The Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG) finally came out with its promised exhibit of the Imelda Marcos jewels — which is a veritable and literal treasure chest of what is now the property of the Philippines, a historically, cultural, critically important collection that, as I’ve said before, can be a gift that keeps on giving.
Count the number of curatorial perspectives, the number of artistic visions, the number of creative angles there are, and you will have an exhibit that can go on forever, that can become a tourist attraction, the kind that people all over the world will actually fly into the Philippines for.
That is, if we are lucky enough to get a government that believes in the importance of these jewels to nation. That is, if we get a government that is more creative, more interested, in actually seeing these jewels as more than just an embarrassment of riches.
Notoriety and provenance
The problem has been in the way this government thinks about culture. As regards Imelda’s jewels, there is also a tendency to be dismissive.
In 2012, talking about boxes of Imelda’s clothes found in some basement, and about these jewels as well: “President Aquino was quoted as saying that for all we know some of Imelda’s jewelry might even be fakes. Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez, meanwhile, did not like the idea of making this a tourist attraction, declaring that these artifacts are ‘not exactly the best way to attract tourists’ given Imelda’s notoriety.” (GMANewsOnline, September 2012)
But what this government has failed to see is the value precisely of these jewels’ provenance. Christie’s Auction House’s David Warren said in November 2015: “Provenance is a big seller. People love the story, they love to know something more about jewelry. A lot of jewelry unfortunately carries no story. So when you have something like this where there’s a big story, a big provenance, it’s a provenance that some people are not going to like, it’s a provenance that some people are going to find interesting, that some people will love. It’s a mixture, it’s a mixture of emotions, obviously because of the history behind it. But it’s still provenance, it’s a very big provenance, whatever you feel about that.” (ABS-CBNNews.com, 24 November 2015)
And when the provenance is Imelda Marcos, this notoriety is mixed with fascination, and an iconography that lives on.
But government would have none of it. In January 2016, the decision of the PCGG was to auction off these jewels. Sell them to the highest bidders. Lose out on the possibility of keeping these jewels forever, to be used to teach generations about Marcosian excess, to earn from these forever as tourist attraction.
The failed exhibition
To sell these jewels is to sell pieces of history. It’s selling jewelry bought on people’s money, artifacts that are now national property. And towards what end?
If this Virtual Jewelry Exhibit is any indication, then it’s to merely get rid of it, so that government can spend whatever it earns from it.
So the exhibit is really just a set of bad photographs of the jewels, with the most unimaginative captions, ones that seem to want to do Bongbong Marcos in. Yes, on campaign season, government just couldn’t help it.
Every photograph has a literal description of each jewel, and instead of telling us the value of each one, it describes what selling each jewel can fund, i.e., “Yellow cultured pearl and diamond necklace and earrings in yellow gold. Can support 310 indigenous families for 12 months through 4Ps.”
So it does not give you an amount, nor does it give you a sense of history — which can only be more valuable than price of each jewel in the present.
Questions like: when was each jewel acquired by Imelda? Where did she wear it? Who made each necklace, each pendant, each pair of earrings? Which jewels were given to her, and by whom? What was the state of the nation when these jewels fell on Imelda’s lap? How poor were we at that time? How much money did this cost relative to how many people were hungry at that time of its acquisition?
All these questions would make for a powerful exhibition of Imelda’s jewels, because then it would give all of us a sense of the historical impact of these acquisitions. It would be a teaching moment for all teachers of history and Martial Law, it would be great for all art teachers and cultural advocates: we could all start talking about Martial Law given these shiny, shimmering jewels as proof of its excesses.
Keep the jewels
I’ve been at these jewels since 2012. I have asked that these be seen as historical artifacts, ones that should be treated as national property, no different from the paintings that we keep in the National Museum. These jewels are ours now. That they carry the weight of the Marcos regime and all that it stood for does not erase its value.
In fact, it increases in value precisely because of the history it holds. And it’s a value that will keep increasing, year-in, year-out. There is no good time to sell it, because every year that value will increase. Every year, it becomes an asset of government that can give back if we are imaginative and creative enough to see it as artifacts. And every generation will not only benefit from the kind of funds a rotating exhibit of these jewels will generate; every generation will also learn about Martial Law through it.
Done well, it might be what we need to make sure that the lessons of Martial Law are learned, finally, and beyond our badly written textbooks.