Every time I travel to a new place, I make a conscious effort to drop by local museums as part of my itinerary. Being repositories of objects of historical, scientific, artistic, and cultural significance, museums give a glimpse of the local culture and heritage that help us appreciate the people and the places we visit even more. Touring museums makes travels not only more fun, but also meaningful and educational.
In celebration of Museums and Galleries Month and Indigenous Peoples Month, I want to share about one of my favorite museums: the Ayala Museum in Makati, where the Diorama Experience of Philippine History is housed. This exhibition is composed of 60 dioramas designed to be a comprehensive approach to Philippine history, presenting a visual narrative of the story of the Filipino people.
For this month’s WFSR, I’m going to talk about the exhibit’s companion book, The Diorama Experience. Published in 2004, this particular version was written by some of the most prominent historians and scholars namely Reynaldo Ileto, Ambeth Ocampo, Jesus Peralta, and Felice Noelle Rodriguez. Along with numerous photos, their curation definitely makes history come alive! Here is why Filipinos should read Ayala Museum’s The Diorama Experience of Philippine History, and why Filipinos should visit museums more often.
Ang saysay sa kasaysayan (Meaning in history)
I have been to the Ayala Museum a couple of times. Run privately by the Ayala Foundation, the museum houses a wide array of exhibits relating to Philippine history, archaeology, ethnography, and arts, among others. While it has many beautiful exhibits, one that stands out is the Diorama Experience of Philippine History. Every time I visit, it never fails to amaze me. It always makes me wonder that if only we could have learned history this way, then more people would be enticed to learn more about our story.
The sad reality is, some of us tend to view history more of a school subject where we have to memorize names, dates, and places rather than a narrative that we can enjoy and learn from. This didactic approach in our educational system doesn’t give much justice to the true beauty of learning about our past. Since we focus more on rote learning that sometimes lacks context and meaning, I really can’t blame students if they find history boring—or worse, unnecessary.
But there’s more to history beyond forgettable names and dates. If we view historical events in their context, imbued with themes, and as part of a larger narrative, then maybe reading kasaysayan will be more worthwhile. If we add other modalities such as through galleries and exhibits where we can learn in a more visual way, then I think we can give history a better appreciation it deserves.
Rectifying errors, moving forward
Reading through the Diorama Experience will also help us unlearn some of the historical inaccuracies and fill in the gaps in our knowledge of Philippine history. For example, one of the earliest history lessons that we were taught at school is that Ferdinand Magellan “discovered” the Philippines in 1521. This “discovery” claim was further propagated into public consciousness by the popular song by Yoyoy Villame that we no longer question its semantic validity.
However, the claim is a misnomer since Ferdinand Magellan simply arrived in the islands we now know as the Philippines. When the colonizers first landed on our shores, there were already thriving communities across the archipelago. Our ancestors had their own languages and writing systems. They were also knowledgeable of complex boat-making techniques that had allowed them to trade and develop a rich maritime culture.
While we may have inherited many aspects of our colonizers’ culture, it doesn’t mean that our ancestors didn’t have their own of which we can be proud of. The dioramas at the Ayala Museum show that we already had a flourishing civilization prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521; more importantly, they also remind us that we still have a lot to unlearn and relearn when it comes to our history.
Another thing that I like about the Diorama Experience is its attempt to convey a more inclusive national narrative where the regions are also represented. Beyond the usual Katagalugan theater, it also includes stories of Kudarat in Maguindanao, Dagohoy in Bohol, as well as voices from Iloilo, Balangiga, Samar, Bicol, Masbate, and many other lesser-known historical events across the country.
The inclusion of these narratives to our collective consciousness is something that should be magnified for us to be able to foster a more vibrant social and historical discourse. Certainly, in this day and age, representation is important to empower more people by making their voices and stories heard.
Museums and Indigenous Peoples
We don’t always have to look outside our own city, hometown, or country just to enjoy museums, as we also have a lot of good ones around. Just recently, I took the time to revisit some local museums in Davao City where I got to rekindle, celebrate, and further explore local and Indigenous cultures and heritage. It was a treat to reintroduce myself to my hometown through the galleries and exhibits there. In fact, I also learned a lot of new things from my visit.
Apart from regional museums, we have our national and other private museums, which are mostly located in Metro Manila. They are filled with centuries-old artifacts and astonishing galleries that tell our story as a people. Hence, I hope that in this month’s celebrations, we are reminded to visit these institutions to help us not only learn more about ourselves and our kapwa, but also to imbibe a deeper sense of togetherness and identity as Filipinos through galleries and exhibits.
Our continuing quest
After reading through the 60 entries in The Diorama Experience, I felt that its ending was a little hanging, or in our vernacular, “nakakabitin.” After all, the 60th and last diorama is on the recognition of Philippine Independence by the United States in 1946; many momentous national events have obviously transpired since then.
But maybe this “hanging” feeling is only normal, given that we are moving forward in time. Certainly, there will be more chapters to come as we continuously write our history. I just hope that as we move toward our quest for nationhood, we will learn from the failures and triumphs of the past so that we will be more equipped to face whatever lies ahead. As writer Robert Heinlein said, “a generation which ignores history has no past, and no future.” May we bring that thought with us going forward.
Happy Museums and Galleries Month and Indigenous Peoples Month! ☁️
Why Filipinos Should Read appears every last Friday of the month. Read more here.
Visit ayalamuseum.org for tours, events, and more information.