Rizal’s ‘German Spring’

“Enigmatic objects: Notes towards a history of the museum in the Philippines,” Dr. Resil Mojares’ monumental opus should not (and cannot) be read in one sitting. I am still very attentively mining its 500 pages, rereading chapters for nuggets of wisdom I may have missed at first glance. Even those who were never dragged to a museum or library as a child will definitely change their view of these venerable institutions.

Dr. Mojares is of the opinion that Jose Rizal had anthropological pursuits, but lamentably has never been recognized as an anthropologist. Apparently, he was engaged in ethnography as well. In the chapter, “Bastian’s Museum,” Dr. Mojares relates that Rizal wrote to Adolf Bastian in Berlin (July 3, 1888) in response to a letter from ethnologist Wilhelm Joest who inquired whether the box Rizal had sent addressed to Fedor Jagor was meant for the ethnographic museum. Rizal replied in German apologizing for not sending it directly to Dr. Bastian. Rizal contributed 21 items; among these was his own salakot with silver decorations, a tooth brush made of betel nut husk and a sulpakan, a Tagalog fire piston.

Mojares surmises that Fedor Jagor (1816-1900) whom Rizal met in T. Pardo de Tavera’s residence in Paris must have asked him to donate specimens and artifacts to the Berlin Ethnological museum founded in 1873, but opened in 1883 when Rizal was there. Through the donation, we now know that Rizal was in touch with Adolf Bastian (1826-1903), a founding father of German anthropology. Mojares wrote that Rizal’s donation shows a serious involvement in the world of German anthropology and how he deserves to have a place in the history of Philippine anthropology. Bastian had visited Manila in 1869, took the Pasig-Laguna de Bai tour, with lodgings provided by German firms in Manila and Laguna.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Germans witnessed the blossoming of anthropology. There were 26 anthropological associations and seven ethnological museums in Germany. Ethnology was considered a liberal discipline that studied cultural differences, mindful of the fundamental equality of races. Dr. Adolf Bastian, polymath and ethnographer, was a proponent of the “psychic unity of mankind.” Dr. Rudolf Virchow, physician and anthropologist, was critical of Darwinian evolutionism and racial determination. He and his colleagues stressed the importance of empirical research over speculative theories on racial hierarchies. Using the inductive scientific method, they pooled materials from which conclusions were drawn. Fedor Jagor, ethnologist and naturalist, traveled around the world (including the Philippines) collecting specimens for empirical studies, neither for mere display nor as proof of the superiority and inferiority of cultures, or the inequalities among human beings. Linguist Hendrik Kern, geographer Friedrich Ratzel, ethnologists A. B. Meyer and Wilhelm Joest were among the eminences of the “German Spring.” Rizal arrived just in time.

He was a 25 year old Indio, a colonial subject of Spain when he met the venerable scientists and polymaths mentioned above. What an intellectually seductive period that must have been for Rizal. He was in Germany for only 15 months (1886-1887) working as an apprentice of the famous ophthalmologist, Dr. Otto Becker; at the same time he was finishing Noli Me Tangere. He planned to translate Johann Herder’s treatise on the formation of states and nationalist movements. He was also torn between going back to the Philippines after five years of absence, or spending more time in Germany.

After Spain lost its colonies in Latin America, the dwindling empire saw its remaining territories with new eyes. Cuba, Puerto Rico and Las Filipinas were no longer mere colonies but overseas provinces and regions. Las Filipinas was viewed as the most economically productive and the least troublesome. There was also a kind of “spring” as the Escuela de Artes y Oficios and a Museo-biblioteca (Museum-Library) were created as study centers where sources of knowledge were supposed to be conserved for posterity, spurring the intellectual development of future generations. The Royal Decree of 1887 ordered the Ayuntamiento of Manila to construct an edifice for the museo-biblioteca.

Civic associations like the Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del País (precursor of chambers of commerce and industries) funded museums that displayed evidence of scientific advancement, as well as the Jardin Botanico (botanical garden) in Manila. Members requested the Queen of Spain to lend Spanish masterpieces in her collection to the “regional” museums as well as to art and trade schools. The queen had copies made of paintings in her private collection. Schools had their own library-museums and one was reported to have a collection of 13 kinds of rice seedlings. (I am not including the museum of the University of Santo Tomas which is the oldest and in a class of its own.)

Soon, there were dark undercurrents on the heels of the “German Spring.” Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was consolidating Imperial Germany and pushing its frontiers beyond Europe into Africa and the Pacific. A foreboding tide of National Socialism rose followed by Nazi anthropology that extinguished Bastian’s “psychic unity of mankind” which Rizal had so heartily imbibed.