Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Virtual Ethnography 101: History Unveils in Ayala Museum's Dioramas

As part of the weekly exercises of my graduate students in Anthropology 225: Philippine Society and Culture, I wanted my students to explore places and write ethnography using the method of participation-observation.

I am posting in my blog with the writer's consent selected ethnography penned creatively by my students to contribute to the emerging sub-discipline of anthropology called 'Virtual Ethnography'.

Basically, virtually ethnography is also referred to as Webnography. We cannot deny the fact that with increasing use of technology and the Internet, there is now a demand for online spaces on various ethnographic accounts.

Ethnography by Kristine Borja

She went past me without pausing to see the Martial Law documentary being filmed. She probably thought I was part of the wall. He went past me without reading the lines of Dr. Jose P. Rizal in one of the dioramas. He pointed to her girl companion the Aeta’s naked behind, she laughed as if nothing could be funnier. She looked at the paintings with curious eyes. He seemed minimally fascinated with the surrounding gold exhibit that reflects the Filipino heritage before coming of the colonizers.

They walked past everything, barely seeing, barely noticing, while we tried to absorb every letter, tried to understand every stroke, felt every sound, and took learning on every word.

Whereas for the foreigners who entered the museum with us, it was just a day trip at the museum, an itinerary they needed to accomplish before leaving the Philippines, it was just a requirement. Whereas they were pushed by curiosity and probably boredom, we were pushed by the need to write. Whereas they stepped in to see and not witness, not to look, we traverse in every painting, on every being to observe, to learn and to explore. They took each step with a hurried glance and a fascination and a humor once in a while; while we took our steps with deliberate care, knowing that in every single diorama lies a history that is worth a cultural heritage enough to awaken a sense of nationalism if one would only take the time to walk through the crossroads of civilizations and allow the fascination to sink in.

Indeed, the Ayala Museum visit is one of those rare requirements where things don’t turn out the way you expected them to be because they turn out to be better.

Serving as “Ayala’s gift to the Filipino people in celebration of the Ayala Corporation’s 170th anniversary,” the museum’s modern architectural design screams class and edge at the same time. Indeed, the fine arts collection featuring “important works by three painters considered pioneers in Philippine Art – Juan Luna, Fernando Amorsolo, and Fernando Zobel” plus the “handcrafted dioramas that chronicle the rich tapestry of Philippine history” was placed in a setting so unique and apart from itself that from the aesthetics alone, much is already to be learned.

Some would say that a museum is a merely architectural space – a set designed to momentarily fascinate the mind and the senses with classical collections of arts and historical artifacts. What one fails to notice is that museums are “political sites which discloses how communities are construed and how nations are imagined” (Bettina Messias Carbonell, 2004).

As such, given this premise, even the style of displays of museums are something that must be examined because how objects are placed and inscribed in museums convey a message that requires a second look. Thus, upon a second and more closer look at the Ayala Museum, its spatial arrangement where the objects are arranged individually or in isolation from one another, puts into being what a chapter on Carbonell’s work emphasizes, i.e.,: “Art museums arrange objects individually or in isolation from one another. This display style is generated from the premise that the object or the exhibition represents a unique example of a style of school, the achievement of an individual or the authoritative example of taste or beauty…In fact nothing – should distract the viewer from seeing and experiencing each object one at a time (p.527).”

How did these words come to life in the Ayala Museum when the place cannot even be considered solely as an Art Museum albeit the multiple fine arts collection greeting you from the museum’s lobby with Onib Olmedo’s artwork reaching through every floors? Simply because, one aspect of the museum may be considered artistic with its focus on the paintings hanging on almost 60 percent of the museum walls. In fact, if you’re not an art student, you’ll find interior design of the place to be quite intimidating for something that should politically reflect the Filipino culture. Douglas Crimp (1993), on his work on Museum’s Ruins noted that in art museums: “the objects and social location and historical context are erased, the object has no additional meanings, messages or background outside its aesthetic qualities…the object in the art museum refers to ‘only itself’ – itself indicating both its material essence and the self-enclosed history of the medium.”

Thus, where the student of art may be excited with the countless works of fine arts hanging on the museum wall, an untutored visitor as myself is left to ponder the thousand words behind the pictures and the paintings. Half the time I remember thinking: “So, how does the picture speak to me?” trying to find the deeper meaning in the paintings of Luna, Amorsolo, and Zobel. Sure, there were educational readings that contextualizes each gallery with readings on the style and contexts that these paintings were made, however, for one as uneducated as myself when it comes to arts, the written educational words cannot really encapsulate the strokes of the brush or the feel of the oil canvass when these paintings were done. It is one thing to wonder if it would have been better if there was a tour guide helping us understand the painting and another to realized that it would have been better if the visitor was left alone to glimpse the beauty of ach painting without the help of display elements and educational feeds, that is, to discover the thousands words behind the picture all to yourself.

At this point, a stronger realization has hit me. Earlier, I mentioned that as I fascinated myself with the dioramas reflecting Philippine history, people after people strode pass me not having a sense of wonder in a world or an awakening sense of nationalism seeing history unfold before their eyes. The realization is simple: As I am the untutored visitor when it comes to the arts, they must be, in the same way, the untutored visitor when it comes to our history; removed from their original historical context, depicting only flashes of histories, the diorama exhibit in the Ayala Museum makes for a sight that is worth beholding but difficult to understand.

This may be, in closing, the strengths and weaknesses of the museums – whereas views and culture differ, whereas perception and appreciation do not meet, the Ayala Museum, as it attempts to create an architectural design that isolates each artifact to forward a story, makes the museum a universal and personal experience for anyone who will visit it, that is – it is universal as it transcends the boundaries of culture with something as common as the brushstrokes on art and it is personal as it limits itself to depicted dioramas of historical events that showcases a country’s struggle for freedom and a cultural heritage even before the clash of civilizations began.

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