Making a Difference: Preserving Cultural Heritage
This day that I’m putting out this article is United Nations Day. During this day, not only is the global organization commemorating its inception and honoring its mission to humanity, but it is also when schools let their students don national costumes from various countries. There are cultures that you can immediately identify by their traditional clothing at first glance: the Japanese kimono, the Chinese cheongsam, the Korean hanbok, the Indian sari, the Indonesian batik, and the Philippine barong.
While for some cultures, wearing of the folk dresses are only done during special occasions, there are still places in the globe where these traditional garments are worn even in ordinary days, often they are improvised and applied into modern use.
Sadly, there are quite a number of these clothing that have faded into extinction in the face of globalization and their uses and craftsmanship only fill our history books rather than our closets. Remember your grandmother’s patadyong? During my childhood, I have seen old women wear them, especially in the rural communities. But suddenly, I don’t see them anymore, except in the paintings of Filipino artist, Fernando Amorsolo, and similar artworks.
As I have mentioned in my MassKara 2017 and its ASEAN theme blog post, my travels have exposed me to cultures where traditional practices, such as music, accessories, cuisine and clothing, are still present in their everyday life. Such experiences have allowed me to appreciate these cultures and enabled me to take a closer look at ours.
However, certain questions arise. With our evolving world, do we move forward or do we look back? I personally believe that we need to do both because there are remnants of our past that help us see our future with more excitement; there are fibers of our age-old cultural heritage that help us weave our present and future into a more beautiful pattern.
But there are glaring realities that pose a threat to our heritage – tangible and intangible. Natural disasters have proven how they can topple century-old fortresses. Wars have also eliminated civilizations. Heritage structures and national monuments face being demolished in replacement of modern commercial buildings. Lack of education and awareness can reduce our beautiful arts to mere antique displays gathering dust instead of being practiced and embedded in our daily life. Most of our modern privileges are attributed to victories of the past, but that, too, can be forgotten.
Take for example the churches in Bohol that were destroyed by the earthquake. I saw the same fate to some structures in Prambanan in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. And the case of the patadyong? It’s no longer as common as the batik clothes in Indonesia or the sari dresses of India, which I had the joy of shopping during my trips this year in these both countries.
The Importance of Cultural Heritage
Although cultural heritage is definitely important in terms of promoting tourism of a place (which, by the way, can boost economic growth), it certainly does not stop there. There is a deeper significance on preserving our cultural heritage than the possibility of generating income for local communities. It is understanding and appreciating our way of life as a people.
Our cultural heritage is our umbilical cord between the past and the present, which can be helpful to the future. There is wisdom as to how buildings were built a certain way during our ancestors’ times. We can pick a learning or two from their ways back then that can be more effective when we blend with our modern practices.
It is also our connecting bridge to cultures that share similarities with us, strengthening our ethnic bond as a human race. It also enhances our societies as we find fulfillment and pride in shaping our cultural identity.
Understanding our cultural heritage also impact our understanding of our humanity. Why some of them disappear is partially because of lack of understanding why they were being done in the first place. Historian Simon Thurley views it as a cycle: by understanding cultural heritage, we come to value it; by valuing it, we want to care for it; by caring for it, we enjoy it and help other people enjoy it, too; and from enjoying it, people thirst to understand.
In my travels, I have taken this cycle. When locals value and care for their cultural heritage, they proudly share them with visitors like me. Then I get to enjoy it and I thirst to understand their culture, whereby valuing and caring for it as well. And that care goes back to valuing and caring for my own culture, which is the reason why I came about writing this blog series on cultural heritage. I hope that we get to this point in our own backyard — valuing and caring for what is truly Filipino, so that others will enjoy and understand our roots, resulting to more people valuing it and caring for it.
What is covered by our cultural heritage
There are tangible and intangible things that form our cultural heritage. To name a few, these are:
- Landscapes – our biodiversity is our natural heritage, which comes under attack from natural occurrences and man-made activities. Among our heritage sites are: Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, and the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary. The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras is a UNESCO-declared world heritage site.
- Heritage monuments and buildings – baroque churches, historical landmarks and heritage homes are among the examples of structures. Examples are Fort Santiago, Cebu Provincial Capitol, Carlos P. Garcia house in Bohol, and San Agustin Church. Architecture is an important part of our way of life and you will be amazed by the ingenuity and wisdom of our ancestors on why they build structures the way they did.
- Clothing and garments – earlier this year, the Museo de Oro, through the Xavier Center for Culture and the Arts (XCCA), along with the NCCA, mounted the Habing Mindanao – Cloth and Textile Traditions of Southern Philippines, which showcased the indigenous clothes of the region. In the Visayas, the kimona and patadyong were widely worn while baro’t saya were to those in Luzon. Formal Filipino wear are the Maria Clara and the Barong Tagalog. But our tribes also have their own garments they wear and weaving is a significant industry in certain communities.
- Visual Arts – paintings, sculptures, masks, pottery, metalworks and ornaments enrich our visual arts. Not only are they masterpieces of geniuses but most of these arts depict the scenarios during their period. Another form of visual art that can be traced to many generations back is tattooing, which form a vital segment of societies.
- Literature and Performing arts – music, dances, chants, poetry, folklores, oration and theater plays are some of the performing arts that we have. I find, in my travels, that performing arts play a significant role in evoking a particular kind of emotion among audiences. It is used during special occasions, such as victory or a rich harvest. We turn to performing arts to give life to celebrations. Even in putting a baby to sleep, I can still hear “Ili-ili” being sung by adults to children.
- Practices – rituals and social practices are intangible cultural heritage that are often passed on by word of mouth or by demonstration. Games, courtship, healing, superstitions, festivals, and behaviors are some of these practices. A child putting the elder’s hand on the forehead is a sign of respect.
- Cuisine – ingredients from indigenous plants and fruits, taste and the process of cooking food come from a long tradition that is shared from one generation to another. I still remember the days when rice is winnowed with the use of a flat square basket and coconut is grated with a sun-shaped metal attached at the end of a block of wood. Interestingly, I find similar pieces in other Asian museums. Food can vary from one region to another.
What we can do
Coming from the Vientiane Declaration on Reinforcing Cultural Heritage Cooperation in ASEAN at the 26th ASEAN Summit in Lao PDR in 2016, we can start with three things that we can do to help revive + preserve (I call it “reverve”) our very own Filipino cultural heritage:
1.) Protecting through education and supporting the cause
- Researching by reading or traveling. One of the places I love to visit when I am in a new place are the museums, the local markets, the historical buildings, and the communities. I open my senses whenever I visit a place for the first time, to absorb whatever information I can and experience them myself. I find that by traveling, I learn more than what I read from books and documents, and get to understand what I read better as I witness cultures through my travel encounters.
- Teaching children. When I was working, and later volunteering, for Hands On Manila Foundation, we’ve been teaching public school students, children in home cares, and street kids about culture, may they be local folklores or stories, often bringing them to heritage sites. Children appreciate them as much as I do. And I find a certain sense of fulfillment knowing we have planted the seed of knowledge and understanding in their fertile young minds.
- Supporting organizations advancing this cause. There are a number of international, national and local organizations and government bodies that long to provide venues for understanding, exchange and appreciation of cultural heritage. We can share our resources, time or talents in organizations that have the mission of promoting appreciation and education of our heritage and culture.
- One known organization is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO. They have declared world heritage sites and have come up with programs so that nations and societies preserve these sites.
- Another organization I have encountered is the International Council on Monuments and Sites or ICOMOS, when I attended one of their conferences in Vigan City. I went there as an individual, wanting to fill my thirst for understanding on cultural heritage.
- The Philippine government has bodies like the National Center for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) which are mandated in the promotion and preserving of our culture and heritage. During my work with Hands On Manila Foundation, we have partnered with these organizations in supporting their projects and programs.
- There are other organizations that put cultural heritage as part of its varying initiatives. Rotary Club, for example, through its various chapters, also have projects reviving and promoting cultural heritage in different cities all over the world, as part of its thrust of advancing world understanding, goodwill, and peace.
2.) Preserving by documentation, events and campaigns
- Heritage mapping. I do my share in my own little way. I have volunteered for the Wikimedia Foundation Philippines heritage mapping project and lent my support with coming up with write-ups on our local food and indigenous ingredients for the Slow Food Movement. Documenting and mapping our cultural heritage is a way of preserving our culture, with the help of technology.
- Holding and attending seminars, workshops and talks on cultural heritage. Conferences are a way of bringing like-minded individuals in discussing the present track and the future of our cultural heritage. I believe that we help preserve it as we continue to review previous initiatives and plan projects that will serve this purpose.
3.) Promoting by raising awareness and encouraging dialogue
- Blog and social media posts. Utilizing the power of the pen (or the keyboard), I commit my blog space and my weekly newspaper column in promoting our cultural heritage, to raise awareness and encourage dialogue.
- Participating in festivals and promoting them. Festivals are not just venues of having fun and feasting on great food. It is a coming together of people with shared beliefs and cultures. It is a way of educating others in a not-so-boring way.
There are more ways to which we can help protect, preserve and promote our cultural heritage. We don’t need to do something grand to advance this. I feel that my advocacy of “reverve” — revive and preserve cultural heritage — through writing about it is my way of contributing to this cause. Every now and then, I volunteer in causes aligned for this purpose. Hopefully, this small acts will soon bear fruit to a richer cultural identity.