An online museum that immortalizes years of martial rule

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The Martial Law Museum shows that even if there are people who attempt to bury the atrocities of dictatorial rule, there will always be Filipinos who will speak out. Screenshot from MARTIALLAWMUSEUM.PH

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) —  Last year, during Ferdinand Marcos' 99th birthday, the Official Gazette's Facebook page posted a tribute to the then-dictator, saying that Marcos declared martial law "to suppress communist insurgency," and that he "stepped down" from power "to avoid bloodshed" at the height of the People Power Revolution. The post was called out by social media users for 'historical revisionism' and for downplaying the role that Marcos played in the oppression of human rights. This is one glaring reality showing how Filipinos remain divided over the memory of martial law.

Since its declaration in 1972, martial law has always carried with it two opposing narratives — one perpetrated by Marcos propaganda that depicted martial law as the herald of a New Society that will bring about 'change' and 'progress,' and the other, which displayed the various human rights violations, evidenced by curtailed freedom of speech and accounts of individuals who were tortured, jailed, and/or killed.

The dichotomy of martial law

The opposing narratives are what the newly launched online portal, Martial Law Museum, seeks to address. Spearheaded by the Ateneo de Manila University, the platform is a community response to reclaim national memory and promote engaged citizenship; a resource with a mission to reveal extensive information gathered of the 14-year dictatorial rule in order to educate the public of the truth.

"Like it or not, this dichotomy is out there in the public arena and to deny its existence is to fool ourselves into a state of mindless oblivion or deliberate forgetfulness," says historian Maria Sereno Diokno, during her keynote speech at the launch of the online museum.

martiallawmuseum7.jpg Since its declaration in 1972, martial law has always carried with it two opposing narratives. Screenshot from MARTIALLAWMUSEUM.PH  

For Diokno, it is necessary and significant that Filipinos memorialize the shared experience of oppression and resistance to oppression, especially at this time in the Philippines where there is a perceived "creeping authoritarianism." She cites the 'problematic' actions of government bodies of today, like the National Historical Commission of the Philippines' (NHCP) decision to give historical markers both to Marcos and her father, Jose "Ka Pepe" Diokno.

Her family, upon hearing the decision on Marcos' burial, refused to accept NHCP's marker for her father. “How can two diametrically opposed historical roles — one of a dictator, the other of a defender of freedom and privacy — be rewarded equally by the nation's historical body? By conferring historical recognition upon both Filipinos, the NHCP board, in my family's view, sets a moral equivalence to oppression and resistance to oppression."

The background of the project

Arjan Aguirre, project director of the Martial Law Museum, says that what jolted the team into creating the website was the burial of the dictator in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Another motivating factor for them was the near victory of Bongbong Marcos during the 2016 elections.

The platform is not purely about the dictator and his family; the information goes beyond the Marcos reign. "Our initiative is not just against a person, it's more of an initiative to engage a phenomenon called dictatorship or authoritarian rule,” he says. “We are here to commit ourselves to those things that are usually affected ... by authoritarian rule: human rights, democracy, freedom, individual dignity, etc."

"Like it or not, this dichotomy is out there in the public arena and to deny its existence is to fool ourselves into a state of mindless oblivion or deliberate forgetfulness." — Maria Sereno Diokno


Aguirre also adds that it is a communal, intergenerational initiative, which means that all the information in the website is a collaborative effort among past and present generations, academic institutions, and civil society groups that all aim to present the truth about the dictatorship.

The contents of the museum

The website presents three pillars: Mag-aral, Magturo, and Manindigan. The Mag-aral library enables visitors of the website to experience all of the content and the exhibits. Joshua Uyheng, the project's head of research, says that they took a chronological approach in presenting data and information under the Mag-aral tab. "It's divided into four key sections: the beginnings of martial law, martial law in the Philippines, the end of martial law, and lessons of martial law," he says.  

As Mag-aral is the main educational plank of the website, it goes into the specifics of Marcos' speeches, his massive network of cronies, the heroes who fought martial law, as well as a list of things Imelda Marcos left when the Marcoses fled Malacañang, among many others. Uyheng believes that within these documents, readers should be able to evaluate whether any of Marcos' promises were fulfilled, how much wealth the Marcoses have amassed over the years, and what Filipinos endured during this time.

As mentioned by Aguirre, the initiative is not purely about the Marcoses. Uyheng adds that they also included what Filipinos can learn from this phenomenon. "What we want is not just for students or visitors of the site to know the facts about martial law, but also what we can learn from the entire historical experience," he says. "There's really a more conceptual and deepened discussion on what democracy versus authoritarianism is  … what are [our] rights under the constitution and how they can enact and engage citizenship."

martiallawmuseum.jpg The website not only features written works about martial law in the Philippines, it also exhibits photos (e.g. pictured above) of the events that were documented during that time. Screenshot from MARTIALLAWMUSEUM.PH  

The next pillar, Magturo, caters to a specialized audience: K-12 teachers. The tab includes an array of lesson plans that integrate lessons from martial law into the K-12 curriculum. The lesson plans not only touch on Araling Panlipunan, there are also other subjects, like math, with modules that have problem solving exercises that are relevant to history. For example, an exercise requires the student to solve the number of classrooms that can be built should the Marcoses return a certain amount of ill-gotten wealth.

The last pillar is Manindigan. "This really is a call to move beyond the classroom, for students to do more than just learn the facts of martial law; for teachers to do more than teach the facts of martial law. It's to take a stand with us," says Uyheng. One of their major projects under this pillar is the Martial Law Museum Awards next year, where high school students from across the Philippines are encouraged to join and use art or literature as a means to express the value of martial law history.

The ongoing battle

Aguirre says that the Magturo and Manindigan pillars are important offline actions that complement the online museum. However, as the basic foundation of the museum is the website, Aguirre mentions that one of the challenges the team faced when putting up the initiative were the trolls on Facebook. "When we were doing this initiative, we already encountered trolls. They come from, perhaps, the other camp, sa mga Marcoses. They try to mock us, bash us. That's the number one challenge [so far]."

martiallawmuseum22.jpg What jolted the team behind the Martial Law Museum into creating the website was the burial of the dictator in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Screenshot from MARTIALLAWMUSEUM.PH

Aguirre adds that another challenge is the pessimism or cynicism of some people who feel that it is useless to have this initiative. "We have encountered people who are so clear about that sentiment [where] they feel that it's so senseless to have this talk again about martial law," he explains. "We try to address these issues by making sure that this initiative will be inclusive enough to engage people, narratives; to know things, to know those claims objectively."

Despite the trolls and pessimists that surround the mission of the project, the creation of the Martial Law Museum exemplifies that even when there are people who deny the atrocities of dictatorial rule, and there are those who want memories of martial law to disappear into oblivion, there will always be Filipinos who will not be silenced.

In her speech, Diokno quotes political theorist Hannah Arendt: "… The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story."