Saving historical artifacts in Taal a priority for heritage conservators

Ronron Calunsod, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 23 2020 08:07 PM

TAAL, Batangas—Besides endangering human and animal lives, and ruining shelters and livelihood, the recent eruption of the volcano here also put valuable historical artifacts being preserved in Taal, a heritage town of the province, at great risk.

The municipality, located southwest of the restive island volcano, hosts a heritage village where two historic houses are being operated by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP): the Museo nina Leon at Galicano Apacible, and the Museo nina Marcela Marino at Felipe Agoncillo.

Galleria Taal, the country’s first camera museum, and the Gen. Ananias Diokno House are also found here, among a number of heritage houses.

The Museo nina Marcela Marino at Felipe Agoncillo in Taal, Batangas, on Jan. 21, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News
The Basilica of St. Martin de Tours, popularly known as the Taal Basilica, on Jan. 21, 2020. Ronron Calunsod, ABS-CBN News

The town’s most important landmark is the nearly two-centuries-old Basilica of St. Martin de Tours, popularly known as the Taal Basilica and dubbed the largest Catholic church in Asia.

When Taal Volcano spewed ash and triggered earthquakes beginning Jan. 12, the town was among those badly affected and later placed on lockdown from residents. It has since become a dusty, ghost town.

Town proper of Taal, Batangas, on Jan. 21, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

On Jan. 21, ABS-CBN News saw how the descending volcanic ash penetrated the interiors of the two-storey Apacible museum based on its remnants in noticeable layers.

“Grabe ‘tong nangyari sa amin dito,” said Arturo Maningo, 42, the museum’s caretaker, who, after evacuating to the neighboring town of San Luis further south after the eruption, occasionally returns to check on the museum and sweep off the ash.

(What happened to us is terrible!)

Arturo Maningo, caretaker of the Apacible museum, Jan. 21, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Rommel Aquino, of the NHCP’s materials research and conservation division, told ABS-CBN News that after Taal’s eruption, the agency organized a rescue team “primarily to retrieve important heritage objects housed” in the Apacible and Agoncillo museums, as well as assess the museum structures.

It is the first time the agency conducted such precautionary activity in relation to volcanic eruption, he said.

The mission, carried out on Jan. 15, also included the delivery of relief goods and hygiene packs for NHCP employees there, and to the Santa Teresita town evacuation center.

“Human life is of utmost importance in times of crisis and calamities, but heritage objects should also be prioritized,” Aquino, a history researcher, said in an email interview.

Heritage items, he said, “bear stories and values important in the community and the national narrative.”

The team rescued almost 40 objects from the two museums, including “paintings, jewelry, documents and furnishings,” and were brought to the Museo ni Jose Rizal in Calamba, Laguna for temporary safekeeping.

Rommel Aquino of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines during their retrieval of historical pieces from the Apacible museum on Jan. 15, 2020. Photo contributed by Rommel Aquino

Aquino said the paintings taken from the Agoncillo museum were works of Fernando Amorsolo, the country’s first National Artist, showing portraits of the Agoncillo family members.

Meanwhile, Sylvia Alvarez, curator of the Apacible museum, said in a separate interview that the rescued jewelry pieces were mostly pins and hair ornaments that date back to as far as the 18th century, and the retrieved statues were those made of ivory.

“Wala nang katulad itong mga ’to. Wala nang makukunang ganu’ng mga gamit, mga artifacts. So, talagang hindi siya pwedeng mawala,” Alvarez said. “Dapat talagang i-secure and nasa safe na lugar.”

(There are no other items like those. There are no other sources for those things, those artifacts. So, we shouldn’t really lose them. They must be secured and kept in a safe place.)

Some of the remaining items in the Apacible museum include pieces of living room and bedroom furniture made of wood, a piano, and glass and ceramic wares. The furniture were covered with cloth for protection from the volcanic ash, while the breakables, including the bust of Leon Apacible, were placed on the floor as a precautionary measure in case tremors strike again.

Photo taken on Jan. 21, 2020 shows a portion of what's left inside the Apacible museum after the eruption of Taal Volcano on Jan. 12, 2020 that prompted the National Historical Commission of the Philippines to "rescue" some historical pieces. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Aquino said the retrieved items “all tell a story, and the stories that they tell deserve to be heard by future generations.”

“Their innate values were well considered in the prioritization.”

The Apacible brothers and the Agoncillo couple took part in the struggle against the Spanish colonial rule. Marcela is particularly remembered in history as the sewer of the Philippine flag upon the request of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo in 1898.

Told about the NHCP efforts, Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas said it is important to continue giving value to “our culture, tradition and history.”

Aquino said large tarpaulins identifying the two museums as government properties and national historical landmarks were installed so they can be prioritized for rescue “in the event of fire and other accidents.”

The retrieved pieces, meanwhile, will have to await Taal Volcano’s return to normalcy before returning to their respective homes. 

“For sure, naka-display na sila ulit once mag-reopen ang museums,” Aquino said.

(For sure, they will be back on display when the museums reopen.)

Taal Volcano remains under Alert Level 4, which warns of a hazardous explosive eruption within hours to days.