“Good God Damn!” was the unabashed and spontaneous reaction of an American tourist clad in a stereotypical plaid shirt. He had just stepped up to a massive “halter,” the “star” of the utterly stunning collection of pre-colonial gold that has ever so quietly opened to the public at the Ayala Museum. I will explain why his comment was a good one, and not intended to be blasphemous at all…
I was privileged and extremely grateful to have been invited to, and given what was tantamount to the finest private tour of the new exhibit : “Gold of Ancestors,” Pre-colonial Treasures of the Philippines. But this wasn’t supposed to be any special treatment whatsoever; a casual text invitation, a holiday lunch with friends, no formality in dress, then we slipped anonymously into the exhibit that had officially opened to the public just hours before. There were just 3-4 other visitors in the gallery at that point. It just so happens that the friends who gave me the tour, are members of the family that collected the artifacts and who have now permanently placed the pieces in a museum, available for the public to view. And while we were there, I was introduced to the curator of the exhibit and one of the authors of an upcoming book on the collection. Let me tell you, I had goosebumps for an hour, maybe more. It is rare that I would feel so incredibly proud to be Filipino, to think that many of these pieces were crafted and had come from an area geographically so close to where my own ancestors called home, (who were probably drying fish on the shores of Bohol and Cebu) unaware of the wonderful pieces that were being crafted and worn in Northern Mindanao, out of a yellow metal that spewed out of mountainsides and were panned for in pristine rivers in and around Butuan and Surigao.
Start your visit with a very well done short film that sets the stage for viewing the collection. Then stroll to the right of the viewing area to take in as much of the incredible artisty, beauty, history, culture and wonder that should overwhelm you, as it overwhelmed me, when I realized the collection included some 1,059 individual pieces of gold, ranging from tiny bits collected in graves and other sites, to pieces that simply boggled the mind, all estimated to have been made from the 10-13th century. Many were pieces of ornamentation such as earrings, diadems, rings, bracelets, pectorals (round shield like things that presumably hung from the neck and covered ones pectorals). There were sashes or “belts” in gold, bowls, and my favorite doodad, a pair of gold tweezers that, I was told, actually worked on thinning one’s eyebrows! I secretly wanted to try it on a nose hair or two. There was also an incredible array of orifice ornaments or pieces of gold that covered the eyes, nose and mouth of the deceased when they were laid to rest. Gold chastity pieces, and several pieces whose purpose still needs to be studied and confirmed. And as I speed through the description of items, the final, piece de resistance, a stunning over the shoulder “halter” which was the object of the plaid-clad foreigner’s comment up top.
This piece can only be described as the single most amazing gold doodad I have ever seen. Ever. And yes, I have seen the Crown Jewels. And I am being irreverent calling it a doodad because I am too uncultured to even partially understand how important this piece is and the whole collection that surrounds it. An intricate yet utterly modern sensibility made up of gold “rope” and beads, it weighs a whopping 4 kilos or nearly 10 pounds of pure gold. It is after reading the weight and staring at the piece, that the guy in plaid said, quite appropriately, “Good God Damn!” For me, the ultimate numbers guy, what should have been stunning alone was the weight of some of these artifacts, a beautiful bowl at 600-700 grams, a necklace at say a kilo or so, earrings so huge that they could have adorned the massive ears of a cow, for all I know. But ultimately, the goose bump effect wasn’t the richness and volume of the precious material. It was the sudden realization that for once, someone had bothered and at great personal expense I am sure, to buy up all of these pieces and put together a fabulous collection, then when they felt the time was right, have selflessly placed it in a museum so that the public, the Filipino people and guests from all over the world, can enjoy it and begin to learn more and more about an incredible period in our history. The goosebumps were also caused by the realization that the folks who inhabited these islands nearly a millenium ago were already so advanced in their craftmanship which was also true at different points of our history in the beautiful textiles, baskets, embroideries, etc. Unfortunately this craftmanship is rapidly disappearing and so many of our children have no inkling about this incredible amount of history and culture…
I know, there are many folks out there who will think, but what about the poor, starving, underprivileged citizens who would so benefit if all of this gold were sold off and the proceeds used to help them instead. For once, I say, have you completely lost your minds? This isn’t about the collection being worth its weight in gold (trust me, I did some quick crass calculations). It isn’t even that it is financially worth some 20-30 times its weight in gold had it been placed on the block at Sotheby’s or Christie’s… for the Filipino people, this collection is simply PRICELESS. And what are the wishes of the family who so generously made this possible? That making the collection available to the whole world will encourage extensive scholarly study of that period in Philippine history. That we all feel an incredible sense of pride in our local capabilities and craftmanship. That we give renewed attention to culture and history and a sense of perspective to who we are in the context of a millenia rather than perhaps the somewhat forgettable political foibles and “history” of the past 50 years. I realize many guests to this exhibit may not take away as much from it as I have, given such a personal tour which made it all the more real for me, but nevertheless, GO SEE THIS EXHIBIT if it is the ONLY cultural thing you do this year.
And back to the guy in plaid. As if his earlier comment wasn’t enough, he looked at us and said something along the lines of “imagine, if only you owned just a bit of this stuff?” Yes indeed, if only one did. If ONLY HE KNEW that the folks he was bantering with actually did once own it, and have in essence, returned it to the Filipino nation. I was watching this light exchange with a smile on my face. We had a really good laugh about it afterwards. So before you all go thinking this is Marketman and friends doing the ultimate golden fish pan post, I can tell you that not all wealthy folks are evil… a few of them do deeds like this one and you instantly understand the power of money, and more importantly foresight and a sense of national patrimony. Money can, and has, actually been used to preserve a priceless part of our history and culture. And I say bravo to that.
And as for the Spaniards who arrived in the 1500’s, discovered the cache of gold in Mindanao and took lots of it with them to make doodads of their own in Mexico and Spain, and in the process probably destroyed our local craftsmanship forever, that is another story altogether. But isn’t it ironic that some of their descendants were the ones who funded the building of the museum that now houses this fantastic collection? So the Zobel family that has worked so closely with the donors to provide a spectacular setting for a spectacular collection also deserve our thanks. And while at the museum, swing by the newly donated Chinese and Southeast Asian Trade Ceramics collection of the Villanueva family and an exhibit of old Philippine embroideries which are on loan from the Leiden Museum.
Oh and one final note. If you are feeling like the music and set up are giving you deja vu’s about recent movies like “National Treasure,” this is the real magilla. A TRUE NATIONAL TREASURE.
Gold of Ancestors
Pre-colonial Treasures in the Philippines
The Ayala Museum
Makati Avenue, Makati
Photos: The two photos used in this post are photos taken of the exhibit pamphlet handed out to visitors at The Ayala Museum.