Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

Retrieving our cultural past — digitally

By JH CORPUS Published Dec 30, 2023 9:07 am

In the concealed corners of museums and libraries, where the cryptic writings of bygone eras echo, archives emerge as mute witnesses to the intricate tapestry of Filipino history. These collections encapsulate the attitudes, values and responsibilities of ancestors, unraveling the delicate threads that weave our collective past. Within this historical tapestry lies a poignant narrative of resilience, loss, and an ongoing mission of digital repatriation.

At the core of Filipino communities, churches have played an indispensable role in preserving records meticulously detailing community life. From expenditures and activities to major life events like baptisms, marriages and deaths, these records transcend the realm of dusty documents, offering nuanced glimpses into the daily living.

Preserving Filipino history: The Archives of San Agustin

However, this historical journey faced formidable challenges during the British Occupation of Manila (1762-1764), a tumultuous period characterized by the pillaging of the Iglesia y Convento de San Pablo, now known as San Agustin Church and Convent. The librarian, in the aftermath of the occupation, reported a stark reality—not even a bench was left in the library. To recover from the loss, he appealed to provinces outside of Manila, urging them to contribute books to reconstitute the library.

The aftermath witnessed the sorting and sifting through invaluable items, with some auctioned on-site and others abandoned. In a twist of fate, the majority of materials found their way into the possession of the Scottish Hydrographer, Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808), briefly assuming the role of Governor General of the Philippines and inheriting a collection known as the "Manila Papers."

The collection at Archive of San Agustin

Dalrymple's death marked a huge turning point, as his extensive collection embarked on a slow dispersal across three continents. Today, about one hundred remain at the original site, while the remaining manuscripts were acquired or donated to institutions such as the Lilly Library in Indiana, the Lopez Museum in Manila, the British Library, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University College of London, and King's College.

Webpage for transcription and translation

The narrative takes a compelling turn as contemporary scholars and enthusiasts embark on a transformative, digital journey to reclaim this lost legacy through repatriation. This requires inter-institutional cooperation to scan the manuscripts in a digital format to upload to the 1762archive website. From this effort comes a digital reconstruction of the library before the looting of the library in 1782 At the forefront is Dr. Christina Juan of SOAS University College of London, serving as the principal investigator in the United Kingdom.

The webpage, aptly titled "A Digital Repatriation of a Lost Archive of the Spanish Pacific: The Library of The Convent of San Pablo (Manila, 1762)," extends an open invitation to global enthusiasts, providing statistics on translated pages, offering insight into the remaining work and fostering a collaborative environment.

Digital repatriation becomes a unifying force, allowing these dispersed fragments to be virtually reunited.

Dr. Juan, recently in Manila, checked on the physical archives and discussed with Regalado Trota Jose, a consultant on the project, as to the manuscript's provenance, subject matter, origins and the organization of the collection, along with other matters concerning the archives. This on-the-ground engagement shows the commitment to a comprehensive understanding of the materials and ensures that the digital repatriation aligns with the physical heritage.

Dr. Christina Juan and Lou Revilla Baysic discuss documentation.

She was able to consult with Lou Revilla-Baysic, San Agustin’s Museum and Library Collections manager and conservationist, who is documenting the holdings and assessing their conditions.

The project has not been without surprises. José states that “the 'last' major discovery was made a couple of months ago—the book signed Fray Andres Aguirre and dated 1584. Fray Andres came over with Father Urdaneta, and so was among the first five Augustinians who reached Cebu in 1565. Several other works were found, and series rejoined, to make a more coherent idea of the library.”

Comparing scanned photos with the original archival album

The 1762 archive project transcends the mere retrieval of lost manuscripts; it symbolizes a profound reconnection with a heritage spanning centuries. Driven by the collaboration of scholars and enthusiasts, the past become clearer, piecing together a narrative that was once scattered but is now finding its way back home.

As the project unfolds, it paints a vivid picture of resilience and determination. Scholars and enthusiasts come together to resurrect a narrative once lost. The 1762archive project not only preserves history but allows it to thrive anew. In the journey of digital repatriation, every keystroke becomes a deliberate step towards reconnecting with the soul of a nation's history.

In the realm of cultural heritage, where ownership issues and institutional reluctance pose challenges, digital repatriation emerges as a middle ground. Institutions, understandably protective of their collections, may be hesitant to let go due to concerns about potential claims from various entities. Digital repatriation offers a compromise that respects these concerns while facilitating access to cultural materials for a broader audience.

For the lost archives of the Spanish Pacific, this digital approach enables scholars, enthusiasts and the public to engage with the historical legacy without necessitating the return of physical items. It serves as a bridge between institutions holding the materials and the communities, researchers, and individuals eager to explore and understand their cultural heritage.

The British Occupation of Manila and subsequent dispersal of the San Pablo library's materials exemplify the challenges associated with physical repatriation. The scattering of items across continents, from Manila to Indiana, from London to Manila, reflects a complex history of acquisition, inheritance, and donation. Digital repatriation becomes a unifying force, allowing these dispersed fragments to be virtually reunited, creating a comprehensive and accessible repository.