Transcript: Interview with NMP Director General Jeremy Barns

The following is the transcript of my interview with National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) Director General Jeremy Barns. I have decided to publish it in full to serve as reference on the issue over the Boljoon pulpit panels. The interview is too long to be contained in a single news article.

The article that came out of this interview was published on Rappler: Pulpit panels will be returned, National Museum head assures Cebuanos

For those interested, the transcription was done using OpenAI Whisper. I just needed to do some minor cleaning and correction of the transcription.

Interview with NM Director General Jeremy Barns

April 1, 2024 8:44 pm

JB: Hello, good evening.
ML: Hello, good evening, Director Barnes?
JB Yes. Hi, this is Max?
ML: Yes, Max Limpag.
JB: Nice to meet you. I’ve been reading your stuff. But we haven’t met. Have we met before?
ML: No, no, not yet. I wasn’t there when… Were you in the opening of the Cebu NM?
JB: Yes, yes, last July lang. Though it feels like so long ago already.
ML: I wasn’t able to join that.
JB: Yeah, I met a fair few journalists, so I wasn’t sure if we’d met then. But anyway, yeah, thanks for reaching out. I knew we would probably get to talk one of these days. Yeah, so how can I help?

ML: Is it okay if I record this call? I want to make sure that I get the quotes right. And if you want, I can share a recording.
JB: Sure, I suppose, yeah. I guess we’re both up to date on what happened today in the provincial board. Yeah, so okay, no worries.

ML: Yes, the board gave authorization to Governor Garcia to file, its word, “appropriate case” against National Museum officials and, again from the resolution, any person who kept the said panels after it was stolen. The legal team is currently finalizing the case, but I was told by a source within the team that majority of the team support filing a case for violation of the anti-fencing law. I was also told that they will file an ARTA complaint because the National Museum, according to the resolution, never answered daw the letter of Governor Garcia requesting for the return of the panels. What can you say about it?
JB: Okay, yeah, so that’s quite a lot. And yeah, I’ve been digesting this news. Well, keeping track of the issue in Cebu, we know, well, I know that the prospect of violation of anti-fencing has been brought up before. And we’ve been asked about that in various places and in our discussions with our sister agencies like the NCCA.

And we’ve consulted the Office of the Solicitor General as to whether there might be any basis, (whether) there was a violation of the anti-fencing law. Because when we did our due diligence before accepting the donation, we also looked at that. Because maybe this is a chance for me to make it clear that when the donors approached us with their offer to donate and we got information about the objects, we knew immediately that they were from Boljoon Church originally. So just to be clear, that’s actually what got us excited.

Because we knew about lots of missing objects from Boljoon through the years long ago. And we were excited because, you know, this offer to donate to us would be a chance to bring these back into the public light. Because we know that with Boljoon as well as many other churches that a lot of things left the churches and ended up in private collections and even abroad. And this is a big concern for us.

It’s something that makes us feel quite sad that a lot of our heritage was privatized this way. Even though churches, strictly speaking, are also private property, they have a public character, of course, that we can all enjoy visiting the churches. And most of our churches have already been emptied of all their heritage objects. And, you know, the museum is very mindful that we can, in the course of our work, help to bring things back to the public.

You know, and it’s not the first time that we have helped bring things back to the church. It’s just that in this case, the donor made clear their wish that the National Museum would be the donee and not just to facilitate bringing it back to this church or that church as we’ve done in the past. We’ve helped bring back quite a few objects, mostly from the US, and brought them back to the churches from where they were. Well, usually they were looted during the Philippine-American War, you know, so that kind of case.

So in this case, we, you know, the donor made it clear that they wanted to entrust it to the museum. And the museum was free, naman, to explore with Boljoon, basta, I mean, to, you know, how to bring them there, share them there. These are the terms we use there because it was clear that the gift was to the National Museum and bahala na ang National Museum to protect them, conserve them, and make them accessible, including bringing them to Cebu, maybe our museum there, or, you know, was an option. And or even bringing them to Boljoon.

If we wanted to we would continue to uphold our obligation to preserve and protect and, you know, and so on and so forth. So it’s a little bit tricky. But in my mind, there’s never any doubt that we could discuss and explore this. And initially, we’re excited after unveiling them that we would soon bring them to Cebu City.

And then, and then from there, you know, start dialoguing and reaching out to Boljoon, especially Boljoon because, you know, it’s one of our cherished heritage sites ever since. The National Museum was the one who declared, which declared, it a national cultural treasure. We have been pushing it for World Heritage status. And that, you know, so we really care about Boljoon.

We did the archaeology there with Dr. Bersales and San Carlos team. So Boljoon is one of the places in Cebu we really care about and cherish and want to promote. And so we’re, from the start, we’re really looking forward to that.

And we’re still looking forward to that. And in the statement that my office put out before, I think we only have the one statement, but we were encouraging people to think that, you know, this gift was a really good thing. And it, you know, that it was brought back into the public domain. And the museum is the kind of institution that can work for win-win solutions with the community, with the stakeholders.

And everyone can be assured that, first and foremost, would be the preservation of the objects. And, you know, of course, the original community, original context is important to us. Of course, we look to the Catholic Church as one of our pillars of our cultural heritage, our faith heritage. So, yeah, that’s where we are coming from.

So, of course, we know what happened for various reasons. I think there are really some sense of historical loss. We, you know, a lot of the reaction turned negative against the museum. And, well, we told ourselves that we have to educate everyone or do our part to assure everyone that our role is a very positive role, that we are not just another collector.

We are not in it for… I mean, no one… You know, the museum exists to do good work. And the people we’ve talked to acknowledge that and acknowledge that there’s a process.

We’ve talked to Mayor Derama and Boljoon Sanggunian. I think almost all of them came to the museum in February. My chairman went to visit the governor. And he’s scheduled to visit with Archbishop Palma, who is coming back from Rome. I think he’s been away for a while with the Holy Father. So sometime mid-April, they have an appointment. And we’ll take it from there. We’ll probably be able to announce our action on what we’re going to do sometime in May.

We have a board meeting, and this will be discussed. The board has to approve this kind of thing because we’re talking about an item that is part of our collection. And if we are to do things with our collection, our board needs to approve. That’s why our chairman, who’s also, I think, a well-known Cebuano, is the one taking the lead in meeting with the Governor and meeting with the Archbishop.

So I hope that the impression is that we’re acting on the concerns that have been raised. We’re acting on all the resolutions that have been passed and received by us from Boljoon, from the province, from the diocese, archdiocese, even from the Augustinians in Cebu.

And I know that my colleague, NCCA chairman Ino Manalo, also called on the governor and went to Boljoon. And he reported back saying that he gave assurances that this would work out in a win-win fashion. So we’re quite happy that things are moving in the right direction. We’re looking forward to working things out with the archdiocese as the former or original owner.

Where we seem to differ with a lot of people is our position is that our information, how they were lost from the church, is that the parish priest sold them.

So we didn’t look at it as a theft because this kind of sale by the parish priest is very widely known and happened everywhere and even still continues to happen. So that’s why we object to people saying they are stolen property. What the arch, even the archdiocese or the archbishop in his statement didn’t say they’re stolen. It’s just that there’s no record of any authorization to sell them.

So these are things that we wanted to discuss whether these panels, like many other objects, were unauthorizedly sold. But what is the position of the archdiocese? Are all the priests who did that now going to be, if we’re saying that that was theft, so are all the priests who did that now officially thieves? And we don’t really want to go there.

But that’s something that we would encourage the church to work out so that we can maybe have a policy on trying to recover like the way we’re trying to recover these kinds of church heritage that we think is also like a national heritage. So it’s a bit tricky and that’s why it’s important to have a good meeting with the archbishop and even his brother bishops in the CBCP so that when we settle the Boljoon issue, it will also serve as a model for other churches, other parishes and dioceses.

So because we disagree from the start that they are stolen goods, we disagree also with those who take the position that the anti-fencing law applies. And I think the Office of the Solicitor General, they gave an opinion to Chairman Manalo.

He asked for them to ask whether anti-fencing might apply and they said, well, first the owner or the former owner or the original owner should demonstrate that they were stolen because there’s no doubt in the mind that the panels used to be with the archdiocese in the church. No doubt about that. But then number two, they were stolen. We have to see what is the truth there.

And then number three, of course, for anti-fencing to apply, we had to already know beforehand that they were stolen and yet we accepted them anyway. And that doesn’t follow because we don’t believe that they are officially or legally stolen. And then number four, if I get my law on anti-fencing right, the accuser also has to prove that we did this all for personal gain. And of course, the museum, in accepting this gift, is not in it for any gain, right?

We’re doing it because we see it as part of our mandate to gather together these things for the benefit of the people, which was a no-brainer for us in the case of Boljoon on being such an important heritage site, national cultural treasure, the panels themselves being of a rare and intact kind of quality. And yeah, so I know I’m just talking, but that’s my reaction to the governor’s legal team when they say that there might be anti-fencing bases.

We respectfully differ from them and we believe that anti-fencing will not apply here. Yeah, because yeah, rest assured Max and everyone, all your readers, that we did our due diligence.

We moved to act ethically because we’ve also been accused by some parties of acting unethically, but we differ from that. We did what we thought was our duty, that the higher purpose was to bring back into the public what was private for 40 years through a chain of private owners to bring it back into the public and use our position to share them back with the Cebuanos and if possible with Boljoanons specifically.

And then this would help level up Boljoon because we have other plans there like to help with the museum there, the archaeological site, to level up the place and prepare it for the World Heritage Listing which in the last year we’ve been trying to mobilize World Heritage nominees. So lots of plans, like I promised when we opened the museum in Cebu last year, I said this is the start of many plans or hopes of the National Museum, for the province.

We have plans for Boljoon, we have plans for San Remigio and other sites. Our museum is doing really well, I think, from the feedback I’m getting. So we’re really happy and we’re already hoping to start expanding out of Malacanang sa Sugbu, out of the Aduana, hoping to, well, maybe this part is off the record,


ML: I was there during the meeting between Gov and NCCA with Chair Manalo and Joebers told Governor Garcia that there was a commitment to return the panels but Chair Manalo said the final decision is with NMP. So the process is…
JB: Yes, yes.
ML: It will be made in May?
JB: Both, you can… All right, we’re back on the record now. I think both are correct. I mean, I think we made our commitment clear.

If we set the ownership issue, whether National Museum owns it or because it can be proved it was stolen, ownership goes back to the archdiocese, we can let that play out. We can let that play out. But while we own it, we are happy to commit to finding ways to bring them to Cebu and Boljoon and share them appropriately. So I don’t…

We maybe we’ll.. form a committee or something, if need be. But we have to assess whether these, and they’re quite fragile, and when we bring them to Cebu, you can look at them, anyone can look at them, they’re quite fragile. And we have to assess whether it’s the best thing to put them back in the pulpit or put them in the museum and make a perfect repro to put in the pulpit while the original is next door in the convento in a controlled environment.

Those are the, that’s why our wording is medyo vague when we say we will share them, we will find ways. It’s because there are ways naman that we can make, I think, all sides happy. We can easily have an agreement with the archdiocese that until something happens, let it be National Museum property, but we will put it there.

So for the community, does it make a difference? For the governor, does it make a difference? Maybe yes, maybe no, that’s why we’ll explore pa. But while they are our property, because they were given to us and the deed of the nation is like a contract, we have to abide by that, unless it’s somehow voided because it’s illegal, or we’ll abide by that, and we will try for a win-win.

And I think from what Mayor Derama told Director Tirol, who’s our director for Visayas, they would be open, or they would welcome National Museum to be in Boljoon.

Of course, we’re already in Cebu City, so I hope like the whole, the whole Cebuanos are happy with what we’ve done so far and that they want more of what we’re doing around Cebu. So that’s kind of the direction. I’m encouraging us to move in, and my boss, my chairman is kind of on the same page, although he’s waiting for his meeting with Archbishop Palma, and we’ll see what we can do. But you can be assured, Max, and everyone who’s concerned, we don’t have any other agenda.

Yeah, we wanna do the right thing by the donors because we believe that they were the owners and they gave it to us and we’re responsible under the terms of our donation. I understand you got a copy of that. So we have to abide by that. At the same time, we are very mindful of what people are wishing for and, well, even demanding for.

So yeah, we’re the, you know, we’re the, all right, don’t quote this anymore because it’s a little corny, but we do try to be the good guys, really. And if I feel bad about anything, it’s like so many people out there are so quick to think so badly of institutions like the National Museum where we’re really trying to do, to make good things happen there, you know?

So- And I don’t know. That’s why when people bring this up with me, I’m like, do you really think National Museum did something wrong by bringing this, you know, these panels into the light, by announcing that they were with us?

I mean, or even by accepting the donation because some people say that was bad. We should have reported our donors to the police or something. And I’m like, really? I mean, do you really think we did a bad thing?

I mean, maybe we can do bad things moving forward, but I’m telling everyone that we wanna do the right thing, talaga. So just wait for it and see because, you know, I think naman we have a good track record around the country that, you know, we’re really a dedicated institution for the national community. And we’ll get there. So maybe people are impatient.

Maybe the governor is impatient. I don’t know. But these things take time. There’s a couple of, you know, different sets of stakeholders.

And, but as I said, the archbishop is available mid-April. And so we’ll talk to him. And then we’ll take it from there. The aim is to get a course of action approved in May by the board of the National Museum.

And then I think everyone will be happy now.

ML: So the question on the return of the panels is separate from the question on the ownership of the panels?
JBYeah, I think so. Because when we say we’re exploring the return, we’re doing it from the point of view that we own the panels.

Therefore, you know, we’re in a position to enforce our requirements, our requirements, you know, like safety and security for the panels, accessibility, and all of that. Yeah, of course it has to be separate because, you know, I don’t think it would make anyone happy if we just say, you know, let’s take it to court and just wait for what happens, muna. I mean, that’s unnecessarily adversarial, I think, because, you know, it’s not our intention to fight the archdiocese or the governor or the mayor or anyone. So, yeah, if these are truly ours, at least for the moment, we need to do our thing and follow our own procedures.

ML: Yeah. Yeah. Has the incident made you go over all your other items and maybe think, because we know, of course, this has been happening for so long, and even the church, well, admitted that some priests may have sold church items in the past, and some of these items may have ended in the National Museum or other institutions.

JB: Yes, for sure, there are many.

Unfortunately, most of our sacred art, as we call it, most of our sacred art, we don’t know where they came from. Some items we do, and we don’t hide that. Like one of our major pieces is a retablo from Dimiao, Bohol. And, you know, the Diocese of Tagbilaran knows about it, and our friends in Bohol, they all know about it.

But they did their fact-checking, and yeah, the priest sold it. Yes, the priest didn’t have authorization either, but they chose, I guess, not to make an issue out of it. And that was highlighted by Jaime Laya in his Bulletin column, Bulletin column, because he was the one who bought it in the 70s. He bought it for the National Museum.

And he knew where it came from. The tragedy is that that retablo was like one of five. The retablo we have was like one of five. It was a retablo menor.

If you go to Dimiao now, there are five altars, all new. There’s the main one, the retablo mayor, and then there’s like two or four minor ones. Ours is only one of the minor ones, so the question is, what happened to the others? And Dr. Laya tells me they were probably broken up, sold in pieces. And, you know, that’s what makes me cry, that for every piece that’s preserved in a museum or a collection, there are many others that were just broken up, and their provenance is gone, lost, forgotten. There are many places you can buy items that obviously came from churches, but there’s no information that goes with them. Kung san galing.

And it’s really sad. There are other national government collections that have more than we do. You know, the Intramuros Administration, their collection is the richest when it comes to sacred art. And that is all, you know, all from different churches from different parts of the country. Some identified, some are not, or most are not, but maybe with more crowdsourcing and more dissemination, we can find out more about where they originated.

ML: Among the solutions that they discussed here, and I think it was upon the suggestion of Commissioner Henares, was the setting up of like a registry or even using the existing heritage registry to list all these stolen items. What do you think about that?
JB: Yeah, I’m all for it. No, I mean, before my friends went to Cebu, we met. I offered to join them, but they said, just in case NCCA has to be impartial. Yeah, no, this is, we’re all agreed that, you know, there’s a lot of work to be done and that successfully resolving this case with the Boljoon panels could give a lot of public, lead to a lot of public awareness. And if it’s handled right, meaning that like our donor, halimbawa, is not demonized, you know, sana would encourage more private collectors to donate, and if they don’t want to donate to a church, then donating to somewhere like National Museum should be a good option, because then National Museum will work on it and research and try to identify and bring back, you know, in some way.

But again, I’m being vague about that because we still haven’t resolved this one and we don’t know yet how it will go exactly, especially if the governor is going to, if, you know, if the governor is gonna be upset like this, I don’t know what I can do to tell her that we’re working on it. I know that, so you were in the meeting with Chair Ino. I mean, he gave assurances and I told him he could give assurances on National Museum’s behalf, and I understand he did. And so, well, if the governor wants to file a case, then, you know, we respect her right to do that.

But I have to say that respectfully, we’re quite secure in our legal position that anti-fencing does not apply in this case and that we, if it did, we would not have, we would not have entered into this donation, that we did our due diligence, that we have the highest respect for her, but we will do our part to defend against that. And at the same time, we will continue to do what we said we would do and continue the dialogue with the stakeholders, which includes the province. So we will do what we need, our lawyers will do what we need to do on this particular case if it pushes through, but we will still do our work and that will, as I’m telling you, involve exploring how we can get this done.

ML: Yeah. I think that’s good. Yeah. I think I have enough, I think.
JB: Yeah, I mean, maybe if you’re going to write the article as a response to the provincial board and what the governor might do tomorrow, if there’s, or in the next days, it’s just, what I’d like to get across is that we have the highest respect for the governor and we’ve tried to demonstrate our commitment to the province of Cebu with our new museum, which is the best one we’ve done yet. And we have a lot of plans and we’re really committed. National Museum is also Cebuano as well as Ilocano, Tagalog. We’re also passionate for Cebuano heritage and we will do the right thing for the people of Cebu, for the nation.

We will be true to our mandate. We’ll be ethical and sensitive and always listening, always responsive. So I hope somehow the governor can be assured that whether or not she pursues this legal course of action that the National Museum will continue. And I hope she, in the end, will be gratified because we are respecting her call to act and maybe it’s not happening exactly the way she wants or as fast as she wants, but we’ll get it done.

And I hope she, in the end, will be as pleased as anyone else. Okay, thanks. One more thing, Max. One more thing, Max. There was this ARTA thing, yeah. I don’t understand, well, yeah. We understood that the governor’s office was looking for a reply to her letter.

ML: Yes, February 27.
JB: Yes, we pointed out that our chairman, Aboitiz, went to see her and you reported on that. We pointed out that that was our response and that chairman said he would handle it personally because he’s a known figure there and he would be able, his assurance to the governor would mean more than mine or anyone else’s because he’s the highest authority in the museum and he’s also someone she knows and so whatever assurances he gave would be the strongest that we could give. So we pointed that out, but the governor’s office was adamant that a written reply was expected, nonetheless, from me. And so we sent her a letter.

It was received by her office last Tuesday. Okay. And I have a copy that, I guess, I don’t mind sending to you, but yeah, so I don’t know, that was last Tuesday, so not Wednesday before Holy Week, but it was Tuesday. We know it was received by the governor’s, I forget her name, her executive assistant, the governor’s office, yeah.

And so I don’t know if the provincial board were aware or if even Gov read it, but we did send a letter because even though our chairman had met and that was our response, they insisted still that a letter would be appreciated, so I wrote one last Tuesday. And I can send you the letter because it’s quite straightforward. In which we updated the Gov that, you know, but my feedback is she wasn’t happy with the letter, so I apologize for that. Okay.

I apologize that she’s not happy. I don’t know why exactly, but again, all I can say is we’re acting in accordance with what we’ve been telling people, and now I’m telling you. Maybe she’s not happy with it, and I’d be willing to learn how we could make her happier. I don’t know, but it’s moving in the direction that she wants, I can assure her, and I just don’t want to add to her burdens, you know?

She should be, if I were her, I would just like, you know, I would suggest she just have a little patience and see if we make good on our word, that we were, you know, and I assure her, I assure everyone that we’re doing it. So no one likes to see anyone upset, and I don’t, I hope maybe Max, you can help me out and just try to, you know, if there are upset people out there, including the Governor, that we can just give them the assurances. We’re not in, we don’t have any other agenda.

I mean, we, you know, the path forward is medyo clear. It’s just the finer details have to be worked out, but the general objective is clear, and that’s why NCCA is on the same page as us, and NHCP, we’re all agreed that they have to be shared back in a meaningful way that we’ll kind of go back to the integrity of Boljoon church, you know? Yeah. So I think I answered everything at great length. I’m sorry if I rambled on a little bit, but if we do this again, you’ll learn it’s my style.

You have to cut me off if I’ve given you enough, but anything else, Max?

ML: No, no, that’s it. I’ll text you my email address, so if you can send your letter response.
JB: Yeah, sure, sure. Okay. Yes, I’ll do that now. Okay, well, yeah, I’ve read your stuff. Your writing is like kind of sharp and to the point.
Yeah, I’d be interested to see whether what, you know, what I’m really trying to convey to you is borne out. I hope, you know, you, I’ve asked, you know, before I texted you back, I asked other people whether you’re a fair reporter, and they all said that you were. So, so that’s great. And, you know, I love any opportunity to get, you know, to try to clear things up and give assurances and promote what the museum is trying to do.

So I hope to see that kind of, well, what I, you know, in whatever article you write. Yeah, please, please try to get what I’m trying to say across, and I’d appreciate that very much. Okay, we’ll do that. Thanks.

Cool. All right, I’ll email you that, and then if you need anything else, just let me know.

ML: Okay, will do. Thank you.
JB: All right. Thank you, Max, maayong gabii.
ML: Yeah, good evening.

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