that hastily constituted board." National Museum is not suppose to be run like how social function is run in the Palace, or the Malacanang Museum is run.

The spirit of the nation and our national pride are enshrined in the National Museum. And, people who have extensive knowledge and training in the culture and art scene, not to mention, a pure Filipino, should be in that board!

I hope Noynoy if he wins, will not forget his promise that he will nullify these appointments.

Eric said...

"Government is that great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else."

Rica said...

This is so sad, immensely sad. What brings this on, this pointless, purposeless destruction? This defies any explanation. I am speechless.

Rica said...

This is so sad, immensely sad. What brings on this pointless, purposeless destruction? It defies explanation.... I am rendered speechless.

arnimur said...

Disgusting and very frustrating indeed for you and your Board who have done a yeoman's job at bringing back the glory of the National Museum. But not surprising at all, if you ask me, coming from PGMA .... she has exhibited complete disregard for what is lawful, proper, and decent.

Larry Henares and the new Board should have had the decency to think long and hard before taking on the job offered by someone who is on the tail end of her term.

Anonymous said...

that is why The Philippines cannot progress. It saddens me on how rich the country is in culture but we hardly have museums to go to. With the whole mess that is happening this will take us a a few steps back again instead of moving forward...
the bad part is all these changes are done not for the good of the country but everything always so personal

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear that John. This is a great loss to us all. You will be missed.
This is also one of the most disgusting and careless things she has done. I wonder what secret plan she has in store.
Mila

Anonymous said...

I am really sorry that good deeds for the promotion of heritage and culture is not appreciated by this president. I am witness to the wonderful job that this Board has done for the National Museum, having "interacted" with the museum since the 80's. I am amazed at how these two buildings were transformed; a tableau of who we are.

I am really sorry that I wasn't able enjoy your tours. We spoke just the day before this awful thing happened.

I wish you all the best....JG

Anonymous said...

Hello John, I visited the museum two years ago on one of your tours and was very impressed indeed. My visit was on the last day of my trip, and it was the best finish I could possibly have, opening my eyes to even more aspects about the Philippines. I deeply regret hearing the news.

eunice barbara c. novio said...

Hi Sir John, the Museum has also the natural history, which is badly neglected. I just hope that the flora and fauna of the Philippines are also given due funding to continue the collection and labeling not only for study purposes but also for exhibition.