The Ethnology Division specializes in the study of the peoples of the Philippines and their material culture. The Division conducts research in the key fields of Anthropology, including material/tangible and intangible cultural heritage, and languages of the country. It manages over 10,000 catalogued National Ethnographic Collection and its archives gathered from 50 cultural communities beginning in the early part of the 20th century until present. It also extends technical assistance in the documentation and preservation of declared heritage sites maintained in situ all over the country.

Originally known as Anthropology Division, its renaming in 2016 followed the organizational reforms of National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) based on Republic Act No. 11333—the National Museum of the Philippines Act. Ethnology was formerly one of the three sections of the Anthropology Division which traces its beginnings back to 1901 and was considered as one of the oldest foundations of the institution. It was devoted in archaeological and ethnological studies, covering a period of discovery of the earliest man found in the  Philippines.  Despite the Division’s early beginnings, the records of studies conducted prior to World War II were lost to the damage obtained from the War.

Cultural Heritage Documentation After the War

Dr. Robert B. Fox was the chief of the Anthropology Division in the 1960s. He led a six-year research project in Palawan which paved the way to the discovery of  a fossilized frontal bone, a bone in front of the human head, believed to be from the Pleistocene epoch at the Tabon Caves—the Tabon man. This discovery had shed light on and contributed to the understanding of human formative history and placed the Philippines in the world map of Paleoanthropology for the first time.

Other major undertakings of the Division from 1960s to 1980s included the research on the Timbac Cave Mummies, the Ati-Atihan Festival, Dr. Felipe Landa Jocano’s study on the social structure and cultural changes in rural communities, the OKIR Project, and the photographic documentation of the Tau’t Batu people in Palawan. Following the success of the Tau’t Batu Project, the Division also conducted other significant studies on the Negrito including the Atta of Cagayan, the Itawes, the Jama Mapun of Sulu, and the I-wak, as well as a survey of Waray material culture.

In the 1990s, the Division took on new projects concerning ethnic mapping, revalidation and publication of Ethnographic Catalogues, the whale-shark hunting culture among the Pamilacan Islanders in Bohol, and systematic and comprehensive documentation of the Benguet Mummies in Kabayan. Two ethnographic exhibitions in Fort Pilar, Zamboanga were opened in 1993 featuring the Peoples of Southwestern Philippines—Sama, Subanun, and Yakan. Ten life/actual-size and miniature boats as well as boat-building materials and tools were collected from the Sama of Sitangkai in Tawi-Tawi through a grant from the Japan Foundation. The Division also documented the buklog ritual and collected material culture from the Subanun of Zamboanga del Norte in 1998. The Division also participated in the return of the mummified remains of Apo Annu to Buguias, Benguet, where he was laid in his final resting place in a rock shelter in Nabalicong  in May 1999. In preparation of the opening of the galleries at the Museum of the Filipino People in 1998, researchers and technicians of the Division collected material culture from Negros Occidental, Quezon, Batangas, and Laguna.

In addition to  technical reports and other publications, the Division managed to open various exhibitions at the Old Legislative Building of National Museum, foremost of which were The Muslim Filipino Art Exhibition, and the Kabihasnan Series, a two-part presentation consisting of Sa Daigdig ng Ifugao and the Duh-Igan or transfer rites of the Ifugao.

Ethnographic Collection at the Turn of the Century

In 1998, the current home of the Ethnology Division at the Department of Finance Building was turned over to the National Museum in celebration of the 100 years of Philippine Independence, and was renamed as the Museum of the Filipino People. It featured permanent ethnographic exhibitions such as the Kinahinatnan: The Filipinos and Their Rich Cultural Heritage and the Habi’t Saplot. The fifth level also became the repository of the National Ethnographic Collection (NEC) which was transferred from the National Museum of Fine Arts (formerly the National Art Gallery and Legislative Building) in 2002-2003.

During the last quarter of 2000, Philippine ethnographic specimens from the collections of General Bandholtz and Mr. and Mrs. Grafton Cook of Chicago, U.S.A. were returned to the country. These were documented and later temporarily presented at the National Museum’s exhibition entitled, Crafts and Weapon: A Homecoming from St. Louis Exposition 1904. An additional 52-piece collection of assorted ethnographic materials averaging from 80 to 100 years old were donated by the Charleston Museum of South Carolina as arranged by then Ambassador Ernesto Maceda through the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C.

From 2001 until present, the NEC substantially increased in number and range through field research, donations by the National Living Treasures and other private donors, and voluntary repatriations through the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC). The three (3) repositories located at the 5th level of the National Museum of Anthropology were also renovated and the collections were re-organized according to function and group as a new catalogue filing system is being created. Objects from the NEC which were stored and exhibited in the regional/area museums were also inventoried and revalidated from 2006 to 2009.

Selected ethnographic specimens from the NEC were also featured in two international exhibitions, including the “Land of the Morning, The Philippines and its People,” at the Asian Civilizations Museum of Singapore in 2009 and the ASEAN and China Traditional Woven Splendor and Related Activities in Chongqing and Beijing, China in 2011.

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) turned-over textiles and ornaments from the Apayao, Bontok, Gaddang and Kalinga, as well as the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) collection. The BOC turned-over the confiscated lantaka and mortero through the former Cultural Properties and Regulations Division. Over a hundred t’nalak, woven abaca cloth of the T’boli of Lake Sebu, which were featured in the book, Dreamweavers (2001), were also gifted to the nation. The Museum Foundation of the Philippines, Inc. donated several Maranao artifacts, including the borak (half-human and half-horse mythical figure), tabo/dabu-dabu (drum), and two ceremonial food containers.

Significant Field Researches from 2010 to 2021

Among the key field research and documentation conducted in the different cultural communities from 2010 to 2021 include the preservation of Tagbanua and Pala’wan syllabic script writing; abel weaving tradition, basi wine making, and damili pottery in Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur (2010-2011); Moriones Festival and mask-makers in Marinduque (2010); Ivatan vernacular architecture and vitu (vernacular well) in Batanes (2010, 2015, and 2017); farming and fishing implements and practices in Bohol (2010); cultural mapping of the Casiguran Dumagat in Aurora (2011); Benguet Mummies in Kabayan and Buguias, Benguet (2012-2017); Ifugao bago ritual (2014); indigo dyeing traditions in San  Zambales, Ilocos Sur, and Abra (2015-2018); Feast of the Black Nazarene (2016); San Isidro Labrador Festival in Quezon Province (2016); Philippine ethnic designs (2016); Sto. Niño Festivals (2017); Tau’t Batu community in Singnapan Valley, Ransang, Rizal, Palawan (2017-2018); boat-building practices in Barbo, Baras and Suluan Island, Guimaras, Eastern Samar (2017); Aeta Mag-anchi of Pampanga and Ati of Guimaras (2018); maritime ethnography among coastal communities, raffia weaving, and asin tibuok (salt-making) in Bohol (2019); textile and mat and basket weaving communities (2016-2019); field documentation on the life and works of Manlilikha ng Bayan Estelita Tumandan Bantilan and Manlilikha ng Bayan Yabing Masalon Dulo (2020); and ocular inspection in preparation for research and documentation related to the restoration of the Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay and surrounding vicinities in Taal, Batangas (2021).

Expanding Exhibitions and Public Programs

In 2014, the curatorial master plan of the National Museum of Anthropology (NMA), formerly known as National Museum of the Filipino People, was drafted for the reconceptualization of the galleries and improvement of facilities and amenities. The upgrading of the galleries and exhibition at the NMA started with the Hibla ng Lahing Filipino: The Artistry of Philippines Textiles, the Baybayin: Ancient and Traditional Scripts of the Philippines, and the Rice: Biodiversity and Climate Change exhibitions in 2013. This was followed by the launching of the Faith, Tradition and Place: Bangsamoro Art from the National Ethnographic Collection in 2014. In 2015, two additional exhibitions were inaugurated— Lantaka: Of War and Peace and Lumad Mindanao. As the highlight of the celebration of the National Heritage Month in 2016, the Manlilikha ng Bayan Hall was launched to give due recognition to the 13 individuals conferred with the Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) or National Living Treasures Award beginning 1993, by featuring their respective works. The gallery was upgraded in 2021 to include the three Manlilikha ng Bayan from Mindanao who were conferred in 2017. The exhibitions Entwined Spheres: Mats and Baskets as Containers, Conveyors and Costumes and Biyay: Tradition, Ecology and Knowledge among the Philippine Negrito Communities were opened to the public in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

A number of exhibitions were also launched in different regional museums such as the Southern Philippines: Portal and Nexus of Barter, Trade and Exchange at the NM Western-Southern Mindanao Regional Museum in Zamboanga City in 2014; Containing the Cultural World of Basi (2015) and Abel Iloko (2017) at the NM Ilocos Regional Museum Complex in Vigan City; Habol Panay: The Artistry of Western Visayas Textiles at the NM Western Visayas Regional Museum in Iloilo City in 2018; and the Moryonan: Art and Devotion at the Marinduque-Romblon Area Museum in Marinduque in 2020.

These exhibitions resulted to the publication of the Baybayin, Ancient and Traditional Scripts in the Philippines (2015), Hibla ng Lahing Filipino: The Artistry of Philippine Textiles Catalog (2016), and the Lumad Mindanao Catalog in 2020.

The Division also spearheaded the first international travelling exhibition, in partnership with the Office of Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda, entitled Hibla ng Lahing Filipino Travelling Exhibition featuring Piña-Seda: Pineppple and Silk Cloths from the Tropics from 2017 to 2019. This was incorporated in the cultural and diplomacy program of the fourteen (14) Philippine Service Posts (PSP) in Europe, North and Latin America, and Asia.

Aside from exhibitions, the Ethnology Division was also involved in the Heritage Recovery and Reconstruction Program of the NMP, particularly the retrieval, documentation, and management of cultural materials and heritage churches damaged by the earthquake in Bohol and the La Inmaculada Concepcion Church Complex damaged by  Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in Guiuan, Eastern Samar from 2013 to 2019. The Division currently works with the NMP Caysasay Task Force that is in charge of the restoration project.

The Division has also conducted a workshop series, entitled “Running a Museum” on collection, storage, preventive conservation, exhibition, and documentation of ethnographic collections in Zamboanga, Ilocos Sur, Bohol, and Cagayan in 2014 and 2019. From 2014 to 2018, a series of lectures and weaving demonstrations by more than 20 textile, mat and basket weaving communities were held at the NM of Anthropology, in partnership with the Office of Senator Loren Legarda. 

At present, the Division is focused on upgrading its repositories, conservation laboratories, and its stoneware resource center; revalidation of field researches; developing programs and exhibitions for the regional museums; and publishing its research studies and exhibition catalogs.