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A must-see: Ayala Museum’s Gold of Ancestors

“Did you know that we have a long history with gold, dating back to pre-colonial times???”

I posed this question to my colleagues and I expected them to gasp and ask me to tell them more about it, but instead I got bored looks and variations of “we know” responses. That’s because prior to my visit to Ayala Museum, I had no idea our ancestors dressed in gold practically from head to foot—and even brought it to their graves, with sheets of golden funeral masks that adorned their dead. (Such joy! More options for my national costume ideas, haha!)

It must have been mentioned in passing in my high school history books (as my colleagues noted), but that’s the point: why are we not giving it more importance? This is information that must be ingrained in Filipinos as early as kids, and perhaps, we’ll take greater pride in our heritage and become more assertive—especially in the face of threats from foreign bullies—and assured of our cultural identity.

On face value, the permanent exhibit, Gold of Ancestors: Pre-colonial Treasures in the Philippines, is breathtaking. As soon as the elevator of the Ayala Museum opens on the fourth floor, you come face to face with steel bars that control entry to the area. We would have proceeded straight into it but security directed us to the left, suggesting that we start with A Millennium of Contact: Chinese and Southeast Asian Trade Ceramics in the Philippines.

An impressive collection of 9th to 19th century ceramic pieces
There were rows and rows of ceramics, all encased in glass, along the museum’s marble floor. The collection, on loan from Roberto T. Villanueva, features a staggering number of ceramic pieces—about 500—from the 9th to the 19th century. They were dug in the Philippines, mostly from the Visayas, and further prove the robust trade between the country and China, as well as with neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.

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The Chinese pieces were classified according to the kilns (manufacturing process) that produced them, inevitably grouping them by color, too. The earlier pieces from Zheijiang province featured celadon ware, with colors that ranged from sea green to jade; Qingbai ware, which were mostly white; and then of course, the famous blue and white wares from Jiangxi province, which has stood the test of the time and has remained popular until today. (In fact, it has its own room in the exhibit.)

Almost all pieces are in excellent, if not, mint condition. The craftsmanship, particularly from the blue and white collection, was flawless. I was particularly drawn by those that featured paintings of coastal living; I’m in awe just thinking that these were panoramas which painters had before their eyes in the 14th and 15th centuries. They likely served as early photographs for our own natives, who must have been dazzled by this other world so different from theirs.

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Most, if not all, of the ceramic pieces are in mint condition.

The implication alone is mind-boggling: how long exactly have we been trading with China? We surely must have liked each other—a lot—if such link has spanned for centuries, dating back to pre-colonial times. It’s with a sad note that I think of how we weren’t able to sustain such robust trading and partnership with China—and I’m not even going to discuss the ruckus over the Spratly Islands.

In its marketing materials, the museum kept referring to the collection as a source of great pride for Filipinos. The Villanuevas have indeed provided us with an invaluable blueprint and legacy pertaining to our place in [Asian/navigational] history, but my beef was that the beautiful ceramics weren’t our creation. In contexts such as this, I think of ‘pride’ as something we can call our own.

Looking back, it was good that the museum staff directed us to Trade Ceramics first because we weren’t prepared for the grandeur that was Gold of Ancestors. Now, here’s something for us to be really proud of as Filipinos.

More than a thousand pre-colonial gold treasures from as far back as the 10th century
What could have prompted the Chinese and our Southeast Asian neighbors into trading their stunning and extremely well-made ceramics? The answer: Gold and I surely think our ancestors got the shorter end of the proverbial stick.

Upon entering the steel bars, which dramatically part when you enter, a projector provides a brief background on the exhibit. According to the Ayala Museum website, “The exhibition of more than one thousand gold objects celebrates the sophisticated cultures that existed in the Philippines before colonization in the 16th century. Many of the precious objects were recovered in association with 10th to 13th century Chinese export ceramics.”

Ehgad!

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Ornate and intricately designed earrings dug in Butuan. If this was indeed from the 10th century, then this was around the same time the Mayan civilization had just collapsed.

There was so much gold, our ancestors must have been jaded with them. There were golden earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings, and anklets. There were golden diadems, sashes, and belts. Weapons and containers in gold. Idols of worship and funeral masks in gold. I forgot what they’re called, but even those tied at the end of ropes as weight were cast in gold. When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines, the fashion chronicler Juana Río gave the natives five stars—they were adorned with gold from head to foot.

One piece alone, undoubtedly the highlight of the exhibit, made our jaws drop: four kilograms of intricately woven gold mesh, called a ‘halter,’ that is worn like a sash. Even from afar, it commands attention; up close, one is overwhelmed by the stunning detail and workmanship of the piece. I didn’t even attempt taking a photo because I know it cannot do it justice.

Some of those in the collection have Hindu roots, which brings into question the pieces’ origins—and that is good, because again, it implies that the Philippines had a sophisticated transnational network even before the 16th century. But perhaps, the biggest question of all, the answer to which I didn’t find in the museum is this: what happened to the gold? I wish that an iconic Filipino gold company had at least emerged from all that richness.

The two exhibits alone took us two hours to complete. (Well, we did take our grand time.) There’s a third exhibit on the same floor, Embroidered Multiples: 18th to 19th Century Philippine Costumes, which we had to skip due to time constraints. That only means I must return.

Ayala Museum

Tuesday to Sunday
9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Makati Avenue cor De La Rosa Street
Makati City

http://www.ayalamuseum.org

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