Curatorship Defined

(By Dayang Yraola)

When the National Museum of the Philippines, TAO Management, Inc. and the Arts Management Program of DLSU-College of Saint Benilde conducted a symposium on the Review of Curatorial Agendas of the 1980s on February 6, 2003, it was an opportunity for practitioners in the field of museums, anthropology, culture and the arts to learn about curatorship practices in the different local museums.

National Museum director Corazon Alvina provided a survey of social events in the 1980s to emphasize the context in which museums then operated. She described the society in the angles of politics and political activisms, the economy and survival of the people, and the arts and its continued production amidst conflicts and struggles.

Anthropologist Alfredo Evangelista, one of the pioneers of the National Museum, related stories on how the National Museum separated from the Bureau of Science in the "70s and took shape under the directorship of Robert Fox, Galo Ocampo, and Gemma Araneta, until it became a museum in charge of 19 branches around the archipelago. He focused on the development of the Museum's collection and discussed the difficulty of managing the institution and pursuing its agenda given the museum's small budget. From his presentation, it was clear that the curator's agenda as custodian is to build a museum because people need a space in which to store the representatives or remnants of their material culture. One of Evangelista's anecdotes was about how a group of school children were disappointed when they found out that they could not view the skull of the oldest human found in Palawan, that their teacher found an alternative to the display. The story emphasized that audiences will come if museums have their collections in place. From what Evangelista discussed, curatorship could be defined then as management with the objective of creating a space where knowledge about history and patrimony could be disseminated.

Anthropologist David Baradas related his experiences in five ethnological and historical museums. He traced to as far back as almost 30 years when PANAMIN commissioned him to acquire objects from indigenous Filipinos for the Museo ng Buhay Pilipino in Nayong Pilipino. His team acquired objects by gathering people in plazas (or village centers) and asking them to bring local objects to the museum representatives who would then acquire the objects for the collection. While their method of collecting was unorthodox, the period to build the collection for the museum had been limited. Baradas emphasized that this method will no longer work today considering that there are very few artifacts left in the villages and too many collectors. He added that in building museums, there is a need to define Filipinos for the Filipinos. He also emphasized that the general public needed balance to appreciate their own essence (as a nation) in this diluted culture. Following Evangelista's lead, it appeared that Baradas" objective as a curator was to select what objects to acquire in response to what the audience needs.

Art historian Regalado Trota Jose, former curator of the Ayala Museum, was the only presenter who mentioned outright that in the 1980s, curatorship was still a new idea. In presenting the role of scholarship in curatorship, he started with a survey of the Ayala Museum's collection, an inventory of its collection and what exhibits had been mounted. Jose presented the exhibition catalogues of "Larawan," an exhibit of portraits, "Domestic Silvers,"and "Santong Garing," an exhibit on religious images in ivory. According to him, before they were able to come up with these exhibits, which were supposed to be representative of their themes, he had to go over a gamut of samples and learn many things about them. He added that for an exhibitor to be able to identify what is not typical or extraordinary, he has to know what is typical or ordinary. Jose clarified that part of being a curator is knowing what is available and knowing what to do with it. While Evangelista discussed institution building and Baradas the establishment of a collection, Jose discussed ways and methods of presenting a museum's collection. In closing, Jose related yet another task he had while working for the Ayala Museum was to protect the museum building from a possible take-over during the December 1989 coup attempt. His camping in the Museum with several guards and utility personnel for nine nights may not immediately relate to scholarship. However, only a person knows the value of his museum's content and a person with unwavering commitment would do such a thing to ensure the museum's safety and wellbeing at all costs.

Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, former President of the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum in Manila, discussed museum pedagogy. She outlined steps on how museums could educate its audience. First, the museum should identify its niche, or identify who their audience is and who are the non-users. During this stage, the museum should also identify what message it wants to deliver and how. Second, the museum should recognize its competition and it should present itself as an infotainment (or information and entertainment) space, where people could learn while enjoying. Third, it should develop exhibits that build character and right conduct. Finally, museums should network for survival. She related that these were the steps that Metropolitan Museum took to bring people to the museum. The Met, being an art museum, faced a different challenge from the other museums. During the second half of the 1980s, and even until now, not too many people have access to art, whether physical or cerebral art. She narrated an outreach project wherein a group of urban poor were brought to the Met to view an exhibit of abstract expressionist paintings. The members of the group wept as they viewed the paintings because they felt that they were the distressed images represented in the paintings. The artist and the Met recognized that that experience, along with many others similar to it, affirmed their "Art for All" motto. As Sta. Maria puts it, "These were the people who're supposedly cultural illiterates but they understood." Sta. Maria's presentation strongly follows the scholarship theme discussed by Jose. Culture and art could be considered so ordinary, in a sense that the viewers came from the same piece of earth as the objects being viewed. However, Sta. Maria only highlighted that viewing does not exactly translate to understanding meaning and value which may vary too many given the different configurations of demographics of viewers. The task of the curator is to provide specific guides on how it would be easier and more enjoyable to see beyond the objects into their deeper meaning.

Marian Pastor Roces, the founding curator of the Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, begun her presentation by saying that what she did for Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino was a curatorial failure. She explained that she subscribes to the theory of minimalism, which she defined as the practice of giving meaning to and/or understanding the smallest detail. Faithful to minimalism, Roces designed the museum to highlight similarities among the Filipino communities, put traditional and ethnic practices in the context of the present, acknowledge the complexity of the traditions, and to situate the exhibition in a conceptual context. In the end, the Museo became a summary of a lifecycle in the Philippines. Roces stated that some of the reason why the Museo was a failure were because the word "art", in itself, was still problematic and the categories were too entrenched; the space worked against the curatorial agenda (the cycle was supposed to be cyclical but the space was rectangular); the religious divisions are unsettled and challenged; and that the relationship of the CCP with the non-proscenium and non-gallery form was inadequately theorized. Synthesizing all the points mentioned earlier, it may really be a failure, at least speaking from the shabby chic academic perspective, because the curatorial design was not fully achieved because of space limitations. But then again, the Museo achieved its objective of showing the similarities among many cultures in the Philippines. Roces also mentioned that the criticism of the Museo's ineffectuality comes from the academic cultural sector and not from the general public who generally appreciated the exhibit. Another point which Roces failed to mention, but which is important to show that Museo did have an impact in Philippine museums, is that many museums both in and out of Manila copied the exhibit design. One example is Museo Iloilo, where mannequins were also used to recreate traditional practices.

From the papers, it was apparent that the Philippines already has a thriving museum practice long before museology degree holders went to school to learn their craft. The symposium presented curatorship as a practice rather than as a concept. Hence, its definition went through several evolutions in response to the changing needs of museums and their audiences. From this perspective, it is easier to appreciate how Philippine museums developed, the reasons why they are what they are now, and where they would be 10 years from now-still evolving.