Last May 12, 2020, the Nayong Pilipino Foundation (NPF) celebrated National Heritage Month by conducting a virtual focus group discussion on Zoom. Titled, “Umpukan sa Nayon: Heritage, Communities, Our Future,” the event was in response to this year’s theme of “Mga Kwentong Pamana.” The discussion was anchored on the idea that stakeholders in the heritage sector are the bearers and mediators of culture.

The discussion was a collaborative effort by NPF, Intramuros Administration (IA), and the International Council on Museums and Sites (ICOMOS). The speakers invited were specialists on heritage interpretation, leaders of heritage organizations, and others under similar professions. 

Facilitated by ICOMOS member Maria Karina Garilao, the talk targeted the concerns of the pandemic’s impact on the heritage sector, the role of culture in community resilience, the continued relevance and sustainability of heritage, as well as the projects and actions that the sector can do in order to contribute to the country’s recovery. 

Garilao opened the discussion by touching on the topic of relevance and purpose. How does the heritage sector solidify and foster its meaningfulness amidst the health and economic crises? She took the pandemic as an opportunity for the industry to think and analyze what role they want to play moving forward. 

“There may be a loss of revenues but this should be seen also as an opportunity for the sector to shift to another platform. Perhaps or to reconsider to reflect on what other ways can be used in terms of establishing the value and the uniqueness of the sector,” Atty. Guiller Asido of the Intramuros Administration supported. 

Given that the pandemic has immobilized the cultural workforce—with the closure of many sites and sudden halt of on-going projects—a majority of daily wage earners have lost their jobs.

“Museums and other cultural institutions are losing millions of revenues each day. Artists all around the world are unable to make ends meet. Even the confinement measures due to the pandemic have interrupted heritage practices and expressions and have curved the population’s access to cultural heritage,” said Rajee Florido from the UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines.

And monetary concerns aren’t exclusive to those working within the sector but also evident to those living within the rural communities. The main concern of tourism planning consultant Marybeth Mencias is that amidst the rising cases of financial vulnerability and health risks, people will be tempted to sell their family heirlooms, their old houses, and even their antiques. “[Before considering heritage conservation] primarily, they have to survive. They have to feed their stomachs first,” Mencias explained. 

Another issue is the sudden move to a digital platform. Raised both by historian Claudia Isabelle Montero and Southern Luzon Association of Museums (SLAM) president Cecille Torevillas-Gelicame, they expressed that with the community quarantine hindering transportation and mobilization, all gatherings and businesses have shifted online. “Imagine how difficult it is now [especially] with manpower cut down—we cannot go to our museums, we cannot do the regular periodic checking of collections,” said Gelicame. “Most of the museum’s personnel are technologically challenged, so [there’s a] struggle to keep up with the platform, and to continue the museum’s missions and programs through online programming is another challenge for many museum workers.”

With these problems laid out, the speakers began to retrace and examine if the former approaches used in cultivating heritage and culture have actually been misaligned. 

“Now more than ever, we need to make heritage conservation more practical,” said Mencias. She explained how this pandemic has forced people living fast-paced lifestyles to go back to the old ways of doing things, using foraging as an example. Mencias noted that because of the increasing inability to go out to buy food, people are slowly noticing the different types of food that can easily be acquired all around them.

People are slowly seeing the value of home-made products and food production. While this was more commonly practiced in rural areas, it is beginning to reemerge in the urban areas as well. “I [am seeing] the link between cultural heritage, food security, and resiliency.” 

The importance of this can be seen not only in the immediate answer to the lack of hunger and sustenance but also to culture as well. Because people have a renewed appreciation for crafts and local food production, it will translate to giving importance to the works of local producers and artisans. 

Florido agreed with these sentiments, citing countries such as Palau, Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Jamaica that have followed similar holistic approaches to culture in order to address both food insecurity and the maintenance of local traditions. 

Ateneo de Manila Faculty Member Erik Akpedonu also raised the inaccessibility of heritage and culture, stating how heritage preservation is often an upper-class endeavor. Using Paco Park as an example, he noted how compared to other parks placed within Manila, Paco Park is relatively emptier and quieter. This is due to the fact that it is gatekept by an entrance fee, similar to most of the museums before that were mostly empty. Akpedonu explained that once the fees were lifted, there has been a dramatic shift in the number of visitors. “[It has become] very well visited, and not just by middle-class people, but also [by] the ordinary working-class people.” 

Similar ideas were echoed both by Escuela Taller de Filipinas Foundation Executive Director Bettina Bulaong and ICOMOS President Maria Cristina Paterno. 

Getting the masses involved is something that needs to be brought forward more. To also answer the problem of poverty and to bridge the gap between people and heritage, Bulaong suggested that while health and food services are necessities, providing job opportunities within the sector to people living in the indigenous communities are also important. This will give them the ability to intervene and protect their own heritage while also ensuring financial stability. 

Likewise, reframing and localization is what Paterno suggested. “I think where we’ve gone wrong in the past is when we’re preaching to the choir, we’re not so creative in framing our narratives. We’re just saying it over and over again and to the same people,” she said. With over 7,000 islands composing of a wide array of cultures, inhabitants of one island may not care about the happenings from another island. Seeking out the involvement of local communities and acknowledging diversity can result to a richer and more relevant narrative that supersedes that of mere name and date memorization. 

Cultural worker Nestor Horfilla also stressed on the importance of recognizing diversity but also related it to communication and convergence. With different cultures having different responses to the pandemic, intercultural exchange of knowledge can provide solutions with communities learning off of each other. “Diversity could usher in finding different pathways to resiliency and self-sufficiency,” he said. 

Of course, the most effective way to take into action all these ideas and suggestions is to involve the Local Government Units—with heritage already integrated in their planning process. 

The Umpukan ended with NPF Executive Director Atty. Karen Malilong-Isberto thanking the attendees for an insightful discussion, ensuring that the foundation will use these insights in crafting policies and programs that will benefit the sector not only in the short term but for the long haul as well. 

Umpukan sa Nayon is a multi-sectoral consultation session held by NPF as part of its mandate (P.D. 37, 1972) to engage the public for consultation and to enliven conversations.