Scattered across the University of Michigan’s campus in libraries and museums are roughly 20,000 objects from the Philippines. How did these objects arrive, and why does U-M have them? The answer is wrapped up in a story of extraction and exploitation, and a troubled colonial relationship between U-M and the Philippines.
Though he was aware of U-M’s Philippine Collection, Ricky Punzalan, associate professor of information and steering committee member of the Museum Studies Program, did not fully appreciate the sheer volume and gravity of the materials, or the depth of the university’s historical colonial relationship with the Philippines, until he arrived at the university to begin his doctoral work.
In 2007, while processing two boxes of papers containing items to be included in what was then commonly called “the Worcester Philippine History Collection” at the Special Collections Library, Punzalan encountered a sliver of the University of Michigan’s extensive collections of objects, letters, photographs, flora, and fauna from the Philippines. Dean C. Worcester was a U-M professor, zoologist, and colonial administrator, and his initial donation of materials to the University in 1914 became the nucleus of what is now the extensive Philippine Collection at the library.
Punzalan was stunned by what he found among the Worcester materials that are spread across the university: photographs of dead bodies, human remains, and disturbing photos of women made to pose in demeaning ways, as well as pictures of American soldiers mingling with teenage and child Filipinos.
The materials that Worcester and other U-M-affiliated scientists amassed during these expeditions worked in service of a political case: that an American occupation of the Philippines would be lucrative and favorable for the United States.
“I became very acquainted with many of the key individuals who had collected these materials on expeditions from U-M to the Philippines at the end of the 19th century,” Punzalan says.
Despite the quantity of objects and images Worcester amassed and brought to U-M, a lot of context is missing from the collection. Within the collections, Punzalan discovered incorrect and racist information, offensive language about Filipino people, and systemic omissions of important details (such as the identities of the people photographed by Worcester, and the colonial and geographic context of these images, for example). And the how and why of these materials—their relationship to the U.S. colonial project in the Philippines—which are gestured at, but not adequately acknowledged in the collections. Much of the story was missing.
“The subjects of his photographs might only be described in his notes as ‘insurgents,’ and they are not typically given names or ethnolinguistic identity,” Punzalan explains. Worcester’s exploitation of indigenous Filipinos extended beyond his trips to the archipelago. Many of the people he photographed in the Philippines were brought to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, to be displayed as part of the “Philippine Village” exhibit. There were several photographs of indigenous Filipinos at the World’s Fair that are kept in various libraries, archives, and museums in the U.S., and Punzalan became curious about the individuals he saw reappearing in these images, exploited and unnamed.
“So,” Punzalan says, “it was not just a box of photos, but a collection of stories of exploitation and colonialism. A deeply problematic collection.”
While his professional training and doctoral work had prepared him for approaching these archives systemically, Punzalan—as a member of the Filipino and Filipino American communities—was also sensitive to the weight and difficulty of the material. “I had the sense that I wanted these materials to be accessible to Filipino and Filipino American communities, but also wanted to hold colonialism historically accountable and not further the harm.”
Nearly a decade later, Punzalan and other faculty members, students, and archivists on campus are trying to recover this history, and working toward accountability and community repair.
In 2020, Punzalan returned to Michigan as an associate professor at the School of Information to continue his research on archives and digital curation, determined to “unlock the Philippine collections,” which are found in the Clements Library, the Bentley Historical Library, the Clark Map Library, the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments, the Special Collections Library, the Museum of Zoology, the Herbarium, the University of Michigan Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (UMMAA), and the Law Library. Punzalan was interested in finding a way to revisit these objects and engage in reparative curation: to de-emphasize colonial collectors like Worcester, in favor of highlighting the histories of Filipino communities.
“On one hand, I want this to be useful to communities, on the other hand, I don’t want to perpetuate the racist and imperialist ideas these collections contain, the images of exploitation and death,” Punzalan says.
Punzalan approached Deirdre de la Cruz, associate professor of Asian languages and cultures and of history. She had done extensive research and even taught courses using the collections, and she was on board to co-direct an ambitious project they called “ReConnect/ReCollect: Reparative Connections to Philippine Collections at the University of Michigan.”
As de la Cruz explains it, “The history of the University of Michigan and the Philippines is a deep and complex one.
“U-M faculty and students led some of the early expeditions to the Philippines in the 1870s and were tasked with collecting flora and fauna, including birds, mammals, and other animal and plant specimens. And that established a trajectory of other researchers from U-M and alumni from U-M to continue to go to the Philippines under the guise of research, contributing to the United States colonial project in the region.”
By the time that the United States colonized the Philippines in 1899 after the Spanish American War, U-M had already aided in establishing an American foothold in the 7,000 islands that comprise the archipelago nation. Joseph Beal Steere, a professor of paleontology and zoology, was one of the most prominent of these U-M collectors. Students who joined Steere as research assistants became instrumental in this extractive relationship with the Philippines. For example, Worcester, who had been a student of Steere, later became secretary of the interior of the Philippines once it became a U.S. colony. During his tenure he was despised for exploiting the resources of the country for his own gain—stealing gold in Mindanao and ordering the burning of homes during a cholera outbreak to clear the area for redevelopment.
Carl Guthe, a U-M archaeologist, established the U-M Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in the early 1920s, and the objects taken from the Philippines became the cornerstone collection. Though the Philippine-American War officially ended in 1902, Filipino revolutionaries continued to resist American occupation well into the 1910s. The Philippines remained a U.S. colony until after the second world war.
“Part of what we’re trying to do with the ReConnect/ReCollect project is to educate the community, faculty, curators, students, and collection managers about U-M’s place in that long and complicated colonial history,” de la Cruz says.
Aside from the problematic content of the collection, the team is also contending with the difficulty of organization, of sifting through thousands of items ordered by clashing archival systems, sometimes labeled and described idiosyncratically and often incompletely, across several libraries and museums on the U-M campus. Collection items are generally ordered by the name of the collector omitting important information like where and how the item was collected, or who is pictured in the photograph.
The diversity of the materials within the collections is vast: archaeological artifacts, ceramic toys, everyday household items, stuffed birds, excavated human remains taken from burial sites, documents, photographs, personal correspondence, textiles.
“Many of the objects are troubling,” de la Cruz says. “They hold a history of harm.”
Punzalan and de la Cruz entered a partnership with other faculty, curators, librarians, collection managers, and archivists at the Bentley, UMMAA, and Special Collections libraries to explore the hidden lives of the Philippine Collection. ReConnect/ReCollect was received with enthusiasm, and soon the team had the support of undergraduate and graduate students. The Humanities Collaboratory also supported this work with progressive levels of grants to help develop the project and make such a large undertaking possible. ReConnect/ReCollect has hosted an artist residency, collaborates with an advisory board in the Philippines and across the U.S., and is building relationships with members of the local Filipino and Filipino American community.
“The big shift for me is really to think about the history of scientific collection as it relates to colonialism—and to think about this in relationships, in dialogue,” says Kerstin Barndt, a ReConnect/Recollect partner, director of the U-M Museum Studies Program, and associate professor of German languages and literatures. “I’ve had to unlearn the hierarchies that come with academia and be humble. This project asks us to embrace this work as collective work that includes artists, activists, and the community here and in the Philippines, to widen that circle.”
Together the partners of ReConnect/ReCollect are questioning the ways that things have long been done in museum collections, Barndt says. Typically, museums order the collections by the collector’s name. In this case, and certainly in others, this practice tells an incomplete story.
“Is there a different way to order these collections that decenters these scientists who did their work in the name of U-M and did not question U.S. imperialism?” Barndt says. “Where are the Filipinos themselves?”
Nancy Bartlett, associate director of the Bentley Historical Library, is also energized by the opportunity to rethink hierarchical collections practices, and to widen the circle.
“This is a project that is a first in terms of bringing together faculty, graduate students, curators, librarians, and archivists from across campus to look at collections that are highly distributed,” Bartlett says. “We are having conversations that we have never had before about these Philippine collections.”
Punzalan is grateful for the unequivocal support, curiosity, and expertise that his partners have brought to ReConnect/ReCollect.
“At this university,” Punzalan says, “people are ready. That’s the best kind of moment. I didn’t have to do a lot of convincing; the values and resources were already there.”
The ReConnect/Recollect project is part of a larger conversation about museum and academic library collections. As the discussion moves toward uncovering how the objects that make up these collections were acquired, collection managers are reckoning with institutional histories, colonial ties, the academic systems of ordering these materials, and the questions of how to repair relationships with the living community members from whose ancestors these objects were once taken.
Graduate students like LSA’s Emily Na are uncovering this history of harm in the standard methods by which archives such as these are organized. A photograph catalogued at the Bentley, for example, might only be labeled with the name of the collector, with no mention of the subjects of photos, indigenous groups, or the region in which the photo was taken. Not only are vital histories erased in this system, but the lack of precise language in the descriptions makes it difficult for community members and researchers to find what they’re looking for. Some of the work of this project involves creating better finding aids to make the collections easier to navigate across the sites on campus where they are housed.
Martha O’Hara Conway, director of the Special Collections Research Center in the University Library and ReConnect/Recollect partner, is enthusiastic about the rewards this project could bring to further the discovery and use of the library’s Philippine History collections. “Here in Special Collections, mostly what is needed is more and better description,” she says. “Some of our collections cannot be discovered because of the inadequacy of existing description.”
2022 is the 100-year anniversary of UMMAA, and museum professionals like collections manager Jim Moss are marking this pivotal moment in the museum’s history by working to bring the Philippine Collection online. One portion of UMMAA’s effort involves a 3-D map that graduate student Nick Trudeau is creating with the help of geolocation. The interactive map eventually will be displayed with the UMMAA collection.
“Essentially it starts with creating a visual map of the Philippines,” Trudeau says. “Then we tie in individual locations, then on top of that we layer any sort of data or information, notes, accounts, objects, images, hyperlinks.”
When the map is complete, Trudeau hopes it will provide a powerful analytical tool to examine the relationships (historical, cultural, linguistic, geographic, chronological) between the objects that make up the collection. He consulted with community elders like former LSA language instructor Adelwisa (Deling) Weller, whose expertise in Philippine languages and history has contributed greatly to this work—another example of the ways that relationships will return ReConnect/ReCollect to its fuller context.
Trudeau underscores the enormity of his task. The geographical extent of the collection is vast, and creating this interactive map demonstrates the challenge of trying to associate a place with a group, because, throughout history, people move. Trudeau’s work is to decipher how the artifacts of the collection are connected to each other regionally, and their relationship to the different peoples of the Philippines.
“I’ve gotten through a third of the Guthe collections,” Trudeau said in an interview during the summer of 2022. His map will change, and he’s designing flexibility into the model now so that it can be built upon. Trudeau hopes his map improves the collection’s accessibility to future researchers and community members.
Madeline Bacolor, who graduated from LSA in 2021 with a project in the environment major and a minor in Earth science, serves as a ReConnect/ReCollect community liaison.
“I am Filipino American, and I wanted an opportunity to learn more about my identity,” Bacolor says. During her studies at LSA, Bacolor took the History and Cultures of the Philippines course with de la Cruz, and she especially enjoyed learning about precolonial settlements in the Philippines and periods of colonialism. When de la Cruz offered Bacolor a spot on the ReConnect/ReCollect team, Bacolor jumped at the chance to continue this research.
One of Bacolor’s favorite objects in the collection is a photograph of a young man named Mateo Francisco in the Clements Library. Her research into his life has made the photograph come alive for her.
Francisco was a Filipino 14-year-old who was made to collect for Steere during one of his expeditions. Francisco was instructed by Steere to disrupt burial grounds and obtain precolonial pottery that his ancestors had made. As a teenager, Francisco was taken to the U.S., where he lived for several years before returning to the Philippines.
Bacolor thinks that learning more about Francisco’s story, and what’s left out of it, is a way of reframing the collection. The unfinished story is one of many: in UMMAA, a box with a card catalog contains the handwritten names of Filipino people who both assisted and resisted Worcester and Guthe to amass these collections.
Returning the Philippine Collection stories to the Filipino American and Filipino community is one of the long-term goals of ReConnect/ReCollect.
“My dream is that as many Filipino Americans and Filipinos who want to can come and visit the collections,” Bacolor says. “I would love for us to create guided intergenerational trips to the collections.”
The most important part of her role now, Bacolor says, is building relationships. “The community members we talk with are the experts on their community. I want to know how we can be of service and how we can make our institution more accessible to the community—not just to academics. It’s a long process. We must be patient. We have to put in the time and maintain relationships.” Bacolor believes this patience will pay off, and she and the ReConnect/ReCollect team are already getting the word out with community members at U-M and beyond.
Alyssa Caldito, who recently completed her first year in LSA’s Health Sciences Scholars Program and serves in leadership in the Filipino American Students Association (FASA), has been researching and writing about some of the powerful objects in the collection as a UMMAA intern for the ReConnect/ReCollect project.
Caldito shares an image of an object from the UMMAA collections that she has been studying with Moss, a handsewn Filipino flag from the late 19th or early 20th century. It was collected by an American soldier in the Philippines, and had been banned during the early days of U.S. colonization and resistance. Stitched onto the flag in Tagalog are words that translate to “Our country will rise,” and a symbol indicating connection to a Philippine revolutionary group. Caldito is moved by the flag, and so are the friends from FASA with whom she has shared it. She mentions this flag’s similarities to the current Filipino flag, its defiance, and the rough beauty of the fabric preserved over nearly 100 years. “It was exciting to see our representation,” Caldito says.
But it’s not just the relatively modern objects in the collection that fascinate the students of FASA, this generation of the Filipino and Filipino American community at U-M. “A lot of us are really interested in the precolonial items,” Caldito says. She mentions the collections of musical instruments in the Stern collection, and weapons at UMMAA: spears, shields, and arrows from Central Northern Philippines ethnolinguistic groups. “We never got to learn about precolonial Philippines at school.”
Caldito and her partners in ReConnect/ReCollect are engaging in some tough conversations as they do this work.
“We have faced the challenge of ‘is this harm necessary to the story of the collections?’” Caldito says. “I personally find that important because of the violence of colonialism in the Philippines. It’s important to remember the harm inflicted by U-M colonialists upon the Philippines. They were taking exploitative photos, stealing artifacts, and harming Filipino women,” Caldito says. “Not everyone will want to delve into the emotionally harmful side of these collections," Caldito says. “It’s a big ask.”
But Caldito also recognizes the necessity of this difficult work in order to reach two goals of ReConnect/ReCollect: to acknowledge these harms, and then recenter Filipino people in the story of the collection.
When Caldito arrived at the annual Kalayaan Picnic in Warren, Michigan, last summer to celebrate Philippine Independence Day and to share ReConnect/ReCollect with the local community, she witnessed strong enthusiasm for public access to the collection. Community members told her that they wanted to see everything the collection has to offer. That’s why improving accessibility, gathering and organizing these objects, filling in key omissions, and repairing incorrect and harmful information is so vital, Caldito says. The community is waiting.
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A Note on the Future of the Collection:
“We are acutely aware that items collected/appropriated during the university’s early archaeological expeditions, including human remains, are painful and disturbing, especially to the communities from which they were taken. We are committed to find a path towards appropriate ways to acknowledge their presence, and develop ethical respectful stewardship, representation, and access. While Philippine materials are not covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the 1990 Federal law that provides for the repatriation and disposition of certain Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, the spirit of this law is instructive and inspiring for us. At the same time, we are mindful that what is applicable to Native American communities may not appropriately translate to other Indigenous collections, and in our case, the Philippine items here on campus. This year, the ReConnect/ReCollect project is initiating a series of conversations with individuals who possess relevant expertise on Philippine history and culture, representatives from different Filipino and Indigenous Peoples communities, and of course, UMMAA curators, staff, and university administrators. We want to deepen our understanding of the issues and develop a set of guidelines and protocols that can move us toward more tangible steps that UMMAA and the university could pursue in the future.” —Deirdre de la Cruz and Ricky Punzalan, ReConnect/ReCollect co-project leads
ReConnect/ReCollect is a collaborative project that invites and centers the voices of the Filipino diaspora.
Read undergraduate ReConnect/Recollect intern Alyssa Caldito on the historical context and cultural significance of objects from the Philippine Collection, and listen to three artists awarded project residencies discuss their work and what they found during their time in the archives of the Philippine Collection.
At first glance, this Philippine flag appears to be displayed upside-down, as the blue stripe is normally on top. Along with this change, the words “Kabinataang Baliwag” or “Youth of Baliwag” are placed where the flag’s iconic sun is usually placed, and the words “Magbangon Bayan” or “Rise, Country” are situated on the edges of the triangle. The KA on the corner of the triangle likely references the Katipunan, a nationalist rebel group that fought for Philippine independence from Spanish rule. This flag originated from the Ifugao Province in the Northern Philippines between 1909 and 1915, a time of great political turmoil: The Philippines had just declared independence from Spain in 1898 and was ready to establish itself as a new nation, even boasting a new national flag designed by its first president, Emilio Aguinaldo. The beginning of American Occupation of the Philippines sparked insurrection all over the country, causing the U.S. to ban images of the original Filipino flag. It is likely that this flag was created as a way for rebel groups in Ifugao and other areas in the northern Philippines to proudly display their defiance against the U.S. Occupation of the Philippines while intentionally flipping the flag upside down as a declaration of war, symbolizing courage and valor. This flag is currently housed at the Bentley Historical Library.
Maia Cruz Palileo’s work explores themes of joy and desire, migration, and a permeable context of home. Delving into archives of painful histories can feel like “walking off a colonial cliff,” Palileo says, but their practice seeks to “break the purpose” of colonial artifacts and play with their hidden parts. One way they do this is by stacking, altering, and painting over images, and another way can be seen in this painting, in which they remove subjects from those colonial conditions, and, as de la Cruz says of their work, “lovingly recontextualizes those subjects in beautiful hybrid landscapes.”
Francis Estrada takes images and personal correspondence from the collection and transforms these photographs and narratives. Here, in “Bagsak,” Estrada has made a drawing on vellum from Philippine-American war propaganda, and repurposed the image of a Filipino person who has fallen on a battlefield into a resting figure floating midair.
Janna Añonuevo Langholz is an interdisciplinary artist, photographer, and independent researcher. She is the caretaker of the Philippine Village Historical site in Missouri. Over 100 years ago, people from the Philippines were brought to be displayed in a human zoo at the St. Louis World’s Fair as a part of the cultural propaganda of U.S. imperialist rule. Langholz is working to restore the identity and names of every one of the approximately 1,200 Filipino people who were brought to populate the village, and properly marking the graves of people who died during the World’s Fair and who were buried in St. Louis. Langholz found a postcard in the Bentley archives that became the kernel of her residency project, and encouraged her to take another look at her own family’s photography archive.
This ceramic pot is part of a four-piece ceramic toy set that includes a miniature stove, cooking pot with lid, and frying pan. The miniature stove has three prongs that are meant to support each of the included pots. This set is part of a collection of ceramics that were sold in Batangas, Philippines, and its name, “Laruan sa Bata,” translates in English to “Children’s Toys.” The style of cooking pot is called a palayok, which has been used by Tagalog people throughout generations to cook. As many of the Tagalog people residing in Southern Luzon are farmers, the ceramic palayok was able to withstand long hours over a fire in order to slow-cook foods. Additionally, the ceramic was able to disperse the often uneven heat that was applied to the food, making sure everything cooked evenly. The product of this hard work was the enjoyment of a tender, savory meal like the favorites adobo or sinigang.
A salakot is a type of traditional Filipino hat. This unique salakot is made from a flatback turtle shell lined with an intricately decorated fabric, and a hexagonal design of crisscrossing rattan. The inner side of the salakot also features a neck strap made of interlocking metal rings, tied to the hat with dark blue string. The salakot were worn in the precolonial Philippines as a form of protection against sun and rain. They were made from a range of materials such as rattan and animal shells. This salakot comes from the flat back turtle, a rare species of turtle currently native to Australia and the Oceania region. Most of the scute, which is the colorful shell covering, is missing; it has likely flaked off over time. You can still see remnants of it around the rim. What is left is the bony structure of the shell. During Spanish colonization, the salakot was used as a way to differentiate the socioeconomic statuses of Filipinos. The more elaborately decorated a salakot was, the higher the class of its wearer. Eventually, salakots also became a symbol of revolution, as they were adopted by Ilustrados, a class of wealthy, educated Filipinos who sought intellectual independence from the Spaniards. This symbol of revolution continued into the American Occupation, and up to the present day, when climate activist groups have adopted the salakot as a symbol of the natural biodiversity of the Philippines and our need to protect it for future generations.
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