Why you should care about heritage markers on historical structures

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

As National Cultural Heritage Month comes to a close, it is important to raise awareness on an important aspect of Philippine heritage: the heritage marker. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Kathleen Tantuico is a recent graduate of the UP College of Law and passed the 2019 Bar examinations. She has a graduate diploma in Archaeology from the UP Archaeological Studies Program. She specialized in Cultural Heritage and History at the Ateneo. She is currently a member of the National Committee on Monuments and Sites under the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Remnants of the Philippines’ colonial history are remembered through significant Spanish-era churches, stone houses, monuments, and other historical sites scattered all over the Philippines. These structures are identified by official heritage markers attached on visible areas within their premises. Heritage markers not only bear the cultural and historical significance of a building or space. They also indicate that such structure or area must be preserved and protected from destruction.

As May, National Cultural Heritage Month, comes to a close, it is important to raise awareness on an important aspect of Philippine heritage: what is a heritage marker, and why is it crucial in ensuring the protection and preservation of significant heritage structures?

The inscription of heritage markers on heritage structures can be traced back to the 1970s, when then-President Marcos declared numerous historical and cultural structures as National Cultural Treasures, National Shrines, Monuments and Landmarks. At that time, these heritage markers merely declared the historical and cultural significance of heritage buildings or sites, and provided no other legal implications.

In 2010, the Philippine Congress passed the National Cultural Heritage Law to address the destruction of heritage sites in the country. During the deliberations prior to the enactment of the law, senators expressed concern over the destruction of historical buildings to construct roads and other large-scale development projects. In particular, one senator bared that a declared historical area in Cagayan de Oro was deliberately destroyed for the construction of a bridge.

Senator Edgardo Angara, one of the sponsors of this law, then explained that had there been a law protecting the historical area, a permit from the National Museum should have first been obtained before demolishing the historical site. Hence, the Heritage Law supplemented existing laws to intensify the protection of cultural heritage in the country.

Today, heritage markers are visible signs that a built structure or an open site bears cultural or historical significance to the country. These structures are protected by law, and must not be demolished or altered without being sanctioned by the appropriate government agency.

Under the said law, the following immovable cultural properties are entitled to a heritage marker: National Cultural Treasures; Important Cultural Property; National Historical Shrines; National Historical Monuments; National Historical Landmarks, and World Heritage Sites.

The Church of San Mattias in Timauini, Isabela. Photo by ELVIRA A. TANKIAMCO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, Manila. Photo by JASON IAN YAP/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

National Cultural Treasures possess outstanding historical, cultural, artistic, and scientific value, which is highly significant to the country, as determined by either the National Museum (NM) or the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP). An example of this is the Church of San Mattias in Timauini, Isabela. This Spanish-era stone church with a unique cylindrical bell tower is the only one of its kind in the Philippines. Other examples are Fort Pilar in Zamboanga City as a historic site; and Cape Bojeador Lighthouse in Burgos, Ilocos Norte as a Spanish Colonial lighthouse.

Important Cultural Properties have exceptional cultural, artistic, and historical significance to the Philippines, as determined by either the NM or the NHCP. These include the Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, Manila; and the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

National Historical Shrines are historical sites or structures revered for their history, as determined by the NHCP. These include the site of the Battle of Mactan in Cebu, which is the site where Lapulapu killed the Portugese explorer Magellan.

National Historical Monuments are structures that honor illustrious persons or commemorate events of historical value, as determined by the NHCP. The Jose Rizal monument in Luneta Park is one example.

National Historical Landmarks are sites or structures that are associated with events or achievements significant in Philippine history, as determined by the NHCP. An example of this is the Leyte Landing Site in Tacloban, Leyte, the site where General Douglas returned to the Philippines in World War II. 

Lastly, World Heritage Sites are heritage sites that not only have national significance, but also have unique characteristics that are significant to world heritage, as declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Office (UNESCO). An example of this is the Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church in Miag-ao, Ilo-ilo.

The Battle of Mactan Monument in Cebu. Photo by JSINGLADOR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Rizal Monument at the Luneta Park in Manila. Photo by JEN ACABA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church in Miag-ao, Ilo-ilo. Photo by HARRY BALAIS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Heritage Buildings are significant not only for their historical value, but also because of the soundness of their physical integrity. It is through these structures that we are still able to glimpse into the Spanish-era Philippines.

Marked heritage structures, as well as the markers themselves, must not be defaced or destroyed. They must also maintain their overall appearance and authenticity. Thus, buildings and areas with heritage markers are also entitled to government funding for protection, conservation and restoration, even during times of armed conflict, natural circumstances and other exceptional events. The NHCP or the NM can also suspend activities in the building or site, if its physical integrity is in danger.

The specific cultural agency that determined the heritage structure’s cultural significance is also indicated on a heritage marker. Hence, if a marked building has been destroyed, or is threatened with destruction through unauthorized renovation, real-estate development, road-widening projects, or demolition, and even vandalism, either the NHCP or the NM must be informed immediately. In fact, a hefty fine of ₱200,000 or even imprisonment of at most 10 years await any person who destroys, demolishes marked heritage structures. In 2018, charges were filed against a parish priest for the unauthorized renovation of a Spanish-era convent that was declared an Important Cultural Property.

Even unmarked historical structures are protected by the law. Structures that are at least 50 years old are presumed as Important Cultural Properties, and can be officially declared and marked as such later on. Numerous unmarked Spanish-era historical structures have been spared from destruction, thanks to this provision. For example, in 2019, the NHCP saved an unmarked 243-year old watch tower in Maasin, Leyte from being destroyed by a road-widening project. A parish priest was also stopped from renovating an unmarked Spanish-era convent in Iloilo without securing a permit from the NHCP.

Any interested person can file a petition to have an unmarked historical structure or site officially declared as either a National Cultural Treasure or an Important Cultural Property. To do this, they must file a petition with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Stakeholders such as Local Government Units, cultural and tourism councils and schools will then be summoned to participate in the deliberation process, which the NM or the NHCP must resolve within 90 days.

Heritage markers not only inform the public about heritage structures’ importance to Filipino history and culture. They also work to shield these historic structures from destruction. This ensures that their appearance is closest to how they appeared centuries ago. Being able to experience them as such, the present generation can now be linked to the previous generations, which is one way by which cultural heritage can truly be experienced.