Growing up, summer vacation meant spending time at my grandmother’s house in Pangasinan. There, I would play with my cousins, not minding the sweltering heat as we crossed some karayan (river) and taltalon (ricefields).
Afternoons were spent running and catching dragonflies. And when we got so thirsty, we would go to the back kitchen and drink water from the tapayan, the earthen water jar. It’s amazing how the water inside the jar remains cold no matter how the temperature was.
Earthenwares were common back then. We would cook on a clay stove, with someone continuously fanning or feeding the flames with more wood. After cooking, the embers would be used to boil water for bathing and washing.
We did have palayok, earthen pots, which were often used in cooking. It is said that cooking over burning of wood and in palayok adds a unique flavor to the food.
Since refrigerators were a luxury back then, I remember the old folks storing meat buried in salt and placing them inside burnay. They would also use these earthenwares to ferment sugarcane juice, which turned into sukang Iloko (vinegar) and eventually basi (local wine). Clay jars were also used to store bagoong and other raw ingredients. It was believed that food tasted better when they were stored in burnay.
The ceramic heritage of the Philippines has always been interesting to me. Far more than just storage and vessels, these stonewares, ceramics, and what have you tell the interesting stories and reflect the social reality in a certain period, as well as its connection to a specific culture.
While they are often seen as containers for food and liquid, their functions transcend beyond cooking and storing. In some cultures, they are used for rituals. They become witnesses to bountiful harvest. Some use jars for burial, as they are believed to be a good vessel of the soul to the spirit world.
These objects, particularly ceramics and porcelain, are also seen as symbols of power and wealth. Urban collectors often search and buy intricately-designed vases and jars as ornaments.
Pottery has always been embedded in our culture. History has it that ceramics were widely exported by Chinese traders all over the world as early as the 7th century.
In fact, the earliest ceramic wares recovered in the country dated 9th century. Through an archaeological survey led by Dr. Henry Otley Beyer, various ceramic finds were uncovered in Palawan, Quezon, Bicol, Samar, and Leyte in 1947.
Since the 1950s, the National Museum has led several excavations in Manila, Batangas, Cebu, Negros, Palawan, and Butuan, where they found several ceramics. The discovery and recovery of shipwrecks such as the San Diego in Fortune Island in Batangas and Griffin in the Sulu Sea yielded thousands of Chinese wares.
In the 1960s, Dr. Robert B. Fox, who was the then chief of the Anthropology Division (now Ethnology Division), initiated the ethnographic ceramics collection in the museum.
“When it comes to ethnographic stoneware, we know that this is something that links us with the rest of Asia. We are yet to really flesh out the story of how our ethnographic stoneware really represents the Pan-Asian heritage with the Philippines as a core part of it,” said National Museum director-general Jeremy Barns.
With this challenge, the National Museum partnered with the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation to establish the Elizabeth Y. Gokongwei Ethnographic Stoneware Resource Center.
Located on the fifth floor of the museum’s East Wing, the resource center houses over 1,000 jars, plates, and bowls from the National Ethnographic Collection, including 73 Ilokano stoneware pieces, which are part of the long-term lease of the Ilocos Historical and Cultural Foundation Collection to the NMP.
The various objects in the collection have been dated from the 15th to the 20th century, and came from the different ethnolinguistic groups in the country, including Bontok, Ifugao, Ibaloy, Ilokano, Gad’dang, and Pangasinense communities in northern Luzon; Tagalog, Pala’wan, and Tagbanua communities in central and southern Luzon; and Maguindanao, Maranao, and Tausug communities in southwestern Mindanao.
Through this project, the NMP and the GBFI wish to provide an open research facility that will encourage more students, educators, and researchers to engage in documenting ceramic traditions in the country and gain a better understanding of the breadth and depth of these collections concerning Filipino culture and identity.
“This project adds to the quality of custodianship that we have of our precious natural patrimony. [It] adds to the quality of service we could provide to the public, especially to researchers who will flesh out our appreciation of our heritage,” said Barns.
Researchers can access the catalog of the collections and examine selected objects with the supervision of the NMP collections managers. Those who wish to access the catalog and examine the collection may send a letter of request at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Museum visitors, meanwhile, can view the EYG Resource Center collection from outside of the hallway through its glass panels and observe how they are documented, maintained, and processed for exhibition, publication, and other educational programs.
This will foster a better understanding of the nature and roles of museums, which is not only limited to exhibitions or repository space but as actively engaged in the process of preservation and promotion of cultural objects along with their stories.
“Far more than being vessels, these objects tell the story of their connection to their maker and the culture they constitute. By highlighting material culture, we hope to offer a new avenue for exploring our past to fully understand the diversity of our heritage,” said NMP deputy director Jorell M. Legaspi.
To maximize the reach and impact of the EYG Resource Center, sustained efforts are being implemented including special tours, provision of digital reference materials for teachers, and other new ways of learning about the collection, such as the 360° VR exhibit.
There is also an accompanying book entitled “From Kiln to Kin: The Philippine Ceramic Heritage,” which will feature the full catalog of collections found inside the resource center. It will extensively discuss the ceramic history of the Philippines and its significance in our ethnolinguistic traditions and culture.
“As a staunch advocate of holistic education, the Foundation takes to heart its duty to protect our heritage, enrich our culture, and pass this on to the next generation. There, we are grateful to the NMP for bringing to the GBF and making it possible for us to contribute to the valuable field of cultural preservation,” said GBF general manager Lisa Y. Gokongwei-Cheng.
Learning our history and culture would definitely inculcate a stronger sense of identity, belongingness, and communal connection among our people. I hope more and more Filipinos, especially the young ones, would get to visit the resource center and the museum.