Enigmatic objects of Dr. Mojares

Dr. Resil Mojares’ latest book – Enigmatic Objects: Notes towards a History of the Museum in the Philippines – is a fountainhead of knowledge. I dare say, this historian par excellence truly deserves the National Artist Award for Literature.

I have begun to read this 500-page book and here are a few things to share: A museum is meant to be a place for musing, wrote Dr. Mojares, the origin of the word is Muses. In the 19th century aristocrats and explorers financed by them, wealthy business people collected unusual objects and placed these on display in special cabinets in their homes and estates. In his “Learning is a Curse” Stephen Greenblatt said there are two distinct models in the exhibition of objects – “wonder” which is an object’s power to stop the viewer on his tracts due to its arresting sense of uniqueness, and “resonance” which is the power of the object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries and evoke in the viewer a complex dynamic cultural force.

However, the gabinetes or cabinets were also related to education. Early missionaries collected flora, fauna and rock specimens while proselytizing, as did colonial officials. There was evidence of the growing interests in the staging and promotion of European science. What these cabinets meant to the natives was not clear, wrote Dr. Mojares. Jose Rizal criticized the gabinetes as he denounced colonial education. In El Filibusterismo (1891) he described a physics class in Santo Tomas where students were not allowed to use the enigmatic scientific apparatuses that were locked up in cabinets. These were merely on display for visiting royal officials to see, or to prove that the school had a high academic level. The gabinete is one of the key sites in the birth of the museum, wrote Dr. Mojares.

Dominican historian Fidel Villaroel belied Rizal’s description. He wrote that from 1877 to 1882, when Rizal was studying in Santo Tomas, he attended classes in physics and natural history in the laboratories of the school. The Museum of Natural History of Santo Tomas had 5,747 specimens and in its physics laboratory, there were 300 instruments that students used; those who studied medicine had their practicum in the San Juan de Dios hospital. Santo Tomas University was making significant progress as a scientific institution in the second half of the 19th century.

Today, the UST Museum is the oldest in the Philippines.

Painstakingly, the Dominicans built it through decades. They sent cazadores (hunters) to all points of the archipelago in search of flora, fauna, geological samples, shells, etc. They made as thorough a search as possible in the forests of Luzon. They also connected with other museums abroad for data and specimens. The UST museum participated in expositions, in Philadelphia (1876), Amsterdam (1883),Madrid (1887), Barcelona (1881) and in Hanoi (1903).

Apparently, Jose Rizal sent artifacts to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin sometime in 1888 and among the items was a toothbrush (cepillo de dientes) made from the husk of the betel nut. There is an earlier reference made by the Franciscan missionary Francisco Alcina, who wrote a history of the Visayans in the 17th century. What Rizal gave to that museum in Berlin is probably the only specimen in existence.

Another object from Rizal which Europeans must have found enigmatic was the “sulpahan tagal,” which is the Tagalog word for a fire piston, a kind of lighter. Rizal gave one to Ferdinand Blumentritt when they first met. It was a novelty for ethnographers, a small handy scientific “toy” that showed how so-called primitives could produce such a clever device.

The Museo Biblioteca de Filipinas was created by a Royal Decree on Aug. 12, 1887 and inaugurated on Oct. 24, 1891. Its board of directors included the rector of UST, director of Ateneo Municipal, Mayor of Manila, directors of the Real Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País and Escuela de Artes y Oficios and heads of relevant government agencies. The first director was the colony’s most eminent botanist Sebastian Vidal, but in December 1893, Pedro A. Paterno was named director by royal decree, the first Filipino to hold that position. Technically, the Museo Biblioteca was a regional museum since the Philippines was an overseas territory of Spain. Dr. Resil Mojares said that in present terms, it can be considered the forerunner of today’s National Museum and National Library.