The Travels of Ayala Museum’s Philippine Pre-Colonial Gold (Aprille Tijam, Philippines, ITP 2019)

Written by Aprille Tijam, Senior Manager, Exhibitions and Collections, Ayala Museum (ITP 2019, Philippines)

Objects and artworks from a museum’s collection are cultural ambassadors that initiate and promote conversations among museums, and countries. Through international loan exchanges, cultural diplomacy takes the lead allowing countries to connect on various levels. 

As officer-in-charge of managing overseas loans at Ayala Museum, Philippines, I had the opportunity to undertake collaborations for exhibitions and international loan exchanges with members of the diplomatic corps in the Philippines, museums overseas, and with Philippine embassies in select countries where we have bilateral agreements. And the journey to international loans is best shared through the many procedures undertaken for the different loan exchanges that transpired over the years in presenting Ayala Museum’s pre-colonial gold collection in exhibitions overseas.  

From April 9 to July 14, 2013, the kinnari (a vessel shaped into a half-bird, half-woman), considered to be the most admired pre-colonial gold piece in the Ayala Museum’s collection, was loaned to form part of the exhibition Philippines, archipels des échanges at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris. Curated by Constance de Monbrison, head of the Insulinde collections at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, and Corazon Alvina, former National Museum of the Philippines Director, it was the “first major exhibition dedicated to the Philippine archipelago in France in the last twenty years, in which more than 300 works are presented… from Philippine, American, European public collections, as well as private collections”. It focused on the premise that “its geographical location and the history of its settlement have generated strong and varied artistic expressions in the natural environment of Monsoon Asia. Based on the geography of the archipelago, two looks, one turned towards the mountain, the other towards the sea set the tone for this exhibition of civilization underpinned by the common thread of the exchange. Exchange understood as an object that gives and takes itself, gives itself to see and supposes a relationship to the other. Symbolic or commercial, the exchange connects visible or invisible beings.” (musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac – Production – musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac – Philippines).

Processing a Loan Agreement normally takes time—going back and forth to review and finalise. This document outlines the responsibilities of the borrower and lender. And one consideration that is particularly important in international loans is investigating which laws will prevail—the borrower’s or the lender’s? The export permits and insurance coverage were undertaken months ahead as it was the first time that Ayala Museum was loaning a pre-colonial gold piece overseas. Of utmost concern was the safety and security of the object during the transfer to and from Paris, with a courier to hand-carry, transiting via a country that we did not have any agreement with related to the transit travel or export of a cultural object. Luckily, all went well with the transit. The kinnari was borrowed together with two limestone burial jars, a gador (a prestigious, large metal container used in Maranao households), and a kulintangan (a Maranao musical instrument with eight gongs of graduated sizes encased in a wooden frame with okir design) from the Ayala Museum collection. And prior to the exhibition launch in Paris, a media conference was hosted by the Embassy of France in the Philippines, held at Ayala Museum, to announce and celebrate the cultural collaboration between France and the Philippines. 

Together with more than one hundred Philippine pre-colonial gold objects, this same kinnari travelled then to New York City from September 11 2015 to January 3 2016 for the exhibition Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms at the Asia Society Museum in New York. The majority of the exhibition objects were loaned from Ayala Museum and Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines) collections. These were augmented by select pre-colonial gold objects from the Locsin Foundation, another Philippine collection, never shown in the United States, and other Philippine cultural materials from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Boxer Codex from the Lilly Library. Curated by Dr. Florina H. Capistrano-Baker, former Ayala Museum Director, and Dr. Adriana Proser, John H. Foster, Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art at Asia Society, they expressed that these excavated gold pieces “highlight the prosperity and achievements of the little-known Philippine kingdoms that flourished long before the Spanish discovered the region and colonised it. The exhibition, which comprises approximately 120 objects from the 10th-13th century, demonstrates sophisticated gold-working techniques developed during this period” (Philippine Gold | Asia Society).  This collaboration was fully supported by the Ambassador of the Philippines to the U.S. Jose L. Cuisia, Jr.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT TO RIGHT:  Ear ornaments (photos 1-2), container, and waistband. ca. 10th-13th century. Gold. Ayala Museum Collection. Photos by Neal Oshima, courtesy of Ayala Museum.

The loan processing and preparations were more extensive as this involved a greater number of pre-colonial gold pieces temporarily exported for cultural exchange. The organisation and transfer proceedings were treated with the highest level of security measures: from the time of packing and crating, to transfer from points of origins, during palletising, loading into the plane, while in transit with authorised couriers, and upon arrival at JFK airport in New York.

I had the extraordinary experience of taking very active participation in all the procedures conducted in the Philippines, culminating in witnessing the loading of the crates to the Airbus A340-300 at the airport tarmac. Two shipments were facilitated with a courier each from Ayala Museum and Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. It was my first time to collaborate with counterparts at Asia Society New York to process documentations to ensure that the loans are covered by the Immunity from Seizure Act under United States law. A notice was published in a US national newspaper months before the start of the exhibition to announce that these objects are officially on loan from the Philippines and will return after the scheduled exhibition.

And recently, two pre-colonial gold objects from the Ayala Museum’s collection travelled to Abu Dhabi for a one-year loan at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. A full-face mask excavated from Butuan, Agusan del Norte and a cup from Nabua, Camarines Sur were installed in the permanent galleries of Louvre Abu Dhabi in line with its “mission of celebrating the universal creativity of mankind—inviting audiences to see humanity in a new light.”  According to Louvre Abu Dhabi, the full-face mask “places emphasis on immortality being the universal hope of mankind when faced with death. This artefact is currently showcased alongside others from the Levant and South America that exemplify this shared tradition.” The cup, on the other hand, “highlights the striking similarity of Filipino works with the Chinese gold and silverwares acquired by Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2019—allowing for the development of geographical coverage from the topic of precious metal trades in the galleries, including Chinese and Islamic connection as well as South-East Asia”. (1) Louvre Abu Dhabi | Facebook. (Louvre Abu Dhabi Unveils 1st Filipino Loans from a first of its kind partnership with Ayala Museum). These will be on view beginning from June 2022 to June 2023, as part of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s 5th year anniversary celebration. I look forward to the audience engagement programmes that Louvre Abu Dhabi will organise in connection with this loan.

MASK (middle) at the Louvre Abu Dhabi Grand Vestibule.
Butuan, Agusan del Norte. ca. 10th-13th century. Gold. Ayala Museum Collection. 
Object photo by Neal Oshima, courtesy of Ayala Museum. Installation photo courtesy of Mariam Al Dhaheri, Louvre Abu Dhabi.

This collaboration between Ayala Museum, under Museum Director Mariles Gustilo, and Louvre Abu Dhabi, under its Museum Director Manuel Rabate, was fully supported by the Philippine Embassy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), under the leadership of Her Excellency Hjayceelyn Quintana who was most enthusiastic to share this cultural exchange between UAE and the Philippines to one million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) registered this year in the UAE. (3) Philippine Embassy in UAE | Facebook

New procedures were observed in processing the export permits for these cultural properties, in compliance with the restructured export regulations by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in the Philippines, as well as new guidelines set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for courier travels in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And documentations ensuring immunity from seizure and all-risk insurance coverage were also in place prior to travel of the objects from the Philippines to Abu Dhabi.

Gold cup

CUP. Nabua, Camarines Sur. ca. 10th-13th century.  Gold
Ayala Museum Collection
Photo by Neal Oshima, courtesy of Ayala Museum

Through international loan exchanges, appreciation of Philippine cultural patrimony is highly promoted to Filipinos all over the world. And these pre-colonial gold objects create dialogues as well with other cultures while on exhibit overseas. Lectures, art programmes, guided tours, and other forms of audience engagements were organised as part of the international loans. Exhibition catalogues were also published.  And through the years, I continue to learn from the nuances in loan exchange procedures per country and I am delighted to meet exhibition managers, collections managers, curators, conservators, and professional art movers from different museums, from different countries. 

Kenneth Esguerra (Ayala Museum’s Senior Curator and Head of Conservation); Manuel Rabate (Louvre Abu Dhabi Director); Her Excellency Ambassador Hjayceelyn Quintana (Philippine Embassy in UAE); Mariam Al Dhaheri (Louvre Abu Dhabi Curatorial Assistant); and Souraya Noujaim (Louvre Abu Dhabi Scientific, Curatorial & Collections Management Director) during the installation of the two pre-colonial gold loaned by Ayala Museum to Louvre Abu Dhabi.

L-R: Kenneth Esguerra (Ayala Museum’s Senior Curator and Head of Conservation); Manuel Rabate (Louvre Abu Dhabi Director); Her Excellency Ambassador Hjayceelyn Quintana (Philippine Embassy in UAE); Mariam Al Dhaheri (Louvre Abu Dhabi Curatorial Assistant); and Souraya Noujaim (Louvre Abu Dhabi Scientific, Curatorial & Collections Management Director) during the installation of the two pre-colonial gold loaned by Ayala Museum to Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Photo courtesy of Neil Bie, Assistant Editor, The Filipino Times, UAE.

While the two objects are away, more than 1,000 pre-colonial gold objects remain on view in the permanent exhibition Gold of Ancestors: Pre-colonial Treasures in the Philippines at Ayala Museum, which can be enjoyed by visitors from the Philippines and other countries.

Philippine gold display Ayala Museum