Collecting and cultural diplomacy

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JUANIT0 P. JARASAIn the Foreign Service, career officers are warned about the dangers of “localitis” or the development of so close an attachment to the place of assignment that one loses one’s nationalism or patriotism. What Angie and I acquired was a different kind of attachment, what can be called “collectivitis”: an inclination that later grew into something like a passion for collecting memorabilia of the history and culture of the countries we lived in or visited to take back home. Through the years we accumulated such objects from Holland, Thailand, Vietnam, China, India, Russia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and the United States.

We have not collected only foreign objects. Among our most prized possessions are pieces related to our own country. After the collapse of communism in Hungary, I discovered some shops in Vaci Utca in downtown Budapest selling antique maps, prints, and memorabilia. Much to my delight I found a map of “Insulae Philippines” by P.N. Sanson printed in 1679 where Luzon was identified as “Luconia” and Manila as “Manill.” I was able to buy a big map “Carte de l’Asie” printed in Paris in January 1820 with the original dry seal of the mapmaker and showing in full “Iles Philippines.” I also acquired post-card size hand-colored prints of six Philippines birds printed in Germany in 1790.

Serving as a constant reminder of the stages of my diplomatic career are old prints I collected of places where I had been assigned. Dearest among them is a print of the City Hall of Leitmeritz, now Litomerice of the Czech Republic, which Rizal visited in 1887 and where he inscribed his signature in the visitors’ book.

I bought the 1679 Sanson map for only 100 US dollars. Later, I saw a similar map being sold for $1,000 at the Glorietta in Manila. But our collecting was not motivated by the material value of these objects or by what value they turn out to be.

We probably acquired our collecting habit during our assignment in The Hague, where we were exposed to the outstanding works of European culture, in painting, porcelain, silver, and decorative items, in the many fine museums of the Netherlands. It was here that our eyes were opened to how people in the Old World decorate their diplomatic residences and do their official entertaining. There was thus a pragmatism in our collecting, much of it was related to our work in the Foreign Service. But there are certain things in it at the same time that transcend practicality in the sense that these objects represent significant aspects of the history, culture, and way of life of the people I interacted with.


India has a lot of collectibles to offer. We attach importance to the stone carvings we acquired in that country. Foremost among them is a remarkable head of Vishnu, Hindu deity or avatar, in pure marble. We also have a heavy black chlorite of Buddha Shakyamuni dating late 9th to early 10th century (BC), Pala period from Bihar province. It is amazing how traces of such ancient history and culture can be found among the living in modern India!

I was Ambassador to Hungary in 1969 when Communism collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe and was then witness to a landmark event in the 20th century. Today, not a few people would consign Communism to the dustbin of history. I however prize the objects I collected from the Communist past for indeed they are tangible proof of the reality of that past. The most notable of these objects is a beautifully executed pure brass bust of Josef Stalin which I bought in an antique shop near Lake Balaton in Hungary. Such bust is rare because then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushev had everything associated with Stalin destroyed. I have busts of other Communist leaders, namely Lenin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Ho Chi Minh.

Our collections are not only markers and reminders of the ebb and flow of time and history. We also have in our collections items that carry a lot of enduring symbolism, emblems of man’s predilection and quest for the finer things in life that come to represent his personal and national identify and that he protects from the ravages of time and political and economic upheavals. Among such items are our Herend porcelain and silver collections from Hungary and Dux porcelain, Moser and Bohemian crystals and glasses from the Czech Republic. And there is a most interesting story about Herend porcelain that took place while I was assigned in Hungary. In the transition from communism to a market economy, the Herend factory faced privatization and foreign ownership.

But the Hungarians launched a strong and successful lobby for the Herend factory to remain in Hungarian hands, Herend porcelain being a product that represents and stands for the country. I shall deal with the story more in a following paragraph.

Indeed collecting has been for us a great learning process and a wonderful source of enlightenment. It has developed in us an inquisitive mind and a discernment for the meaningful and valuable in the objects of our physical world. This now appears to us a must in a collector if he is not to turn into a mere accumulator.

The knowledge and insight that we have acquired through collecting has proved to be useful to my diplomatic work, particularly in Korea.

Some of our Filipino and foreign collections were photographed and included in the book published by the UN News and the International Association of Educators for World Peace on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. The photographs of our collections were featured in the World Peace Art Exhibition held at a hotel in Seoul in November 2000. I was invited to the closing ceremony of the exhibition as guest of honor and speaker and given a medal and certificate signed by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

I was subsequently asked to address culture-oriented events such the Kyongiu World Culture Expo 2000 and an international conference on cultural tourism in 2001. But the invitation to speak before the Unesco International Training Workshop on the Living Human Treasures System held in Seoul in September 2001 participated in by 15 countries at first intimidated me, feeling I was moving into unfamiliar territory, but after some hesitation I accepted and my talk was well received by the Secretary General of the Korean National Commission for Unesco and the participants and printed in full in the official report of the organizers. Because of space limitations, hereunder is excerpted the heart of the talk:

“(The lobbyists for the retention of the Herend porcelain factory in Hungarian hands) stressed that adopting the capitalist system should not mean selling off the family silver. This should be the operative word for any country that has a traditional heritage to preserve. It must by all means, hold on to its family silver, preserve it and hand it over to succeeding generations.”

There is a lot of sentiment attached to family silver. But when we apply the term ‘family silver’ to a country, it may indeed represent the patrimony of a nation because the production of a globally-recognized and distinctive product carries with it the nation’s trademark and all that is good about its people.

Speaking of family silver of which my wife and I are serious collectors, I learned recently that at the start of the 20th century there were 100 sterling silver manufacturers in the United States with an estimated 3,900 silversmith in New York alone. Today, 100 years later, experienced silversmiths are such rare human beings that they are revered as national living treasures.

This sad development is, I believe, happening in other handcrafted industries. Economic reasons, changing lifestyles and other causes conspire to bring this about. If a cultural heritage has to survive, then there should be collaborative efforts on the part of the government and the people who manage cultural properties.

In the Philippines, we have a National Commission on Culture and the Arts which oversees the preservation of cultural heritage. It has produced films, books and other devices putting on record music, dance, rites and other cultural properties. But we can still learn a lot from the experience and expertise of other countries in the preservation of cultural heritage. I think we still have a lot to do in preserving local traditional festivals. Our country abounds in traditional festivals. Sadly enough, some of them are disappearing for a variety of reasons. For one, we have to contend with the onslaught of foreign influences.

In my hometown, we have a festival known throughout the Philippines. Every May 15, we have the “Pahiyas” (“decoration”) to celebrate the feast of San Isidro de Labrador, the patron saint of farmers. The carved image of the saint is paraded in the town in a religious procession. The houses on the streets where the procession will pass are decorated with colorful rice wafers and agricultural produce of the town. It is a very colorful pageantry unknown in other parts of the Philippines. However, lately, a house was noted decorated with buntings sporting the famous McDonald’s arch. Here is a case of a cultural heritage being invaded by crass commercialism.

I have spoken to you as an admirer and small-time collector of cultural artifacts. The participants of this workshop have a far nobler and edifying task and that is the preservation of your countries’ cultural heritages. Your work needs the support not only of this humble collector but of everybody else for the intended beneficiaries of your noble task are not only the present generation but also the succeeding generations to come.”

Obviously, included in the mix of the effects of collecting abroad may be a keener appreciation of one’s own cultural heritage and of the need to preserve it.

 

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