Uncovering the Philippines in Aberdeen

Growing up as a half-Filipino in the United States, left a lot to be desired in learning about my ancestral country. Researching a Filipino outfit found in the collection provided me a chance to learn more about my heritage, which I had yet to delve deep into. My research revealed the university museum had a traditional outfit, called Ompák, from the Bagóbo minority ethnic group. The Bagóbo are from Davao, Philippines; which is located in Mindanao, the southern most main island of the country. Ompák is traditionally made out of abaca, a woven banana fibre material that is indigenous to the region. Today there are very few makers of abaca in the Philippines and thus some Ompák is now being made with more modern material. Ompák is a multifunctional outfit and has roles in, but not only, Bagóbo bride wealth, warding off sickness, representing beauty, spiritual strength, and political power. Thus, Ompák not only has strong ties to culture, but also to Bagóbo identity. Very old Ompák outfits are seen as family heirlooms and are cherished. The only reason for a family to get rid the outfit was to exchange it for food in financially difficult times.

Learning about the importance of Ompák in Bagóbo culture, made me wonder how the museum obtained this outfit if it was such an important item to the people who created it. The great thing about being a museum studies student, is that you can have access to object record files. On the downside, having access doesn’t necessarily mean you will find a lot of information. I found one line. On an old piece of lined paper with a list of items donated in 1930 reads, “Philippine Islands: Cloth dress decorated with beads.” It was donated by a Dr. John McPherson who did most of his research in Mexico. When not doing research, he lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. From what I can tell from letters in the museum records, McPherson was nowhere near the Philippines in the 1920s and 1930s, causing me to wonder how he came across the Ompák. Did he take a quick trip to the Philippines and never recorded it? Or did someone travel from the Philippines to Mexico (both countries having strong historical ties to Spain) and show it to McPherson?

How does Ompák relate to authenticity? With Ompák being connected to Bagóbo identity, it represents a culture trying to hold on to its traditions. Today the Bagóbo struggle to maintain their traditions as the younger generation goes off to college and joins the Christian majority of the population. This can cause others to see them as less “authentic” Bagóbo because they are seen as turning their back on their culture and heritage.

I invite you to visit Objects Uncovered: Questioning Authenticity exhibit opening 11 June 2019. Come see the bag from the Ompák and other items as we invite you to think about the different stories each object shares.

By Amber-Kathleen Bullock

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