(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