Dr Nicole Tse, Claire Grech, Sabine Cotte and Pam Soriano, Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, The University of Melbourne
Earlier this year in April, the 5th Asia Pacific Tropical Climate Conservation Art Research Network (APTCCARN) Forum was held in Bohol, Philippines and co-hosted by the National Museum of the Philippines, the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation and SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts. Again the event drew together over 60 participants from across the Asia Pacific region and focused on the practical aftermath and realities of disaster preparedness and recovery.
Although this forum focussed on the central themes of APTCCARN to develop regionally relevant conservation responses, it differed from previous meetings in stressing the importance of knowledge sharing. In situating the conference in Bohol – an island in the centre of the Philippines- impacted by a major 2013 earthquake and the annual threat of floods and typhoons – awareness of the effect of natural disasters on cultural heritage, people and places, was ever present. It was a genuine chance to experience and hear the stories of the real events, journeys and future aspirations of parishioners, community, heritage professionals and spokespersons. The forum took the form of dynamic group activities and site visits, culminating in a series of practical sharing sessions and assessments for the ecclesiastical collections held by the Parishes in Maribojoc, Cortes, and Antequera.
The intended themes of the forum were disaster recovery and cultural materials conservation in the community; to investigate the dynamics of change; recent and shared experiences; and cultural materials salvage, rehabilitation, revitalisation and management. In truth, some of these were discussed more effectively and with more clarity than others, but what was most refreshing was the emergence of other themes. These resonated through many of the talks, starting with the opening sessions by the Honourable and Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., and Governor Edgardo Chatto. Provincial Governor of Bohol. From the start with the unexpected weather and delay in flights of our opening keynotes, we were reminded of the need for flexibility and how unpredictable climates are part of the ‘new normal’. For the 5th APTCCARN, April was deliberately chosen as the last month of summer before the typhoon season, but this was clearly wrong.
Themes such as flexibility, optimism and resilience of the Parishioners and community were central to discussions, which then transpired to the recovery and salvage efforts of the cultural heritage in the aftermath of the earthquake. Rather than relegating the damaged churches and collections to the status of a ruin, and in stabilising and building the social fabric of the community, the government and church now promote Bohol as a ‘heritage conservation laboratory’ and supports it as such. The scale of work is huge, but the will and investment is present, and the heritage destruction is being viewed as an opportunity to build new opportunities for a community of artists, youth and heritage workers. We certainly saw such work in the presentation by Mr Angel Bautista (National Museum of the Philippines) and Mr Larry Cruz (National Historical Commission of the Philippines) where within three years so much has been achieved. The scale and co-ordination is impressive. While sitting in the temporary parish of Maribojoc, we could at the same time experience the scale of the work and how quickly the site had been cleared, the ecclesiastical collections retrieved and temporary infrastructure put into place.
Overwhelmingly, the importance of community engagement, volunteerism, support, and participation was highlighted as integral to the success of recovery efforts. This was exemplified in the cases of Maribojoc Parish and the tireless efforts of Ma’am Fe and StarDust volunteers, the Mayor of Cortes, and Ms Perlina Alo at Baclayon Church. The people in the parishes of Maribojoc, Antequera and Cortes kindly opened their storage places and explained the various issues they encountered post disaster recovery; we thank them deeply for this.
It was also ratifying for Dr Rujaya Abhakorn, Centre Director of SEAMEO SPAFA, to provide a background and framework for the collaboration and support for the ASEAN delegates from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. SEAMEO SPAFA participation also celebrates the 50 years of ASEAN, with the Philippines as the official chair, emphasising regional approaches. While the collaboration between the National Museum of the Philippines and the University of Melbourne celebrates 70 years of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Australia. And the University of Melbourne has a long relationship with the Province of Bohol, having first worked with Father Ted Torralba 20 years ago on church heritage. We were reminded that political value and policy alignment are necessary mechanisms for cultural conservation work.
We were treated to Father Ted’s humorous and insightful keynote. His sermon was thought provoking and entertaining, and he recounted how his lengthy sermons often went over lunch. Again resilience and opportunity resonated with Bohol viewed as a ‘heritage conservation laboratory’ having moved on from its earlier classification as ‘Bohol as the centre of Church heritage’. The intention to Build Bohol Back Better (also echoing Sabine Cotte’s talk on Nepal) and the laboratory as a place for improvement, highlights the leadership of the Diocese of Tagbilaran. Director Jeremy Barns from the National Museum, commented on the value and opportunity for capacity building that the disasters had in effect created. Many of us would remember the raw experiences Father Ted and Jeremy Barnes first shared with us at ICOM-CC Melbourne in 2014.
In true Asian diplomacy, we shared ideas and ate well. Overall there was diverse and wide ranging experiences of disasters and their effects on heritage from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Talks by local experts included Professor Maricor Soriano’s imaging of Spanish-era maps of Metro Manila and Cebu in order to discover lost bodies of water, that may pose a threat to human life and cultural heritage during flooding events; Ms Maria Lourdes Po’s presentation on the importance of documentation in the everyday preventive care of collections, and how documentation can be mobilised to assist during disaster preparation and recovery efforts of collections; and Ms Josephine Francisco’s practical guide to caring for paper-based objects following disasters, including recommendations of equipment and resources. Mr Robert Balarbar exposed the resource realities of disaster response and the difference between the risks immediately after the event (event risks) and the risks to the collection after the initial allocation of funds, time and resources has waned (progressive risk). Engineer Jainab Aimee Tahil-Altillero argued the case for and provided an example of interdisciplinary teams and their benefits during disaster response.
The SEAMEO SPAFA session papers highlighted the myriad of disasters that collections in Southeast Asia have suffered, and the resilience and ingenuity used to prepare, salvage, and conserve collections for these events, including an inspired storage cage to secure objects during earthquakes presented by Ms Septina Wardhani. While the risks associated with flooding and potential for damage was highlighted by Ms Thi Anh Van Huynh from Vietnam and Ms Puangporn Srisomboon from Thailand, the latter who also demonstrated the necessity of understanding damage through conservation science in order to facilitate conservation of objects. Mr Thein Lwin from Myanmar presented the conservation and restoration works that have been undertaken on Bagan Cultural Heritage Region following the 6.5 magnitude earthquake in August, 2016. Mr Zamrul Amri bin Zakaria’s talk revealed how not all countries in the region have been devastated by natural disasters, such as Malaysia, but how all needed to have disaster plans in place in this era of climate change so that we can be prepared for uncertainties.
Other talks by Anne Carter, Christine Ianna, and Professor Robyn Sloggett highlighted the vulnerability of Australian collections to flooding, and the preventive and recovery efforts taken on an institution and community/personal level, and the importance of at-distance support networks. This was also echoed in the presentations by Ms Pattayarach Thamwongsa and Ms Wanvisa Woraward, whose talk was situated in the context of Thailand’s expansive network of local museums, and strategies for building capacity through dissemination of conservation and preservation knowledge in an accessible and relevant way. While informative presentations on seismic risk and preventive strategies were given by Ms Amy Heffernan of the Grimwade Centre.
We want to sustain this collaboration and continue these conversations. To this effect, we will upload some of the resource documents on the APTCCARN website shortly, and you can see the @aptccarn_ , @aptccarn, #aptccarn tags from the forum curated by Asialink Resident Rosie Cook now in Taiwan.
The local organising is thanked deeply especially Assistant Director Dr Ana Labrador of the National Museum and her team Engineer Jainab Aimee Altillero, Robert Balarbar, Camille, Michelle, Sunshine, and Dominic and the National Museum Field Office of Tagbilaran Ms Athena Vitor, Engr. and MC Joel Dahiroc, and Mr Charlie Tantingco.
Finally the forum was made possible with the support of the Australian Government through the Australian-ASEAN Council of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Diocese of Bohol and Provincial Government of Bohol. Four young Australian conservators continued their work in Bohol after the forum with the support of DFAT and Rosie Cook, Amy Heffernan, Elizabeth Long and Karen Wilcox will report on this soon.
Thank you everyone and until the next APTCCARN (so far we have been in Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and Australia).