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Documenting Philippine heritage hits and misses

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The restored Guiuan Church in Eastern Samar. / Photograph courtesy of EA Sembrano

Heritage documentation is one of the ways to efficiently archive essential evidence pertaining to not only infractions committed toward our tangible and intangible heritage but at the same time, a way to preserve certain best practices in the areas of conservation, preservation and restoration.

At present, the country has a myriad declared Important Cultural Properties (ICP) and National Cultural Treasures (NCT) registered at the Philippine Registry of Cultural Property (PRECUP), but a huge number of these significant structures are either endangered or worst, did not survive the atrocities of human interventions or natural calamities.

These heritage hits and misses are documented in Dispatches: Contestations and Celebrations on the Filipino Heritage Consciousness by Edgar Allan Sembrano, a cultural heritage worker and journalist.

Published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in 2020, Sembrano, who also writes for the Daily Tribune, conscientiously curated a selection of articles on compelling controversies and positive developments from 2013 to 2018, published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s “Arts and Books” section — from threats, missed opportunities, meaningful celebrations, to even some implicit forms of historical revisionism.

Author Edgar Allan Sembrano.

In the introduction, Sembrano describes the book as “a chronicle of heritage events that both shaped and fragmented not only the country’s cultural sector but the Philippines in general. A sourcebook that will serve as guide for heritage managers, advocates, enthusiasts and the public on the shortcomings of the stakeholders in terms of heritage management and the proper handling of issues through relevant ideas and proper conservation approaches.”

The 466–page book, edited by veteran journalists and editors Lito Zulueta and Roel Hoang Manipon, is divided into 10 chapters. The first chapter covers the period from September 2013 to June 2014, while the second chapter covers July to December 2014. The rest of the chapters follow the same format — each year from January to June and from July to December, ending in December 2018.

The unfortunate fates of several cultural properties in the Visayas area, particularly in the provinces of Samar, Bohol and Cebu, commenced the discussion on Chapter 1, which also includes articles on the man-made threats toward El Hogar, the looting of religious items, and the controversy of the historic Fort Bonifacio War Tunnel in Makati City. These were reported as “Threats and Sweet Treats.”

‘Dispatches Contestations and Celebrations on the Filipino Heritage Consciousness’ by Edgar Allan Sembrano. / Photograph courtesy of EA Sembrano

New developments and our important built structures have always been at a crossroad especially in the context of co-existence. Chapter 2, “Storied but Not Sorry,” tackled several issues on the demolished built environments which include the Spanish colonial-era Dampol Bridge in Nueva Vizcaya, Iloilo’s road widening project that infringes a heritage house and Zamboanga City’s Fort Pilar restoration.

The first two chapters may have provided the readers with lamentations over losses and threats to the cultural integrity, but the third chapter provides a bit of a balance through the stories of “Meaningful Gatherings” — the discovered ruins in the town of San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte; rediscovery of an old fortification in the town of Polilio in Quezon; the inspiring story of a cultural scholar, Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa, who opened an arts center in Marikina; the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade route considered in the World Heritage Tentative List; and the arrival of the Augustinians in the country.

This chapter also includes one of the biggest news in 2015 — the sale of the Manila Metropolitan Theater to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) enabling the cultural agency to implement a definitive rehabilitation program.

In the quest to alleviate certain urban planning constraints, the fourth chapter, “More Questions and Answers,” has stories on the controversial, high-rise condominium that affected Rizal Park’s sightline and the contested flood mitigation project inside the University of Santo Tomas campus.

From the first chapter’s heart-wrenching discussion on the aftermath of the 2013 Bohol earthquake and super typhoon “Yolanda” (“Haiyan”), Chapter Five, “Cultural Renaissance and Defiance,” tackles celebratory events such as the successful reconstruction of Bohol’s churches, a town-wide heritage exhibit in Ilocos Norte, the declaration of Albay province as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Biosphere Reserve and the return of San Pedro Bell to Bauang, La Union.

The contestations and celebrations continue in the next half of the book with the author’s articles focusing on “Rediscovery and Memory,” “Landmark Decision,” “Prevent and Allow,” “Changes and Vestiges” and “Winning and Losing” with the latter highlighting one of the biggest heritage controversies — the Binondo-Intramuros Bridge which is a huge threat to the UNESCO World Heritage status of the Baroque-style San Agustin Church.

As articulated by heritage expert Eric Zerrudo in his foreword, “the articles were timely descriptions and developments of heritage events.” He further noted that “it may be perceived as a collection of sporadic events but the continuity of vigilance and commitment to conservation make heritage the essence of humanity.”

Indeed, this noteworthy publication is not only helpful to those who are in the field of cultural heritage but also to all people, who will certainly be enlightened on the plight of the country’s socio-cultural fabric. The hefty tome further opens the discourse to a bigger audience, somehow contributing to the contestations and celebrations on our heritage consciousness it would like to dispatch.

April Dopeño is a full-time faculty member of the Department of International Studies of the Far Eastern University in Manila. She is a certified guest service professional, experienced lecturer and trainer, among others. She also worked in non-government institutions such as Amnesty International Philippines. She obtained her Master’s degree in International Studies from the College of the Holy Spirit and Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage from the University of Santo Tomas (UST). She also finished an intensive course in Art History at UST and Public International Law at The Hague Academy of International Law in the Hague, the Netherlands.

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