Interview with Ana Maria Theresa Labrador, Philippines

We met Ana Maria Theresa Labrador, Museum Curator at The National Museum of the Philippines.

Your museum recently participated in the exhibition A passage to Asia. How important are international exchanges to you?
A Passage to Asia is one of the virtual exhibitions we participated in when we were recalibrating our museum programs to fit the “new normal”. One positive thing about the COVID pandemic is that it opened up more opportunities for museums to collaborate and build partnerships online and virtually. While this entailed a lot of changes to the way we conceptualize and organize our exhibitions, it also gave us a chance to learn from others. Through this exhibition we found new ways to promote our heritage and connect to our international counterparts.

Why do Europe-Asia relations matter to you?
A significant number of our national archaeological and ethnographic collections are traded goods that reached the Philippines through exchanges and interactions with seafaring groups, merchants, polities, and cultures from outside the archipelago. These are evidence that even before the arrival of the Spaniards on our shores in the 16th century, which formalized our relationship with Europe, our local communities were trading and interacting with other groups in Asia and Europe.
The pandemic has made us realise the importance of tolerance and interactions despite the limitations on travel and insecurity over our health and wellbeing. Maintaining our connections with one another is crucial to protect and promote our heritage, for our benefit and that of future generations.

Can you tell us more about the Balangay Boat and how it tells the story of Europe-Asia relations?
We are honoured that one of our National Cultural Treasures — the remains of Balangay Boat I excavated in Butuan, Agusan del Norte, Mindanao — was featured as the centre piece of this exhibition. These archaeological remains, along with other associated artifacts dated to 320 Common Era, are direct evidence of our ancestors’ practice of long-distance sea travel and trade. They allow us a glimpse of the technology, craftsmanship and skills that were used to build such boats. On a wider scale, they also tell us a lot about our forebears’ navigational skills, as they imply the existence of ancient transoceanic connections.

Balangay boat, National Museum of the Philippines, Manila

My typical workday: “Arts with pancit luglug and sunset”

My typical workday includes doing the rounds of the three National Museums (Fine Arts, Anthropology and Natural History) in the Rizal complex to check on the physical state of facilities and exhibitions. It also features work with curatorial staff on forthcoming exhibitions and projects in our 15 related museums across the country. With the pandemic, the challenge was to put a number of exhibitions on a digital platform, and this has made us more creative. Lunch is easy and quick. Only when meeting with guests do I treat myself to a local noodle dish like pancit luglug and rellenong bangus (Filipino fusion cuisine, even before the term became fashionable).
After 10 years, my work at the National Museum never gets dull. I am always keen and curious to learn. One of the things that I tell our staff is to be humble, because heritage in our museums is bigger than all of us and will outlive us. The work that we put in is cumulative and builds upon the work of our predecessors.
Our research for the ongoing exhibition “Larawan at Litrato: Foto-óleo and Picture Portraits in the Philippines, 1891-1953” began 14 years ago. That was when I first encountered a photograph colorised with oil paint by the renowned Filipino painter Fabian de la Rosa, who later trained at the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, Spain. It is amazing how many such colorised photographs we found and gradually gathered over the years.
After work, if I am not too tired, I walk around Rizal Park. The sunsets in our part of Manila are spectacular, and the golden hour casts beautiful light on our neoclassical buildings. We are very lucky to be located here.

Ana Maria Theresa Labrador Ph.D. is Deputy Director-General for Museums at the National Museum of the Philippines

The National Museum Complex in Manila (photo courtesy of Escuela Taller de Filipinas)

The National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) is a non-profit, government institution founded in 1901 as the Insular Museum of Ethnology, Natural History and Commerce. A primary agency for the management and development of national museums and collections of arts, heritage and natural history, the museum has a comprehensive and growing collection of works of art, specimens and artifacts significant and unique to the national patrimony. The National Museum Complex in Manila hosts the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Anthropology, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Planetarium. Fifteen further regional sites are located across the country.