By Jude Roland Ay-ay

It is almost three months since the whole of Philippines was placed under community quarantine. Ever since the occurrence of unprecedented local transmissions, we saw how the government made limitations to the movements of people, transportation, the working industry both private and public, and regular operations in the hope to contain the spread of corona virus in the country. Yet one of the most affected industries are the ones which required people and movements to be able to operate in the first place – the tourism industry.

The Museo ni Jose Rizal Fort Santiago is only one of the many heritage museums, tourist destinations and attractions in the country hard-hit by the said pandemic, and forced to cease operations in view of national emergency. On regular days, the Rizal Shrine Fort Santiago, as it was formerly called, is flocked in by both local and foreign tourists, students and the general public, averaging to 400,000 visitors per year. In this time of crisis, as tour operations are considered ‘non-essential’, it may take a while before museum visitor-ship could recover.  

This historical museum, under the supervision of National Historical Commission of the Philippines, pays tribute to Jose Rizal, renowned patriot and Philippine hero, through its themed settings and relics reflecting his life, achievements, and last hours before his execution in Bagumbayan. It houses numerous contemporary works of art – oil on canvas paintings, sculptures, and paper materials made in honor of Jose Rizal. Moreover, the museum highlights a part of Rizal’s bone contained inside a reliquary and is a definite ‘food for the eye’ in the Silid-Kabayanihan gallery.  

Today, many adjustments have to be made not only on the basis of recovery but in addressing ‘deeper’ issues and challenges considering the protection of employees and the preservation of tangible materials contained in this heritage repository while under quarantine. This article identifies the following key challenges:

Maintaining a Healthy and Safe Work Place
Healthy people are needed to maintain the collection. For many institutions and organizations, the working personnel and their safety are considered top priority ahead of other regular operational requirements. In the case of museums and collection repositories under community quarantine, essential personnel are working normally on site but the premises remain closed to the public. Thus, we ask questions such as: who is most vulnerable in the working team? Do we have enough personal protective equipment or PPEs considering that some people could still move in or out the premises on a regular basis?  And, do we have established safety protocols now that we are still under community quarantine?

Preservation of Heritage Collection
Shutting down storage and display areas for an extended period of time may impose additional risks to the collection since there is a disruption of ‘normal frequency’ in terms of its maintenance and manning schedule. Risks may be due to changes in environmental conditions, security issues or unavailability of maintenance personnel due to transportation restrictions. Further, we ask questions such as: do we have separate safety protocols for the collection? Is it safe to use disinfectants or other related methods such as U.V. exposure? How long does the virus stay on different material surfaces?

These are just some of the identified challenges which many heritage repositories such as Museo ni Jose Rizal Fort Santiago is facing amidst community quarantine. Getting back to normal further means reestablishing new safety and health protocols not only for museum personnel and the collection but for the visiting public too.

On June 19 comes the Philippine commemoration of the 159th Birth Anniversary of Jose Rizal. One way to look and celebrate at his significant contributions is by protecting and preserving what has been left for the future generation in memory of him. The way many heritage institutions and tour organizations respond to this pandemic today will surely be part of history books in the future.

Caring for Heritage Collections During the COVID-19 Pandemic; Related Cited Works “Closed by COVID-19: A practical guide for managers of heritage collections that are closed at short notice because of an epidemic or pandemic”: Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM); 2020

American Library Association (ALA) Preservation Resources: Aggregates info about handling library materials and collections, including policies being developed for circulating collections; 25 March 2020

Museo ni Jose Rizal Fort Santiago Annual Accomplishment Report: 2017-2019