In May, three artists—two from Brooklyn, one from St. Louis— converged upon Ann Arbor to do what historians usually do. They spent time in the archives.
Maia Cruz Palileo, Francis Estrada, and Janna Añonuevo Langholz were here for a two-week residency. But they weren’t here to do research in the traditional sense. They were here to interpret U-M’s extensive Philippine collections: thousands of mammal specimens, ethnographic objects, historic photographs, herbarium specimens, and even human remains collected by the university during the Philippine’s colonial era.
The artist residency came at the end of the first year of ReConnect/ReCollect, a project aiming to assess the scope of U-M’s Philippine collections, determine the harm caused, and develop a model for reparation while involving members of the Philippine diaspora in the endeavor.
Without a time machine, it’s impossible to fully fix this. But ReConnect/ReCollect is exploring what is possible. During their residency, artist Janna Añonuevo Langholz learned about a scale model of a Philippine house at U-M’s Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. And while at the Bentley Historical Library, they found a postcard of a nipa palm, the same material that would have been used to construct the house. They made a large print of the postcard, which they used as a backdrop to photograph the model house, along with animal figurines dating to 200 BCE. The resulting photo—with some artistic license—recontextualizes the house. It’s no longer disembodied from the environment in which it would have existed.
The residency will fuel the artists’ work for the indefinite future. “Bringing in artists—this work doesn’t stay here,” said Langholz at a public roundtable. “Our work is seen by the public.”
U-M’s Philippine collections are among the largest in North America, and they bolstered the reputation of the university’s museums, academic departments, and archives. But because they were collected in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Philippines was first a Spanish colony and later an American one, the process was unequal and extractive.
“Archival and museum collections don’t just magically materialize in an institution,” said Deirdre de la Cruz, co-director of ReConnect/ReCollect and an associate professor in the Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures.
“From the moment a document, photograph, or artifact is acquired or produced, there is a process of filtering, decontextualizing, and recontextualizing that takes place in the effort to institutionally organize that item in a collection.”
At the university, most of the Philippine collections are listed first under the name of the faculty member who procured them and then by discipline.
“When it comes to colonial collections, this process inevitably results in the erasure of local or indigenous identities, meanings, languages and values—and most significantly, in the erasure of local and indigenous peoples themselves,” said de la Cruz.
The result can be inaccurate or even offensive descriptions. It also obscures the mechanisms that made these collections possible in the first place: the colonial aspirations of the United States and U-M’s complicity in this imperial project.
De la Cruz and Ricky Punzalan, an associate professor in the School of Information, lead the ReConnect/ReCollect team, composed of nearly two dozen scholars, archivists, artists, and community activists. The multi-year program is supported by a $500,000 grant from U-M’s Humanities Collaboratory.
The project has been collaborative from the start. “The Filipino/ Filipinx communities are our primary publics,” said Punzalan.
Last spring and summer the team convened a series of roundtables and listening sessions with stakeholders to help determine the shape of the two-year program. It was at one of those sessions—which garnered input from scholars, cultural heritage workers, archivists, activists, and Filipino community members—where the artist residency idea first took root.
“We love our listening sessions because so far they have given us a lot of creative and engaging ideas. There is indeed wisdom in our communities,” said Punzalan.
At the same time, Punzalan recognizes the challenges of this collaborative approach. “The Filipino community is not a monolith, so it is often the case that we hear disagreements or conflicting ideas.”
Punzalan also stressed the importance of proactive outreach. “We cannot always expect that community members will come to the university and participate in events and dialogues,” he said. “Sometimes we need to go to community events and be present.”
In June, ReConnect/ReCollect participated in the 2022 Kalayaan Celebration, an annual commemoration of Philippine independence held in Warren, Michigan, and coordinated by the Filipino American Community Council of Michigan.
“During the event, we talked with scores of visitors about ReConnect/ReCollect’s mission and highlighted some of the items in the collections using postcards, posters, and a matching game,” said Robert Diaz, a ReConnect/ReCollect team member and U-M History graduate student.
“We want to be good cultural and historical stewards of these collections and truly collaborate with individuals interested in them.
This can only happen when we actively engage with the public in settings like Kalayaan,” said Diaz.
This year, the team will build upon its community engagement work, hosting a series of open houses of the collections for members of the Filipino community. And they will continue their work assessing the scope of the vast Philippine collections, developing a “lexicon of harm” that will guide how the group creates or updates descriptions of the collections, like those contained in finding aids.
“A lot of Philippine materials in our collections haven’t even been described yet, which is of course the most fundamental step in making accessible collections,” said de la Cruz.
The team’s most delicate, and potentially controversial, work involves addressing the ethical and culturally appropriate stewardship of the Philippine human remains in U-M’s collection. “We must proceed with extreme care. Even the most basic question of who should participate in this conversation is not necessarily obvious,” said de la Cruz.
“We have some culturally sensitive items in our collection and we don’t want those to be just openly accessible without the full context of their creation and acquisition,” said Punzalan.
ReConnect/ReCollect will summarize their efforts in a toolkit that documents their activities but also provides a set of best practices for similar efforts.
“We’re thinking of a resource-rich site for other institutions interested in culturally appropriate and historically specific reparative approaches to Philippine collections,” said de la Cruz.
“I want the project to ultimately be able to make tangible recommendations around what would constitute accessibility of our collections here at the university,” said Punzalan. “For me, the project has always been centered around respectful and meaningful public engagement and access.”