drucken Bookmark and Share

by Renan Laru-an

General Nourishment: The Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts in Marawi

The author would like to thank Dr. Linang Cabugatan and Mindamera Macarambon for supporting his ongoing research on the curatorial history of the Aga Khan Museum in Marawi.

One of the early issues of Mindanao Journal (1975), a multidisciplinary publication dedicated to the study of the Mindanao-Sulu-Palawan area in southern Philippines, features a research project on a lake and a river.[i] The article belongs to a group of writings that span the disciplinal ambits of ichthyology, heritage, history, management, and sociology, authored mainly by faculty members of the university where the journal was published. It looks and reads like most scientific papers in academia. Its classification subscribes to the editorial mission of converting scholarship from “demarcation points” to “meeting points,” a bridge that prioritizes connections towards Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan,[ii] which collectively turned all other geographic centers of the archipelago into “secondary importance.” The text—divided into parts that describe the journey of an investigation, fully illustrated in graphs, maps, tables, and drawings—explains a natural phenomenon of leaving.[iii] It is a story of water that leaves Lake Lanao, a major tropical lake in Southeastern Asia, through its lone drainage system, a river called Agus (flow). On top of a hill, the ancient lake is a picture of still vastness, a vista in the non-metropolitan city of Marawi[iv] shared with a state university and another modern infrastructure: the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

The subject of this essay is the museum, and the purpose serves a discourse on the curatorial. I  am opening it with/in a tributary. Limnology, the study of lakes, gains its understanding of how the lake works and changes over time in a concerted appraisal of geology, chemistry, biology, and physics.  Environmental science applied for conservation and utilization. Its objectivity is shaped by the scientist’s trust in samples. The Agus River supplied these samples in order to assess Lake Lanao’s status based on the biological and physico-chemical characteristics and traits of elements exiting the lake. This conventionally means that tributaries represent loss. If ecosystem is historiography, then the same loss I find attachment here, which the biologist studying Lake Lanao through Agus River described as “part of the energy drained permanently,”[v] shows patterns of interaction. We all know this to be history. Such an analogy that bears site-specificity from the locality of a lake to its cycles of emptying out to the larger world witnesses all the forces that pass through a tributary. It is neither central nor peripheral either in location or action. Tributary areas excite ecologies that surround them—either through their inter-dependency in life-making or agency in archival abundance—in ways that their temporalities exhibit the strength of currents, the volume of flow, and the density of population in highly unpredictable conditions that fluctuate. We always encounter the natural state of a tributary under constant pressure. This functional principle verifies tributaries’ work over time (power) in holding a transfer between structures. I do not mean supportive in a tributary way; in this essay, I wanted to write about the museum that ‘forces’ me to “think and feel and wonder about what sustains us, and maybe also what leads [me] to think we do not need sustenance.”[vi] What excites me in thinking curatorially along tributaries; to drift away with a museum, almost like being abducted, essentializes the Aga Khan Museum to be a curatorial force that induces the museum’s standard subjectivization, usually an alternative or a gesture, to atrophy.

fig. 1: View of Lake Lanao from the University, undated. Facsimile of an original photograph from the Aga Khan Museum Library, exhibited as part of The Mamitua Saber Project (2019). Commissioned by Singapore Biennale. Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

Through a glimpse of the museum’s formation and operations offered to the readers of this journal, I follow Stenger’s refusal to stay in the deconstructionist proposal of we-no-longer-can-do-this-anymore milieu in curatorial practice.[vii] This has been performed in theorizing the exceptionality of institutions, like the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts in Lanao province, to be a model or a case study for revitalizing or critiquing “modern” ideas that we continuously uphold and refer to. Perhaps the turbidity of tributaries engages us with Stengers’ call for the betrayal of the modern territory.[viii] It has convinced me of the urgency and value of creativity over reflexivity in crafting a practice that multiplies dimensions toward a situation, and in theorizing that creates encounters for us, readers and writers of this enterprise, to listen to and learn from the people and things we form with our words and ideas in essays like this one. Since interruption achieves capture, if not a return to, in the same territory we wish to betray, I will bring my articulation of the museum in a tone that Stenger identifies as “a refrain, like children in the dark, who hum under their breath in order to summon the courage to walk.”[ix]

These concerns are indebted to the concreteness of the Aga Khan Museum itself. I am emphasizing it as a matter of clarification that disables a performative reading of the museum that could take our experience of its forces hostage to what we resonate with its “minority” or “extremities,” and recently with its “small-scale-ness” as the outlier. In recognition, we inherit a habit of proselytizing whatever affects us into our “social constructions.” And the crafting of words becomes a project of argumentation; I will not do this. I am telling you—a self-consent and demonstration that shares my reckless acceptance—that the curatorial force of the Aga Khan Museum is a contemporary standpoint that builds, discriminates, and fabricates connections and encounters.

fig. 2: Impression of the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts building, undated. Facsimile from Antonio Isidro, “The Muslim Filipinos and Islam,” Mindanao Journal 3, no. 2 (October-December, 1976): 49.

Constructing a Territory

The Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts first appeared in the abstracted realization of “Filipino Native Culture” in Mindanao. In the law that established a university in 1962, the University of Mindanao (later on changed to and now called the Mindanao State University) envisioned the tasks of intensifying and accelerating education among interchangeable subjects: “the Filipino youth, especially among the Muslims and others belonging to the national minorities” and “the peoples of the south, particularly the Muslims and other cultural minorities.”[x] In an earlier version of its mandate approved by the Philippine Congress in 1955, the formation of the university could not be elaborated in the mission aligned with national minorities in the south, the Muslim youth, or Muslim Filipinos.[xi] The delivery of professional and technical training, and advanced instruction in literature, philosophy, the sciences, and the arts rendered a shape to the vision of the university, which in the same document legalized its metabolisms as a regular corporation. Two years later, new amendments to the law started to present the university as a social engineering project for the development of citizenship in Mindanao. More defined relations emerged in the insertions of the more potent naming of tasks: training and instruction became provinces of education, which extended to the capital of research; and the university as corporation adopted a new lifecycle as one of the many learning institutions to be erected on the island.  The compound identity of Muslim Filipinos had been hinted formally at this point, “ necessary to implement the policy of the Government in its desire to integrate the National Minorities into our body politics.[xii] This necessity immediately transformed the attention of a Frankenstein nation-state into a new order of paradigms for teaching. The ascendance of “Filipino Native Culture” loaded an imperative value onto its disciplinary core. Without using terms such as “Filipino Muslims,” “Muslim Filipinos,” or “Islamicized Indigenous” in all revisions until 1973,  the University’s foundational charter introduced an opening to imagine what a Filipino native culture looks like in Mindanao. They are “non-Christian tribes.”[xiii]

fig. 3: Cities visited by Aga Khan Museum representatives to the Travelling Symposium on Museum Development in Southeast Asia, 1977. Illustration by Dionisio Orellana. Facsimile from Mamitua Saber and Dionisio Orellana, Comparative Museum Notes on Exhibits in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Macao, and the Philippines (Marawi: Aga Khan Museum, 1977), 2.

This appointment of identity in composing “the peoples of the south” and “the Muslims” formulates the preamble of the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts. Built in a single room with the name “University Museum and Folk Art Center” at the same time the university opened to the public, the museum implemented the mandate of the university to preserve, conserve, and study Filipino cultural tradition. In doing so, it produced a closer distance to “Filipino” in a conceptual region that the native Maranao Mamitua Saber, a co-founder of the university and the founder of the museum, described as the “immediate Mindanao culture area.”[xiv] The efficacy I find in Saber’s cartography, the self-appointed director of the museum who had signified institutional curatorship, offers an additional description of the technical understanding of the frontier’s geography. Such a geobody had been given up to romance. In Frank Laubach’s[xv] monograph titled Mindanao, Island of Romance (1928), which circulated among Evangelical Christian missionaries, the Congregationalist American intellectual-missionary known for his literacy methodology “Each One Teach One” instituted Mindanao in a history of romance that captivates whoever comes close to it: “I remember how my heart beat, how my throat too tight for words, how my soul soared!”[xvi] A sensuous, fatal attraction drawn from a coup  d’œil summoned decades later by the technical propositions of a modern museum in rural Mindanao. As if repossessing Laubach’s “glance at Mindanao as she was and come once to Mindanao as she is, and as she is becoming,”[xvii] the emergence of the Aga Khan Museum wrote a new geopoetic ownership.

fig. 4: Last page of Laubach’s Mindanao, Island of Romance, (c.a. 1927). Facsimile.

fig. 5: Prince Karim Aga Khan IV greeted by local officials in Marawi, (1963). Facsimile of an original photograph from the Aga Khan Museum Library, exhibited as part of The Mamitua Saber Project (2019). Commissioned by Singapore Biennale. Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

The seemingly entrepreneurial venture of the university gallery and folk arts laboratory in museology instantly changed after the arrival of Prince Karim Aga Khan IV. In his 1963 visit in Lanao, the twenty-six-year-old Ismaili leader attended the first founding anniversary of the University of Mindanao. A crowd of local men and women dressed in hybrid ensemble of Maranao and Filipiniana motifs seated side by side with international dignitaries from Islamic countries listened to his speech. At this convocation, he clearly communicated the function of the university as the people’s tool for self-development in their state participation as “first class citizens.”[xviii] Moroland under the Philippine flag: the new achievement in citizenship required self-perfection.

… Here you have at your disposal a tool which is being fashioned into an instrument for self-perfection. But it must never be thought, I submit, that this tool is or will become perfect. It will take all the vigilance of the founders, the faculty and the students to see that your standards are continually raised, that your instrument for learning is continually ameliorated so as to render you greater service at less cost in time and energy.  

I hope that those students who came to this University, and that those students who will leave it for further studies, will approach their work with sharp vengeance–vengeance for the torpor and indifference of the past; vengeance for having temporarily lost their rightful position amongst the intellectual elite of the country [...].[xix]

The Aga Khan’s endowment to the university constructed the purpose-built repository of cultural heritage.[xx] On March 23, 1969, less than a decade since its foundation and a few months before the public opening of the Cultural Center of the Philippines in the capital Manila, the Mindanao State University inaugurated the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts. The non-metropolitan Marawi instantiated development: a snapshot of the regional museum’s building signaled a comprehensive outlook towards progress. This moment accomplished the geobody’s plot to participate in the afterlife of subjectivities implanted and cultivated in and for Marawi. Ahead of its own death, the museum reclaimed its “rightful position” in the ante-normative placement of local and national history. By 1982, based on the only document that I could find describing the operations of the Aga Khan, the museum had been functioning as a professional institution with nineteen members following a seven-point mandate.[xxi]

1. To collect and preserve folkart [sic] specimens and artifacts of the Muslim groups and other indigenous minorities of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan regions.

2. To organize systematic collection that could be used by scholars, students and researchers on Muslim culture.

3. To encourage research and others and to lend assistance in the revival and conservation of historical folkarts [sic] and cultural treasures.

4. To spread knowledge about the peoples of these regions in an effort towards cultural integration.

5. To undertake cultural and educational exhibitions.

6. To conduct lectures and demonstrations to the visitors, students, and others about the significant and scientific values of objects in the Museum holdings.

7. To periodically orient Museum personnel by sending to museums in the Metro Manila and other Philippine museums in order to observe the latest trends and techniques for enhancing such activities in the Aga Khan Museum.

In the Aga Khan Museum Annual Report for CY 1982-1983 authored by Dr. Mamitua Saber, who signed as Dean of Research and Director of Museums, the museum’s vitality had been recorded according to its bureaucratic values: defining responsibilities as organizational dynamics that unite a history of studying and the collective pedagogy of self-studies in its intramural centrality as a university hub. The content of the report is a site that reveals an institutional x-ray categorizing the museum’s production of studies. These activities manifest in services that position the Aga Khan Museum in the web of conflicting qualities of the modern. Saber arranged these headings in descending order of attention to the ebb-and-flow of a living organization: Functions of the Museum; Major Accomplishments for CY 1983; Special Exhibits; Achievement Awards; Three Regular Exhibitions of the Museum; Daily Activities and Museum Performance; Personnel; Detailed AKM Personnel; Personnel Temporarily Occupying an NSM (Natural Science Museum) Item; Personnel Part-Time Detailed with URC (University Research Center); Personnel on Study Leave; and Problems of the Museum. The proficiency in enumeration also indicated the future of the museum. The services of a trained conservator had been named to “effectively” and “urgently” resolve the eventual destruction of artifacts in the museum. Saber concluded the report with another call for repair, segregated in terms of request and emergency from conservation and preservation problems of the museum: “The building is leaking from the roof.”[xxii] In order to stay alive, the museum must be extramural.

fig. 6: One of the galleries of the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts, undated. Facsimile of an original photograph from the Aga Khan Museum Library, exhibited as part of The Mamitua Saber Project (2019). Commissioned by Singapore Biennale. Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

fig. 7: A well-attended exhibition at the museum, (c.a. 1983). Facsimile of an original photograph from the Aga Khan Museum Library, exhibited as part of The Mamitua Saber Project (2019). Commissioned by Singapore Biennale. Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

Demanding the university’s attention, the two-story, general museum enacted an empirical starting point for a theory of the museum. This theory dramatized the craft in knowledge; Saber had earlier expressed the same cry he registered upon discovering the leaking roof in a 1963 letter addressed to Dr. Antonio Isidro, the University’s first president: “The art research is an extensive cultural inquiry. Subjects are unlimited, but we need the proper resources in personnel and material to do this job.”[xxiii] The museum recognized itself as the property; it could therefore authorize relations among its properties. The museum abstained in interpreting a territory, and in pursuing interpretations of what had happened to social, economic, and political agenda in a new territory. The theory now is that this museum is territorial. Involved in self-romance, in extra-territorial affairs, too. The Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts had suddenly gotten a reprieve in the historical construction, description, and performance of multiple modernist values. After all, the museum was busy. The museum embraced its existence as  “the center of visitation”  and “the busiest office/academic unit”[xxiv] in the university. The current business was not enslaved in self-testifying trauma and survival. From its location in the formerly occupied military camp—leaking out of its very territory, the museum invented the property to be studied, traded, saved: “It is an exciting adventure to read the meaning of native designs as we observe and interview enthusiastic informants.”[xxv] The Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts improvises a law of attraction: This is how I want you to be attracted to me. Stengers identifies this to be the “arts of protection against capture.”[xxvi] This is not very detached from its actual contemporary appreciation as Lanao province’s main tourist attraction. If a theory of the museum had always been formed in the attraction, enjoyment, and perfection of relational properties, could we, readers and writers who profess to the curatorial, see these forces as being the necessary guide in understanding the eloquence of things that are cultivated, protected, and owned by another modern museum?

Fabricating Tributaries

Correspondence survives the past of the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts in Marawi. They have maintained the theory of a museum through multiple oral reports of looting and institutional neglect. Dysfunctionality is not an unorthodox determination of this knowledge that the moderns delivered in the geography and memory of the non-metropolitan. The museum demonstrated epistemology, and it continues to do so in this writing. For the country’s first Islamic arts museum, its position defines the kind of knowledge that is essential for the immediate Mindanao culture area. Among conservationists, who are upgraded in the discursive agencies of conflict studies, they need to prevent the permanent loss of this knowledge. Failure to do so eliminates the candidacy of the Aga Khan Museum in cultural exchange. What we have not realized, just yet, is how the fabrications of the museum could linger in the air.

Lake Lanao quietly witnessed the narrations of the ancient, the traditional, and the modern who took residence on the soil it has fertilized for centuries. The lake—whose shores accommodated the museum—might be illiterate, so its sensuality is acknowledged mathematically in its attendance to withholding resistance: to be or not be polluted. When the lake’s ecological efficiency is high, pollutants do not suffocate; connections are seamlessly facilitated; organisms thrive. Inadvertently, resistance is a matter of belief in disruption; productive in general, it conceptualizes reterritorialization within a system. Like pollutants, resistance requires navigation or abolition that leads us to questions, such as, How do we go about/around this? The Aga Khan Museum is not ‘biologically’ equipped to perform resistance. Its teleological quietude weathers the filth, hardness, and smell of the lake’s water. I have come to accept that the other side of the museum’s position, earlier deliberated as generative knowledge, is nonperformance. The politics of knowledge that hosts our “critical inquiry” could be easily embarrassed by such entanglement of positions. The museum decided to be both intoxicated and sober in experiencing the things and feelings it had inherited from the past. With no interest in decolonizing, radicalizing, and changing a museum—whatever we may think of this ‘inappropriateness’—the Aga Khan Museum cuts right through these fabrications, and tastes its own spell. Such dangerous courage prepares us to be lured in a theory of this museum to transform our address to it. We are stuck with it. And like the rest of us still reading this at a tributary, these omniscient fabrications re-cycle vengeance. The Aga Khan Museum procreates poisonous and nurturing subjectivities that participate in larger streams of social, cultural, and political ideologies and processes. Preserving this to be the fact of the museum theorizes its “torpor and indifference”[xxvii] as the most intoxifying refrain in grand curatorial professions that conserve the museum in a rupture of modernist divides in Mindanao. The museum comes to us irresistibly with ante-curatorial forces that simultaneously contract us to and solicit from us a peer valuation that cannot be extracted from the etymological sameness of legality and loyalty.

My ongoing research in the museum’s curatorial history brought my attention to the letters that were dispatched from and received by the institution’s administration. So far, I have only collected an “insignificant” amount of these materials dated between 1971 and 1979. They could further a theory of the museum I have been belaboring here; however, these data remain unreliable in gathering consensus around the strength of their materiality and statements. These letters are supposed to be transparent in order to justify and verify that the Aga Khan Museum is just like us, a peer that can pass the trial of witnesses and colleagues. But these materials come into existence when they escaped the ongoing deterioration of the museum and when I captured the museum in my curatorial milieu. I prefer to drain these letters to support the theoretical tenure of the museum in our practices of knowledge that give forms and spaces to things and energies publicly. Ideally, the result portrays a museum that can defend, refuse, and speak for itself. And indirectly—or at its worst, the museum fabricates new spells that sustain our theory of the encounter with a peer.

fig. 8: Dr. Mamitua Saber visiting a local weaver, undated. Facsimile of an original photograph from the Aga Khan Museum Library, exhibited as part of The Mamitua Saber Project (2019). Commissioned by Singapore Biennale. Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

fig. 9: Saber with Archbishop of Manila Jaime Cardinal Sin, (1983). Facsimile of an original photograph from the Aga Khan Museum Library, exhibited as part of The Mamitua Saber Project (2019). Commissioned by Singapore Biennale. Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

The Aga Khan Museum letters engorge the network of tributaries where the museum’s curatorial forces flow. One writing modality palpable in these notes documented the confidence of the museum. I noticed this in the dispersal of requests and reminders to colleagues and other institutions. The acquisition of new or additional information and materials is weaved through “a wish to know more” that consequently asks to share resources in “please let me know.” These desires are enriched in the deliberation of mutual assistance and benefit based on skilled “note-taking” and “observations” that frame the museum’s ongoing study of objects. Reaching out doubly describes the museum’s encounter with its peers and the impact of things that they have in common.  Compatibility ensues from introducing   of needs and limitations. Sending the letters below insists that knowing each other and committing each other’s names to memory satisfy the sender’s and recipients’ cultural agenda.     

In 1971 I had an opportunity to visit your museum [...]. It was however a brief visit taking notes about some of your exhibits which are closely related to the ethnological collections in our museum in this part of the Philippines….[xxviii]

May I remind you that if you shall have spare time [...] you may take notes or observations about the development of the well-known Bishop Museum in Honolulu for the benefit of the Aga Khan and Natural Science Museums when you shall return to our university campus.[xxix]

Somebody who might know us and our folk art manuscript sent a “List of Publications of Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University” (New Haven, Connecticut) whereby he/she (?) put a check on the title: Adam, Marie Jeanne: System and Meaning in Sumba Textile Design: A Study in Traditional Indonesian Art (1969) [...].

It will be a good reference for our own study of folk art, especially ‘system and meaning’ in Maranao art, if you or your office can help us order the book. We can reimburse you[...].[xxx]

Research programs were also communicated in these letters. These pen-and-paper networking opportunities circulate the trends and gaps in the sphere of initiatives. More importantly, this platform records the profile and methodology of the museum, which discriminates “good references” for their own study. It aligns the agenda of the Aga Khan Museum, and opens it up to a chance for collaboration with other institutions. The museum takes a step further by naming its contribution to shared resources as reimbursement. As a result, it cleverly turns a deficit into a loan that could be revitalized as the lender’s future asset. In manufacturing the needs of its peers, the museum integrates its expertise in the holdings of other institutions. These letters exceed networking, as the Aga Khan Museum articulates and validates the expertise and access of other practitioners. Projecting mutual appreciation informs the recipient of the seriousness that the museum allocates in making and presenting research. This artificiality when declaring affectations is a creative undertaking that conjures the museum-as-apparatus, especially its research direction, into an assemblage of usefulness. Reading the next batch of excerpts equips us with an assemblage that ‘forces’ us to feel the effects of the museum’s fabrications instead of contemplating its intentionality of becoming useful in the letters. This is the tool of the curatorial. It echoes Stenger’s defense of the witches’ magic; in these letters, I dare say that writing the curatorial forces “respect(s) and honour(s) the tools [the museum’s peers] fabricate in order for those tools to induce what will fabricate them.”[xxxi]

…In this connection, we will appreciate very much if you please lend AKM some of your collections relevant to the above-mentioned materials. Kindly let us know.[xxxii]

The copy of Lanao History note is extremely useful. With your authorship and full credit, we hope to edit and publish it in any of our publications for the present and future generations to know and appreciate. Of course, we will add some data from our own file. For instance, when your (sic) said there were 2 Spanish boats (Blanco and Lanao) brought to Lake Lanao, we’ll make it 4 to include the Corcuera and Almonte.

…Please give us information on how the Blanco was sunk. Was it deliberately sunk by the usaffe or attacked by Japanese planes? I did not know the latter case and wish to know more about it.[xxxiii]

This is a belated acknowledgment with thanks [to] the two color print pictures you have taken….

One of our projects now is gathering folklore materials including the Darangen, but we are not translating [it] yet…. A Ph.D. in Literature who published a volume of Philippine folktales joined my research staff…. is helping me in this folklore project. We shall share you some of our future publications.

Besides your great Maranao dictionary, do you plan to compile a dictionary of darangen words and phrases? If you have no plan for it,  may you give us your expert suggestion on how to do it. I have the old, former assistant of Dr. Laubach who understands every word of the epic, while most young Maranaos are fastly losing their understanding of the language of this oral literature.[xxxiv]

This is a reply to your letter…. requesting our cooperation for your project on ‘Factbook of Mindanao and Sulu’. Congratulations for such a very laudable project.

Per your request we will help go over the materials for the entry volume on portrait of the Lake Lanao towns for comments and suggestions as well as in providing the introduction to the volume. Of course before writing a fitting introduction, I have to see the materials which…. have been started and expected for publication this coming September. We will extend any other needed cooperation within our means.[xxxv]

These fragments connect us to the museum’s efforts in institution-building. Aside from fostering relationships, these documents reaffirm the competitiveness of the museum in an attempt to obtain support and complementarity in the cultural landscape where its peers operate. The museum carries both institutional and linkage variables. These letters assemble a tiny universe of the Aga Khan Museum’s institution-building, where the workings in leadership, doctrine, resources, programs, and internal structure could be traced in operations that are enabling, functional, normative, and diffuse. The disorganized and scarce documentation in Mindanao’s history of custodianship does not eliminate my impression of the museum’s public relations tactics to stimulate interests in its contact list. Thereby, this modest public engagement converges different valuations of the museum’s doctrine into a survey of human and physical resources that consolidate ante-normative and -curatorial dynamics into sustainable services. Such fullness in the curatorial force of these letters heightens the authority of the museum’s pragmatic arts. I highlight these inquiries of the sender in an attempt to restore our faith in the power of “inhabiting again what was devastated”[xxxvi] (to institute some things again) in contrast to the more aggressive force of “taking back.” These are more perceptible in the following excerpts that outline the museum’s procedures, which invite cooperation and distribution of responsibility.

…While we are interested in their history and ethnography, their present status of development and progress could be the basis of a future research project about them from written sources and perhaps through a field visit to their region in Sabah?

… Are their scholars and writers among them in English with whom we might communicate?”[xxxvii]

…it will be unethical for us to publish Mr. Funtecha’s thesis on Lanao history unless we have a joint permission by your University and himself as the author. We simply kept our Xerox copy in our reference shelf of materials dealing with Lanao/Mindanao history.

Yet, if we have your joint permission, we may publish a limit of 1000 copies, mostly for exchange of publication with those of other institutions locally and abroad, and never on a profit plan…

If you have a list of other graduate papers…. please let us know. If they be within our research publication interest about Mindanao [,] a cooperative arrangements [sic] for USC and MSU mutual benefits may be covered up by a joint agreement.[xxxviii]

In these prolific linkages, the growing cultural and intellectual ecology of the museum recruits the Aga Khan Museum’s academic freedom. The museum now—recently instituted, networked, and professionalized—conceptualizes agreements on sociality. It means that it can issue care and interest, which is binding and valid, in all matters that the museum prospects to be owned. Impropriety is a condition of freedom, and to muster the courage to say when to be free exhibits the most obscene ownership of freedom. The social obligation of the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts is tied to this curatorial force that decides how and when to expose things. The reality that it would take time (or another temporality) to ascertain if these letters had been read, answered, or opened by the museum’s intended recipients fabricate the utmost shamelessness of this freedom: the museum can serially and continuously disappear; the museum can pathologically plagiarize its presence. But the theory of a museum remains true—that it writes socius. In these letters, the museum existed in the middle of feedback. Its productive output duplicates knowledge sources that complicate approaches to discourse. Its most noxious presence can be ‘smelled’ in instances that cast doubt in the freedom of theory and history taking place at a museum. Responding and writing unsolicited letters, suggestions and materials short-circuit the feedback in a milieu:

Thanks again for the receipt of your note and the Xerox copy of the ‘feedback’ letter of Ben Bronson about a historic copy of the Quran in the Field Museum of National History in Chicago.

Regarding her inquiry…. we cannot be certain whether the antique Quran copy really belonged to the Sultan of Bayang who died along with other Muslim warriors in their defense against the attacking American forces in the Battle of Bayang in October 1902 (not 1901).

… Among the warriors of Bayang were religious leaders who may have brought inside the Kota (fort) their copies of the Quran, one of them the copy brought home as a “trophy” by one of the American troopers.

We will withhold publicity about the Holy Book till it actually reaches Manila or Marawi City.[xxxix]

…That [the sipa] is played by [the Security Force and the Fire Department] in modified form using a net line tennis or volleyball in school athletics, as it was first developed by the Manila Police Departments. [They] may be encouraged by the Physical Education Department to perpetuate the classical manner of sipa-playing for the specific purpose of preserving-conserving such a genuine cultural heritage. The youth in physical education may also be encouraged to learn and participate in this artistic way of exhibition…[xl]

…We thank you heartily for sending us your papers … I read them with the keenest interest and found them enlightening. You are right in trying to put up a service commitment towards the preservation and functional use for education of museum materials.[xli]

Working curatorially from the periphery[xlii] confirms that the creative heritage of a non-metropolitan, modern museum expands. To demand similarities, to ask for copies, to demand for a return: these are acts that interfere with the obligations in, of, and to modern territories. In reappropriating a theory of the museum, the Aga Khan Museum in Marawi transmits its struggle “affectionately,” “sincerely,” “truly,” and “respectfully” to its pagariya (friends).[xliii] These signatures used to be signals of empty closures in correspondence; yet the museum’s curatorial forces creatively resist these conclusions.  I don’t mean generalizing performances of opening up or subversion. The museum refuses to be alone and uncomfortable. Or, not to be uncomfortably alone. These extracts from the desk blow up the “technical” problems of creating, fostering, and sustaining forces that have separated us from adventures, like emptying out septic tanks. In one of the letters addressed to a museum friend-colleague, the sender, Mamitua Saber, mentioned that “a blown up copy” of the picture he had asked would be ready by the time Saber received his friend’s annotation to the image. Reassuring his friend that fabrications and techniques eventually unite forces, he wrote: “You don’t hurry.”

…May I know from you what are similar cases you have helped to resolve and how? Were said cases tried in court or decided through simple administrative procedures? What are the rights of the natives over their ancestral lands? Under what laws? etc.[xliv]

You will remember that from a copy of the National Geographic Magazine…. you showed me a 1901 picture of Gov. Gene. William H. Taft shaking hands with an unidentified Moro (Maranao) datu who was influential that time. I realized the picture is of historical value. Could you please copy it for me?

At the Aga Khan Museum, we are developing an Iconographic (pictorial) exhibit of historical pictures during the part American time….       

I am writing to many sources of pictures. In a separate note, please note the source of the picture. I will have a blown-up copy when it reaches here. You don’t hurry. Thanks [xlv]

Please be reminded of the key to the Main door of the Aga Khan Museum you borrowed sometime in 1976.

With the arrivals of our new recruits, more officials are needing possession of a duplicate key [...].[xlvi]

… The air conditioning unit for which the Property and Supply Office has stock is needed at Aga Khan Building for the following purposes:  

a.) The Storeroom for stuffed birds and other animals needs cool air to  preserve the specimens and make it comfortable for the storekeeper, museum guides, and visitors;

b.) When they (sic) are many visitors to the building looking at the exhibits the inside portion of the building becomes warm and uncomfortable [...].[xlvii]

This is to report to your office that the two septic tanks in my cottage are now filled up…. and need periodic emptying [...].[xlviii]

fig. 10: View of Lanao road, (c.a. 1963). Facsimile of an original photograph from the Aga Khan Museum Library, exhibited as part of The Mamitua Saber Project (2019). Commissioned by Singapore Biennale. Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

fig. 11: First batch of students who entered Mindanao State University with Lake Lanao behind them, (c.a. 1965— 1966). Facsimile of an original photograph from the Aga Khan Museum Library, exhibited as part of The Mamitua Saber Project (2019). Commissioned by Singapore Biennale. Courtesy of Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts.

Vernacular Loneliness[xlix]

Curatorial forces need not approach conservation, preservation, and study in haste. What I learned from the organisms in tributaries, who feed upon the nourishment of more defined bodies of water, is that our energy will always be transformed and recycled in parts. Being partly is always a wholeness that continuously leaks; periodically emptying itself out to be residual forces that nonetheless reclaim the rightful amount of freedom: less and more, good or bad does not matter. The technical existence of the museum in Mindanao is never extremely authentic. To believe that it was never marginal—exclusively through the letters that could have been fabricated, and that is technically so, because no one could visit the museum right now. The loneliness of the vernacular nourishes the creativity of a museum: a theory of the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts in Marawi is the theory of slowing down forces that affect us curatorially.


Renan Laru-an is a researcher working curatorially from the Philippines. He is the Public Engagement and Artistic Formation Coordinator of the Philippine Contemporary Art Network. He studies ‘insufficient’ and ‘subtracted’ images and subjects at the juncture of development and integration projects through long-term inquiries, such as Promising Arrivals, Violent Departures (ongoing) and The Artist and the Social Dreamer (2017) among others. He has (co-)curated festivals and exhibitions, including But Ears Have No Lids: Maayan Amir and Ruti Sela, PCAN/UP Vargas Museum, Manila (2021); the 6th Singapore Biennale: Every Step in the Right Direction, Singapore (2019); A Tripoli Agreement, Sharjah Art Foundation, Sharjah (2018); the 8th OK. Video – Indonesia Media Arts Festival, Jakarta (2017); and the 1st Lucban Assem-bly: PAMUMUHUNAN (Waiting for a capital), Quezon Province (2015). His scholarship has been supported by the Foundation for Arts Initiatives, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and other fellowships. He edited Writing Presently (PCAN, 2019), an anthology of recent writing on contemporary art in the Philippines.



[i] Asuncion An-Lim, “Limnological Study of Water Leaving Lake Lanao through Agus River,” Mindanao Journal 1, no. 4 (June—April 1975): 12-41.

[ii] Roberto Pontenila, editorial notes and comments to Mindanao Journal (Marawi: University Research Center, 1974).

[iii] An-Lim, “Limnological,” 12-41.

[iv] An overview of Marawi City can be accessed on Wikipedia. “Marawi,” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified July 5, 2020, 5:36, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marawi.

[v] An-Lim, “Limnological,” 39.

[vi] Isabelle Stengers, “Experimenting with Refrains: Subjectivity and the Challenge of Escaping Modern Dualism,” Subjectivity 22, no. 1 (May 2008): 51. https://doi.org/10.1057/sub.2008.6

[vii] ,Ibid., 40.

[viii] Ibid., 42.

[ix] Ibid,2.

[x] To read the entire law, you may access Republic Act 1893 online. “Republic Act No. 1893,” Arellano Law Foundation, accessed June 27, 2020, https://lawphil.net/statutes/repacts/ra1957/ra_1893_1957.html.

[xi] The original version is Republic Act 1387. “Republic Act No. 1387,” Arellano Law Foundation, accessed June 27, 2020, https://www.lawphil.net/statutes/repacts/ra1955/ra_1387_1955.html

[xii] Republic Act 1893, section 2.

[xiii] Ibid., section 4.

[xiv] Mamitua Saber, “Aga Khan Museum: Repository of Cultural Heritage,” Abstract. The Journal of History 22, no. 1-2 (1977). https://ejournals.ph/article.php?id=5049.

[xv] A short introduction to Laubach can be accessed online. “Frank Laubach,” Wikimedia Foundation, last modified April 2, 2020, 21:52, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Laubach.

[xvi] Frank Laubach, Mindanao, Island of Romance (Boston: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1927), 1-20.

[xvii] Laubach wrote these words under a section titled Mindanao Today.Laubach, “Mindanao,” 4.

[xviii] This is also His Highness’ first address to be fully understood, as it was not delivered in Latin. “Presidential address by His Highness the Aga Khan at the 1st Anniversary of the Mindanao University,” Aga Khan Foundation, accessed June 27, 2020, https://www.akdn.org/speech/his-highness-aga-khan/first-anniversary-mindanao-university.

[xix] .Ibid.

[xx] The term “repository of cultural heritage” was documented in a 1977 journal article authored by Saber. A copy of the text still needs to be recovered.

[xxi] Mamitua Saber. Aga Khan Museum Annual Report for CY 1982—1983 ([Marawi?]: Administrative report, c.a. 1982), Reproduction, Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Arts, 1-7.

[xxii] Saber, Aga Khan Museum Annual, 7.

[xxiii] Mamitua Saber, Personal correspondence in Papers on Maranaw Art, Social Organization and Cultural Traditions, ed. Mamitua Saber ([Marawi?]: Mindanao State University, n.d.), 4.

[xxiv] The report also documented that the museum was recognized as the most functional unit/office by the University’s Committee on Awards. Saber, Aga Khan Museum Annual, 2.

[xxv] Saber, personal correspondence, 4.

[xxvi] Stengers, “Experimenting,” 56.

[xxvii] Rehearsing the words of His Highness Aga Khan IV during the convocation in Marawi. It is a call to activate romance, the same romance that Laubach performed, which the missionary also used to describe the relationship of the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal, to Mindanao: “Rizal gave Mindanao its romance.” See Laubach, “Mindanao,” 3.

[xxviii] Mamitua Saber, to the Museum Curator, Sabah Museum, Kota Kinabalu, August 5, 1977. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xxix] Saber, to Macmod Maguindanao, February 22, 1977. Aga Khan Museum Library.


[xxxi] Stengers, “Experimenting,” 52.

[xxxii] Saber, to various university offices, August 23, 1977. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xxxiii] Saber, to Brod Antal, May 29, 1978. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xxxiv] Saber, to Howard McKaughan, September 2, 1977. Aga Khan Museum Library.      

[xxxv] Saber, to Emilio V. Corrales. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xxxvi] Stengers, “Experimenting,” 58.

[xxxvii] Saber, to the Director, Sabah State Library, January 24, 1979. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xxxviii] Saber, to Joseph Baumgartner, January 25, 1979. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xxxix] Saber, to Jesus Peralta, January 31, 1979. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xl] Saber, to H. H. Ele, January 25, 1979.

[xli] Saber, to Jesus M. Merino Antolinez. December 13, 1978.

[xlii] In another attempt to articulate cultural work in Mindanao, see Renan Laru-an, “An Impossible Profession,” in Place of Region in the Contemporary, ed. Patrick Flores (Quezon City: Philippine Contemporary Art Network, 2019), 134-149.

[xliii] “Your pagariya” including the quoted words above were used to sign the letters.

[xliv] Saber, to Francisco Claver, January 18, 1979. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xlv] Saber, to David Cruz, March 1, 1978. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xlvi] Saber, to Angelito Flores, August 11, 1978, Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xlvii] Saber, to M. Tamano, July 31, 1972. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xlviii] Saber, to the Chief Engineer, February 19, 1979. Aga Khan Museum Library.

[xlix] Fred Moten: What if freedom is just vernacular loneliness? See Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nonperformance” (talk at MoMA LIVE, Museum of Modern Art, New York, streamed live September 25, 2015), accessed June 20, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2leiFByIIg.


Go back