During my stay in the Philippines, I have been visiting sites related to Imelda Marcos’s cultural projects undertaken during the 1970’s and 80’s. The legacy of these endeavours have remained largely contentious, with some Filipinos keen on erasing it completely and others overpraising these cultural efforts to the point of absolving the Marcos family of their political sins. This historical narrative has assumed an important role in my practice and I want to handle its material remnants and examine how this history is deployed in the contemporary Philippine context.
Viewing this history from a distance, I’ve always been wary of misrepresenting it and I am hoping this research project would provide certain assurances and open up other avenues of discussion. For various reasons, research has been fairly slow process as visiting relevant sites and looking at classified material often requires government permission.
Yesterday, I went to look at the collection of objects at the Goldenberg Mansion, which has played a crucial role in the tumultuous history of the Philippines but has remained closed to the public. From 1897 to 1898, the building was occupied by Admiral Montojo of the Spanish Navy. After the 1898 Battle of Manila (a mock battle between the Americans and the Spanish aimed to disguise the $20 million sale of the Philippines as American liberation), it became the residence of General Arthur Macarthur. In 1903, it became the office of the Philippine expedition to the International Exposition of St. Louis, Missouri, which notoriously featured a ‘human zoo’ composed of indigenous Filipinos flown to the United States to showcase America’s gift of civilisation.
In 1966, the Goldenberg Mansion was purchased by Imelda Marcos and restored by her favourite architect, Leandro Locsin (also responsible for the Cultural Centre of the Philippines). Imelda used it to display her collection of antiques and as a guesthouse for her famous friends including the pianist Van Cliburn, Christina Ford and the ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Since the Marcoses fled in 1986, the mansion has been largely unused yet well maintained. Imelda has often claimed it as her ancestral home despite historical evidence against it and is still pursuing a legal claim for it. Imelda actually grew up in a far less luxurious environment… the garage of the house next door to the Goldenberg (James Hamilton-Paterson tells this story in America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines).
The collection of decorative objects housed in the building range from the expected to the absurd. The ground floor has an impressive display of jade figurines and the requisite Louis XV style furniture. On the upper floor, the objects range from a small tableau of the Chinese Cultural revolution carved from a single piece of ivory (presumably a present from Imelda’s friend Madame Mao), a vitrine of plastic dog figurines, a room full of Art Nouveau furniture alongside a small wire sculpture of a man and an unexpected collection of paintings by the American artist Grandma Moses.