How museologist Dr. Ana Labrador learned to navigate power structures in academe and heritage management

‘In most arts and heritage institutions, men tend to get the top positions and women are made to produce outcomes that will make the men look good.’

When museologist and social anthropologist Dr. Ana Labrador says that women have indeed come a long way, she was there to witness the best and worst in academe, government, and research. As a young university student and later an academic, she and her contemporaries experienced professors who showed “affection” by giving their students “wet kisses on the cheeks” or trying to date them.

“This prevented many of the women from staying in the office to have a decent chat with colleagues because we wanted to avoid being the objects of ‘affection’ of the sleazy male academics,” Ana says.  

Despite this—or maybe because of this—Ana outshone them all. A social anthropologist and museologist by training, with a PhD from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Museum and Gallery Management from the City, University of London, Ana was part of a team of 20 museum professionals that shaped a new definition for museums worldwide and adopted recently during the ICOM General Conference in Prague.

She has worked in various capacities with the University of Melbourne in Australia, the National Heritage Board of Singapore; the Central Visayas Museum Association in Cebu; and the University of Michigan. She is also a published author on social anthropology, museology, preventive conservation, and art history.

She taught for 22 years at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and eight years at the Ateneo de Manila University. Ana stepped down as Deputy Director-General for Museums at the National Museum of the Philippines in 2021 after 10 years of being responsible for research development, collections management, museology, and technical assistance.

What is your leadership style?

As a heritage manager, social anthropologist and museologist, I apply principles of learning from experience, nurturing and mentoring. I prefer a collegial relationship. It means most of the time I’m tutoring and training people from the ground up especially in the Philippines, where the sensibilities of collections care within the heritage sector needs to be improved.

I was just in Ilocos Sur, conducting field research on a little-known area of their local heritage sites called the baldi—round indigo vats that are about nine feet tall and six feet wide. I brought with me an all-women team to conduct research on what seems to be practiced by unknown and probably “ordinary” group of people based on the literature we have found so far. Having a team of mostly women elicited a different kind of information and relationship on the ground. I did not get this from any book but from the experience of having led similar programs in the past.

Dr. Ana Labrador and her son Carlo Labrador-Pangalangan
Dr. Ana Labrador and her son Carlo Labrador-Pangalangan.

What are the benefits of having women in leadership roles?

Women must be better seen, but they must assume leadership roles differently from men. We tend to be relegated to do the work of our male leaders. In most arts and heritage institutions, men tend to get the top positions and women are made to produce outcomes that will make the men look good. We must reverse this situation so the women who do all the work are recognized properly.

Yes, it is possible that art spaces could be a good opportunity for women to be leaders in the field. We have many great women artists of past and present who made a name for themselves despite the restrictions imposed upon them by a patriarchal society. There are now a number of women who head art galleries in the Philippines, such as Rachelle Rillo and Isa Lorenzo of Silverlens (Makati City), Silvana Diaz of Galleria Duemila (Pasay City), Maris Hopainen of Qube Gallery (Cebu City), and Kitty Taniguchi of Mariyah Gallery (Dumaguete City), among many others. They remind us of the pioneering promoter of modern art in our country Lyd Arguilla who established the Philippine Art Gallery in Manila in 1950. We just need to widen spaces for women in the field of heritage and museums since male domination is still very well entrenched.

What do you think is the behavior or trait that derails women in their careers? What is it that lets them flourish in their careers?

To be positive about it, women are the primary carers and nurturers in their families. There is also their optimism that keeps them going in their chosen field but sometimes to the detriment of their health and wellbeing. The Philippines is still very patriarchal and on occasions when women go against men; it is other women who put them down. In popular media, it is news when women get into a catfight or they reduce the argument between men and women as “lovers’ quarrel,” thereby diminishing the issues raised or their legitimacy. I am embarrassed for other women who subscribe to those notions.

There has yet to be a conscious and active awareness in our country for women to support each other in government, business, and in the arts. Women’s Month should be the occasion to promote this because violence against women continues, if not physically, then emotionally and psychologically. For us to flourish in our careers, we need to be determined to get qualifications, take care of ourselves first, and then advance in our own spaces.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion must be at the heart of what we do to make spaces for more people to contribute to the growth of the arts, heritage, and public sectors.

How did you navigate power structures when you were starting and how do you navigate them now?

In a way, it is a lot better for some women now. When I was starting at university, there were married professors who would take advantage of us, give us wet kisses on the cheeks or try to date us. It was all so slimy and gross, but they were in positions of power. This prevented many of the women from staying in the office to have a decent chat with colleagues because we wanted to avoid being the objects of “affection” of the sleazy male academics.

When other powerful women in the university pushed to criminalize such behavior and making these men accountable to the point of losing their pensions, younger members of the faculty and students had a better environment to educate themselves. We still have a long way to go especially in the public heritage sector where women are afraid to unsubscribe to the notion that men must be catered to and allowed all sorts of transgressions such as sexist behavior, smoking and drinking in government buildings, and relying on them to do most of the work while the men get all the glory. Equality, diversity, and inclusion must be at the heart of what we do to make spaces for more people to contribute to the growth of the arts, heritage, and public sectors.

Did you have a role model or mentor? What are the lessons they taught you?

My mother was my primary role model. She had eight children but kept her job while we were growing up until she retired at 65 years old. My father supported that because he loved her deeply. His mother, who had a strong will, most likely shaped him and knew perhaps that he could not win with my mother. She has always been feisty and saw to it that we were all educated properly. She would counsel the women in our family, as well as her students, to make sure that in love or life partnerships your partner should love you more since the world outside the home and relationships disadvantage women.

Being primarily an academic, I can also cite my many teachers and mentors, both men and women, who motivated me as they became beacons of professional conduct and experts in their field. At my age, I can also say that some of my students, former young colleagues in museums I have worked at, and fellow travelers in this journey continue to inspire me to do well in my profession. The adage “It takes a village” to develop a person is so true in my case. I am a life-long learner.

What’s your advice for women to advance professionally?

Educate yourselves and get good training in your chosen field of study or specialization. Do not take shortcuts or cheat even if it is difficult and everyone else is taking advantage of others. Once you get your qualifications, no one will be able to take that away from you and you can choose what you can do with it.

Be kind, especially to other women and those differently abled or disadvantaged. Make space for them. Be curious and learn from others. If you can help, take every opportunity to do so. If more of us have the training and willingness to work, and not live vicariously through social media, we can be less vain and have a sense of humility that doing good for the communities and the environment would be the best possible outcome to advance professionally.

We have many great women artists of past and present who made a name for themselves despite the restrictions imposed upon them by a patriarchal society. There are now a number of women who head art galleries in the Philippines.

What is your secret in balancing career and family/personal life?  How hard was it for you and what was the breakthrough moment when you said, “I got this!”

Gosh, I don’t think “I got this!” yet. As I mentioned, I’m a lifelong learner and the more I learn, the more I realize there is more that I have yet to learn. It is an advantage that I have the skills of an anthropologist, so I can make sense sometimes of what is happening around me. I also pray and read a lot, which have kept me grounded.

While I have retired from government service, I continue to practice my profession as a museologist and social anthropologist, being very blessed with a good professional network in the academe and intergovernmental agencies. I can now choose my projects while being able to contribute to the care for my elderly mother in New York. I am a single parent who used to take my only child everywhere—while pursuing my career and graduate degrees, conducting fieldwork, and taking holidays—and in that sense, we grew up together. Once I saw him complete his college degree with honors and seeing that he is a good person who knows what he wants from life, I count myself blessed and find that all else in my life is a bonus.

The new lifestyle.