Founder and curator of the town of Sagada’s Ganduyan Museum, Christina Aben is a national treasure. But neither she, nor her family knows it. Through decades of meticulous collecting of tribal pieces, Aben amassed a spectacular collection detailing a vanishing Igorot (Philippines mountain tribes) culture. “When we were kids, we were always stepping over the stuff,” says her daughter Marina. “It’s really just mom’s hobby.”
What passed unnoticed is that Christina was born with a curator’s eye for quality and rarity. Along with that, she has a designer’s eye for presentation. And she’s a natural raconteur, being able to tell each visitor was each piece in the museum is important. This one-room museum, sitting above the family’s coffee shop, is certainly one of the world’s great small museums, run by a passionate collector wishing to share her art and culture with the world. When we walked into the museum and asked her to tell us about it, she remarked “if you’d like to listen I certainly have the time.”
As mentioned earlier, she has a designer’s eye for display, and her pieces have enough space around them to be appreciated as individual works, something that isn’t the case at the Bontoc Museum, which, although compelling in itself, remains something of a warehouse. Because she only has a limited space, she must choose what to display, and how to display it. And she’s an enthusiastic hostess who loves to share the meaning of her pieces within the entire Igorot framework. She’s erudite and informed, and loves to throw in the fact that she was a housewife with a high school education. So much for school.
The world’s legendary art collectors, people ranging from Isabella Stewart Gardiner to William Randolph Hearst, bequeathed their collections to future generations, but were never accessible to the common people. Christina Aben is one of a special breed, someone who has created a vision, nurtured virtually in secret over decades, and was finally able to execute it. Like Bangkok’s Ban Phiphithaphan, another small museum run by a passionate collector-turned-curator, Sagada’s Ganduyan Museum represents the best of a fascinating corner of the art world, inhabited by passionate collectors who gladly share their passion with the world while they can, without the benefit of public endowments.