A future for the past

“I had no idea that field existed in the Philippines” is a response I often get when people learn what I do. Historic preservation is a young but growing field in the country, with relatively few practitioners.

We have a big task ahead because we are losing our heritage faster than we can save it. Indeed, the battles are many and often uphill, so any win is meaningful. To get it done means uniting many disciplines, from broad fields like economics, law and history, to specific fields of architecture, archaeology, engineering and materials science.

Sometimes colleagues and I strongly feel the need for better institutional support but understand that government agencies and private institutions also have their hands full. On occasion, we compensate for the lack of funding and manpower with volunteers. There is much generosity of self in the heritage field — in no small part because we believe so deeply in the worth of preserving our heritage and its benefit to our national identity, economy, development.

For many, it’s vocation. An example is San Sebastian Basilica, where the research, documentation and diagnostic phases of the restoration ran on the passion and momentum of over a hundred professional volunteers. They came from all over the world, even the corrosion scientist for the Statue of Liberty, Dr. Robert Baboian, joined.

Another example of heritage volunteers is ICOMOS, a global heritage think-tank that is a consultant to UNESCO for world heritage sites. It has established national committees in 153 countries, mostly member-led, that work to preserve and protect heritage in their local contexts. Our Philippine committee mentors interns, conducts research and upskills professionals and local communities. We are planting seeds to arm the next generation to meet our challenges better.

I hope future heritage work will rely less on the generosity of its professionals, because it is specialized, technical work and should be remunerated. Thankfully, funders like UNESCO and National Geographic have partnered with us at ICOMOS for large projects, and we can pass that onto our accomplished volunteers. Locally and globally, the universe of heritage professionals is still small, but we plug away, united by the dream of leaving future generations with heritage places that are authentic, that they can cherish, celebrate and pass on.


Maria Cristina Paterno is the president and chairperson of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. She holds a master’s degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Pennsylvania, with a focus on conservation materials. She also worked as a conservator for Integrated Conservation Resources Inc. in New York City.