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Friday, June 27, 2008

Pieces of Stolen History

I always look forward to reading Ambeth Ocampo's column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Looking Back. I read it to gain snippets of knowledge about our past. But, it also leaves me exasperated and sad when he writes about instances where people who are supposed to be protectors of our history end up being its enemies. The following is a portion of Ambeth's column printed today:

"We have heard horror stories of the odyssey of our archives half a century ago. Whatever survived the Battle for Manila in 1945 was stored in Bilibid prison where it was ravaged by floods, rodents and humidity. Cockroaches and ants ate the gum and glue in bindings, while termites and silverfish feasted on the parchment and paper. Foxing, acid, insects can be cleared with patience and chemicals, but the truly irreversible damage is that inflicted by humans. Old-timers remember how an enterprising employee sold bundles of ancient Spanish documents as scrap paper, with the sturdy paper that survived centuries ending up as “supot” [bags] in Manila markets. Today with the help of a modernization grant from the Kingdom of Spain, our documents are being cleaned, conserved and scanned for greater access."

By no means is this a Filipino phenomenon, read excerpts of the article, To Catch a Thief in the Smithsonian Magazine which touched on how E. Forbes Smiley III, an art dealer, went on a "shopping" spree ripping out maps from archives of several schools and museums.

"Smiley stole at least 97 maps from six distinguished institutions and sold them the old-fashioned way, privately, without eBay. A simple mistake stopped his spree: on June 8, 2005, a staff member found an X-Acto blade on the floor of Yale University's rare book and manuscript library. Told of the find, a supervisor noticed a man at a table examining rare maps and, using visitor logs, identified him as Smiley. Through an Internet search, the supervisor discovered that Smiley was a map dealer. A police officer found several Yale maps in Smiley's briefcase. After his arrest, five other libraries realized that Smiley had robbed them, too."

"The 97 maps were worth $3 million. But street value does not begin to capture the role of rare manuscripts, books and maps in illuminating a culture's milestones and missteps. When a car is stolen, its owner suffers alone. When a Civil War document disappears from an archive, everyone is diminished, even if just a little. It is no longer there to educate..."

(Caption: Early 18th-century map of New Jersey that is still missing from the New York Public Library)


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