Saturday, December 06, 2008

The clue of the bloated boa

REMEMBER Ben Stiller’s fright in the “Night at the Museum”?

Stiller, a single father desperate for a job, gets hired to guard the Museum of Natural History. On his first duty, he discovers that a curse brings to life at midnight all the stuffed specimens and dioramas.

Dodging everything from a rain of poisoned arrows to a playful T. Rex fossil that wants to play “tag,” Stiller displays a bug-eyed horror.

I empathize. If I came face to face with history coming alive, my confusion may even be greater than the sum of my fears. Should I be scared for my life or for my wits?

I stepped into Ben Stiller’s shoes the afternoon I went to the Cebu Normal University Museum. I wanted to buy a copy of Manuel Segura’s “The Koga Papers,” which accounts how Cebuano and American resistance turned the tide in the fight against the Japanese during World War II.

My quest to locate the museum turned out to be a degree less arduous than if I had physically attempted to go back in time to identity the body fished out of Sangat Cove, crash site of a plane that may or may not have carried Admiral Mineichi Koga, commander of Japan’s Imperial Navy, according to Segura’s fascinating account.

University guards made a hasty conference when I inquired at the gate how to find the museum. When the directions finally came, it was a relief to hear that these were slightly more specific than “part the misty curtains of time.”

Bibliophile juices already flowing for Segura’s history, I slipped to the side of an imposing CNU building, stepped over a leaking faucet and overflowing drains, ducked under dripping eaves and skirted past a backdoor foyer that had a wet mop and a half-full dust pan welcoming visitors and history-chasers.

Why is our glorious past invariably reduced, if not to the tender ministrations of forgetting and whitewashing, then to the clinging and sopping-wet attention of janitorial industry?

Yet, when I reached the second floor and saw a crowd of student visitors milling around the exhibits in the hall outside the museum, I reflected that the CNU was more visionary than many colleges, which, for lack of funds or desire, maintain no museum.

(At the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College, where I teach, we have a cultural center that has stood empty for years and a library containing an extensive collection of journalism references that would be highly respectable had these been reclassified as genuine fossils.)

The students milling around the threshold parted to let me in. For a dispiriting second I wondered if they, like Stiller, mistook me for a museum piece that just stepped out for a leak.

My first glance inside the museum allayed my insecurity. There was barely space to move so the student visitors had to come in by batches. Informed at first that the book in-charge had stepped out and later that the museum was out of copies of “The Koga Papers,” I stayed to look around or, more accurately, allowed the current of pressing bodies to swirl me past milestones of our history.

University museums reveal the idiosyncrasies of the minds (or spirit) animating them. The former Southwestern University Museum awed me for its prehistoric gold (and the legends behind their acquisition). When I stand before the folk-carved santoses and images of Christ in the St. Theresa’s College Folklife Museum, I reflect why religion class failed to raise me to the paroxysms moving the untutored hands of fishermen, farmers and carpenters that carved, out of driftwood, shell and corn “hair,” an invisible but palpable faith

I hardly visit now a favorite, the University of San Carlos Museum. It has come to exude a strong whiff of mothball and guilt, reminding me of the industry and intellect of decades of university scholars (and my inadequacies in history-chasing).

But no such reservations held back my fellow visitors at the CNU Museum. The teenagers poked, stroked and even snapped their fingers at specimens of taxidermy. They flattened their noses and pressed shiny foreheads against glass cases containing rusty medals and other memorabilia.

Finally escaping with the human flow that let out of the museum one batch and let in the next one, I concluded that young people cannot read even three inch-high signs that warn, “Thank you for not touching the exhibits.”

But also with equal certainty, I realize that museums reach some hidden, unsuspected spot inside the young. Perhaps it is seeing and touching that infuses life into a past that otherwise lies inert in a heavy history tome.

If a constipated-looking stuffed boa constrictor with an acute complexion problem can do this, imagine what it will mean for the young and the memory-challenged to listen to the likes of born storytellers like Segura? 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 7, 2008 issue

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