History Lessons

Ayala Museum’s associate curator Tenten Mina on the intricacies of her post and how it has deepened her appreciation and love for country

Interview John Alexis Balaguer
Images Tenten Mina

Ayala Museum’s associate curator, Marinella ‘Tenten’ Mina, Header: Cleaning and documentation of tradeware ceramic collection.

Hi Tenten! How have you been? Is the Ayala Museum scheduled to re-open soon?

Hi John! I’ve had my share of struggles this past year, as I’m sure we’ve all had, but I’m still gratefully counting all my blessings. While the pandemic has caused a lot of delays to our original timetable for the museum renovation, we’re hopeful that we can re-open this year. The team is working really hard to work within the safety and health protocols while trying to keep to our schedule.

Ayala Museum is a privately owned arts and history museum dating back to the 1960s. You had been in service here since 2005—can you tell us about your current role as a museum curator?

As an Associate Curator at the museum, my work is primarily to conduct scholarly research on our various collections, and to share these stories in the form of exhibitions or public programs. While preparing for the physical re-opening of the museum, the team has produced a lot of digital content that is anchored on the museum’s collection and we have continued to expand these programs. Associate curators normally have a specific area of expertise within a museum’s range of collections and the variety of museum collections really can be a lot for one person to study thoroughly. In our case, the Ayala Museum Collection includes numismatic, ecclesiastical, historical, fine arts, archaeological and ethnographic materials. I work primarily with the Chinese and Southeast Asian tradeware ceramics and the Philippine indigenous textiles but in a broader sense, my research interest lies in networks of contact and cultural and material exchanges with the Philippines.

The museum has a responsibility to conserve, research, and communicate heritage, among others. What principles do museum curators follow?

While museums are places to see things, I like to think that they are ultimately about people. Museums are about our experiences, desires, ideas, worries, anxieties, beliefs, values, and hopes. As such, museum workers should exhibit integrity, intellectual honesty, rigor in our research, and of course, and perhaps most importantly, respect for the diversity of cultures, traditions, & beliefs.

Can you contextualize or exemplify these principles in your current role? How do these values apply to your work on a daily basis?

Since the museum closed for renovation in 2019, we’ve really bolstered our online programming. And because digital engagement has increased on our different online channels, we’re really challenged to regularly come up with compelling but well-researched and thought-out content. The research on the museum collections continues. It didn’t stop when we closed our doors. With the amount of research that is being generated regularly on different fields and which is also now available online, there’s always something new to learn that may be relevant to any of our holdings. Aside from keeping updated on scholarly research, we also try to keep abreast of current events and museological practices and thoughts.

Packing artworks at the end of the exhibition

Does this role pose any unique challenges given the nature and tenets of museums?

I think one of the challenges for museum curators, especially in a small private institution like ours, is that when we work with such diverse collections, you need to rely on so many specializations which might not be tenable to expect one person to have. So, I would say perhaps that the challenge is to be able to build relationships with many respected specialists in these different fields so that when we do work with the variety of materials in the museum collection, we can come up with comprehensive at the same time meaningful and accurate narratives. And this also applies to the conservation of the collection because the variety of the materials also require a wide network of different kinds of specialists knowledgeable in the treatment and restoration of different media.

In the challenge of network building and specialization, what are some directions this role might lean towards sooner or later? And consequently, how should museums and institutions respond?

I think that there has been an increase in interest in the field of conservation for one thing and I do know that there are also a lot more educational institutions that have programs geared towards curatorial studies and related fields. So, it’s really a matter of institutions building the right connections. I do think that one challenge that a lot of institutions still face today though is how we can more easily but safely and securely share information about our collections even between institutions.

Could you share some memorable highlights, perhaps concerning items of personal or professional interest that you worked on firsthand?

I have worn a couple of hats for the museum so to speak but I clearly recall in my early years while working in the Tours and Education Department of the museum that the Curatorial Department was looking for volunteers among the staff who were willing to help with the conservation and cleaning of a large collection of tradeware ceramics that was now on long term loan to the museum. This is the Roberto T. Villanueva collection that has been with the museum since 2006 (if I’m not mistaken). And so, we spent maybe three or four days total, locked in a room under the supervision of the collections associate, helping with the cleaning of the ceramics collection and this made such a huge impact on me. It was when I got to really come up close to the object that I was able to start growing a real appreciation for the medium. My initial interest in Chinese aesthetics was in ceremonial bronze and I wasn’t quite so familiar with the variety of Chinese ceramics. So that experience was really an eye-opener for me, and it has become central to a lot of the research work I have done since.

If museums were to invest more in collections management, research, or exhibitions, what practical or strategic approaches might be considered?

I think that it goes without saying that museums are by default required to invest in collections management and research because it is in our mandate to care for the collection, to conduct research on it, and to share this information with the public. So it is an absolute necessity for any institution that has a collection or that borrows collections and exhibits them to invest in the training of staff and to have the infrastructure in place for record-keeping and documentation. By infrastructure, I don’t necessarily mean an expensive data management program. It can be as simple as properly filing and storing information on a spreadsheet. What is vital is that all important information is securely and systematically stored.

How have exhibitions changed in the museum perspective as they relate to institutional collections?

I find that with the art world in general pivoting towards digital media due to the pandemic has allowed us to rethink the possibilities of exhibitions. Essentially, an exhibition is a story that is told through objects and images. In our world of physical distancing, we have been reminded that we can still connect with people and share stories without the boundaries of physical space. Many galleries and museums have for example pivoted towards using social media platforms as exhibition spaces whereas before these were treated as complementary marketing platforms.

You have other appointments as an archaeologist, co-founder of art collective Visual Pond, Board Member of ceramics research organization Oriental Ceramics Society of the Philippines, and member of Heritage Conservation Society, among others. Have these engagements informed one another in what you do?

Well, I’m still trying to finish my Masters in Archaeology but yes, I have and continue to dabble in a lot of different things. All these interests are somehow related under the broad spectrum of Philippine culture and history though so I suppose I didn’t necessarily think of these engagements as ways of furthering my career but of me further enhancing my appreciation for our heritage. In retrospect, I guess that does actually eventually feed back into the development of my own “curatorial voice” (as Ms. Ditas Samson, our Senior Curator and Head of Research & Publications like to call it) and career in some way, whether or not I was conscious of it.

In your own “curatorial voice,” what priorities come to the forefront? Or yet, how do you make artworks, artifacts, contexts, audiences, and the contemporary find encounters?

There are themes and questions that are timeless and resonate with every generation. This includes questions of who we are, how we deal with inequity, what do we aspire towards, and how we relate with others. When we do projects centered on these questions, we create content that many people can identify with. And reaching out to the general public and not just the art community through our various programs and offerings is a shared desire for most museums. But I think that what we’re coming to terms with now is that while we always want to be as inclusive of the general public as we can be in our exhibitions, we should also address specific audiences and concerns with targeted programs so that we can create more meaningful experiences for our audience. For example, we did something quite out of the box last year for International Museum Day by creating content on the video game Animal Crossing. That was an example of a very targeted activity for an audience that we don’t normally reach out to. The real value of a museum object is primarily in that encounter when it resonates with the audience and it is the job of the curator to find ways to make that encounter happen.

With regards to prioritizing narratives, I was lucky to attend a small group discussion with Dr. Amareswar Galla, UNESCO Chair on Inclusive Museums and Sustainable Heritage Development at Anant National University, and he raised a very important point that I try to remember as a guide. To paraphrase, he said that we talk about museum programs as means of sharing stories, but do we consider whose voices and narratives are being heard, documented, and even propagated? So ironically, while I feel I’m still further developing it, I think my curatorial directive is to highlight the stories of the cultures and sectors of society that are directly presented in our programs.

Can you share some of your current curatorial engagements and fellowships?

I’m working with three other Asian curators on an online exhibition project called Reading Textiles on Instagram that looks at the complexities and urgencies tied in with the heritage of Asian textiles. This collaboration with Masako Tanaka of Teien Metropolitan Art Museum in Tokyo, Tony Sugiarta of aNerd Gallery in Singapore, and Arie Syarifuddin of Jatiwangi Art Factory in Indonesia is a result of an e-residency program for curators organized by the Asia-Europe Foundation in late 2020. We were fortunate to have as our program mentor Mizuki Takahashi, the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Centre for Heritage Art & Textiles in Hong Kong. Currently, I’m also participating as a fellow in the 2021 Engagement Program for International Curators by the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC).

Mina participated and presented at the International Conference of Binh Dinh Ancient Ceramics, Institute of Imperial Citadel Studies & Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences in Quy Nhon, Vietnam, held last 27-28 October 2017

What has been the greatest personal takeaway you have had as a curator managing museum collections?

Well, I’ve always been drawn to art. I cannot say I always understood it but I was drawn to it. So I wanted to work in a museum. But working for an art and history museum has also helped me grow in ways I did not plan. I remember recently telling some of our younger staff that growing up, I admired how my grandparents loved this country so much so that even when opportunities came to migrate to first world countries after the war, they decided to stay despite the possibility of better opportunities abroad. On a very personal level, working at the museum has prompted me to try to understand what my grandparents understood about what it meant to be Filipino and why they loved our country despite all the challenges. I just hope that I’m able to share some of that appreciation and wonder in the work that we do at the museum.

What would you like the audiences and public to know about museum curatorship from a specialist’s perspective? Any insights that might not be readily apparent that you think should be shared?

It’s a challenging job and it certainly comes with a lot of responsibilities, but I think it’s also a very interesting and fulfilling position to be in. What I enjoy most about this job is that I feel that I’m continuously growing not just professionally but personally. It continues to enrich the way that I see the world. •

Research consultation with Mucha Shim-Quiling of Mindanao State University on Sama and Tausug textile traditions

John Alexis Balaguer is the head of research and operations at Palacio de Memoria arts and events center, managing the adaptively reused heritage mansion, and a private collection of European art and antiques. He is also founder and curator of Curare Art Space. Formerly, he was curatorial writer and researcher at Ayala Museum, writing for exhibitions and publications, and was managing editor of the museum magazine. His institutional work includes research for the catalogue raisonne of Spanish-Filipino artist Fernando Zobel. Prior, he was gallery manager at Archivo 1984 gallery. John is the 2019 recipient of the Ateneo Art Awards for Art Criticism, and currently contributes to Art Asia Pacific magazine.

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