Big money in culture and heritage

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WHEN I go to a new place here or abroad, I try to find time to visit even just a few of its historical, cultural and natural heritage sites. Out of town trips are good opportunities not only for souvenir shots or selfies but also for learning stories and ideas about life and living, and shared customs, traditions and memories of places that are passed on from generations past to the present.

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Indeed, people learn and are influenced by the place and the people around them. Our history, culture and heritage establish our identity. We get to understand these by learning. Culture is not something that we are born with. And visiting old places and knowing about their history are very effective tools to learn from the stories behind these places.

That is why I felt bad when I passed through Roxas Boulevard in Manila a few weeks ago and noticed a familiar old building there being torn down. It was the Admiral Hotel. I did not know the hotel’s historical significance, but it has come to be a landmark. It was one of the few old buildings in the area.

While I was glad to see a restored Luneta Hotel near the corner of T.M. Kalaw Avenue, why demolish the Admiral Hotel? Old buildings have their own charm. Then, I learned later that the Army & Navy Club behind the Museo Pambata on one end of Rizal Park is also being torn down.

These are all happening in the City of Manila under the mayoral supervision of Joseph Estrada who had spoken of Manila as the country’s capital and cultural hub? Has commercialism defeated the value of cultural heritage in the capital city?

Is it true that the old Army & Navy Club will soon become the site of a casino-spa-entertainment business? Were the cultural offices sleeping when demolition workers started pounding on these old buildings to give way to modern edifices?

After the Admiral Hotel and Army & Navy Club, what is the demolition team’s next mission?

Many countries, particularly in Europe, are making big money by investing in cultural promotions. Millions of tourists go to France, Italy and Spain mainly to experience the art and architecture that their governments have managed to preserve over centuries.

Governments in Europe realize that heritage drives development. They invest heavily for the maintenance of their cultural and historical buildings and sites.

In the Philippines, heritage structures are being condemned or torn down for the construction of modern buildings or to give way to road expansion.

In Manila, some of our old buildings are being torn down while others are desecrated by allowing the construction of new ones that tend to diminish the significance of the old. Authorities who allowed this obviously don’t realize that cultural heritage could also be tapped as an income-generating resource by capitalizing on its attractions for tourism potential.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) described culture as “something to be regarded as set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.”

There are five Philippine sites inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List: Tubbataha Marine National Park in Palawan; the baroque churches including San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila; San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte; the Santa María de la Asunción Church in Santa María, Ilocos Sur; and the Santo Tomás de Villanueva Church in Miag-ao, Iloilo); the Ifugao Rice Terraces in the Cordilleras; the Underground Subterranean River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan; and the historic city of Vigan in Ilocos Sur.

Culture is learned from family, school, religious teachings, television and media and the government of a country. How will the next generations learn from our cultural heritage if buildings that remind us of our historic past and the stages of our cultural development? Why can’t these just be retrofitted and their old glory be restored?

When I entered the Luneta Hotel lobby a few weeks ago, I did not see it as anything grand as the Manila Hotel, but the quiet and elegant atmosphere evoked a sense of significant history. The six-story Luneta Hotel was built in 1918 with a design by Spanish architect-engineer Salvador Farre. It was one of the few survivors of the mass bombings in World War II and it played host to the American military brass.

Strategically located at the heart of Manila, Luneta Hotel can be part of a cultural and historical tour that includes Rizal Park, the Walled City of Intramuros, the museums, the Planetarium and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

It well deserves the historical marker on its entrance bestowed by the National Historical Commission when it reopened last May. How I wish the Admiral Hotel and the Army & Navy Club were just restored to their old glory and used for other purposes.

It is sad to note that the destruction of many heritage structures has been happening not only in Manila but also in other places in the country.

Heritage conservation groups are up in arms against the demolition of the Art Deco Michel Apartments in Malate, also in Manila, as well as the Bancal Bridge in Zambales, and the Dampol Bridge in Nueva Vizcaya.

We have a law, Republic Act No. 10066, or the National Cultural Heritage Act, that mandates protection and preservation of structures at least 50 years old and not belonging to the categories of national cultural treasures, important cultural property, World Heritage sites, national historical shrine, national historical monument, and national historical landmark. These are automatically considered heritage structures.

The Philippines is not lacking in government agencies tasked with the protection and preservation of our cultural and natural heritage. Under the wings of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), we have the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), National Museum, Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), National Library, National Archives, and Komisyon sa Wikang Pilipino.

What we obviously lack is appreciation of the rich treasures that we have in terms of budgetary support and commitment to keep these for the future generations.

I have been to the Underground Cemetery of Nagcarlan, Laguna, the old churches in Batangas, Laguna, Rizal, Bataan, Bulacan, Iloilo and a few other provinces but many of these structures have obvious signs of neglect. The minimal entrance fees to some of these structures are not enough for their upkeep. Perhaps, the fees are not even sufficient for the salaries of the maintenance crew.

We don’t need an Imelda Marcos to put cultural and historical heritage into the consciousness of government. Appreciating these treasures for their potentials as magnets for tourism and investing money for an integrated plan to market these as such would go a long way to raise not just public consciousness and awareness about our culture and heritage but also to generate livelihood opportunities and incomes for Filipinos.

We have numerous monuments, like buildings, sculptures, paintings, caves, ancestral dwellings and other structures deemed important because of their history, artistic or scientific value that can make us proud of being Filipinos. The styles of buildings can also be part of our cultural heritage because of their architecture, where they are built or what they were used for.

Our ways of living passed on from generation to generation, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values are also worth promoting as part of the package.

Heritage is not only manifested through tangible forms such as artefacts, buildings or landscapes but also through intangible forms like voices, values, traditions, and oral history. The Filipino cuisine, clothing, forms of shelter, traditional skills and technologies, religious ceremonies, performing arts, storytelling are likewise worth sharing.

We have to embrace our cultural heritage by appreciating, understanding, valuing, caring, and enjoying its richness.

When we learn something from people, or from a culture, we should accept it as a gift, and a lifelong commitment to preserve it, build on it and use it sustainably. These are irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.

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