The stuff was left behind by the Marcoses when they hastily fled their Palace in February 1986 at the height of the Edsa People Power Revolt. Two years ago it was transferred to an unused, padlocked hall in the museum, and left there untouched. Not until the room was flooded by recent monsoon rains through a leak in the ceiling was the stash brought to light by shocked, apparently clueless employees.
The news made headlines in the international media. The world has always been fascinated by Imelda’s legendary collection of shoes, which “became a symbol of excess in a nation where many still walked around barefoot in abject poverty”, as one report put it.
At least 1,220 pairs of shoes, along with gowns, designer bags and scores of the late strongman’s signature barong, are among items found to have suffered extensive, perhaps irreparable, damage.
Who to blame for this? Some curators and employees of the National Museum have pointed to museum director Jeremy Barns and his deputy, Ana Labrador, for their failure to follow “basic, standard museum best practice and procedure” when they initiated the transfer of the Marcos belongings to the museum.
The transfer, said the employees, was done “without their knowledge”, and thus, no proper inspection and conservation measures were performed before the collection was stashed away.
The Palace has tried to downplay the incident by saying the clothes had “no historical significance”, except perhaps some of the former first lady’s gowns made by prominent Filipino designers such as Pitoy Moreno and Joe Salazar.
This is deeply disingenuous, and symptomatic of the culture of neglect for history and memory that continues to afflict not only Philippine officialdom but also its citizens.
What was the Palace’s basis, after all, for the hasty dismissal of the historical value of the Marcoses’ personal effects? No proper inventory has been made, let alone any cursory attempt to determine how these figured in the day-to-day goings-on of the dictatorship.
Extravagance has become the catch-all explanation for the staggering volume of possessions that the couple, especially Imelda, had accumulated. But that is only half the picture. In their time, the Marcoses were determined to exploit the power of imagery and display to burnish the myth of the New Society and the Filipino “royal family” that ruled over it.
Imelda famously said she needed to be dressed in all those fancy gowns and jewellery because: “I am my little people’s star and slave. When I go out into the barrios, I get dressed because I know my little people want to see a star. Other presidents’ wives have gone to the barrios wearing house dresses and slippers. That’s not what people want to see. People want someone they can love, someone to set an example”.
And Ferdinand? He junked the Western formal attire in favour of the indigenous barong, sometimes modified with a Mao collar, not only to appeal to nationalist sentiment but also, and more crucial to his authoritarian designs, to affirm the self-made legend of himself as the simple boy from Batac, Ilocos Norte, who rose to become the quintessential Filipino – decorated soldier, lifelong patriot and world statesman.
Might the fine ternos and gowns Imelda brought on her many international travels – to meet with Mu’ammar Gadhafi, for instance – be among those decaying clothes at the National Museum? Or any of the barong that Marcos wore on a state visit to the Reagan White House, for example, or when he appeared on TV a couple of days after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination, sick and bloated, to peddle the story that it was the communists who did it to embarrass his administration?
With the likes of one-time Marcos protégé Senator Juan Ponce Enrile revising history with his newly released memoir – and President Benigno Aquino and other personages attending the launch – losing more physical evidence of the Marcos years is a sure way to further rob us of memory.
“If we lose our memory, we lose ourselves,” the author Ivan Klima warns. Termites and typhoons are getting the blame, but the real fault lies in ourselves.