Thursday, August 28, 2008

THE SPOLIARIUM BY JUAN LUNA AND THE MAKING OF OUR NATION. THE NATIONAL MUSEUM TOUR.



"Thanks for the tour. It was truly inspiring! It made me proud to be a Filipino and to be part of a very rich heritage."
April Inocentes


 Tour dates are September  24, 27th,  October 1, 4, 5, 8, and 29th, November 2, 5, 9, 12, 19, 22, 23, 26, and 29th, 2008

There’s a serenity when you enter the Museum of the Filipino People. It’s summertime and the venerable building is quiet with a sprinkle of foreign visitors and balikbayans wandering the halls. You can actually admire the long sun-lit corridors and its peaceful courtyard with an authentic Cordillera tribal hut holding sway at one corner.  

During school days, this museum, as well as its larger companion the National Gallery of Art across the street, are thronged with school children on their yearly field trips. Dozens of school buses are lined up in the parking lot, while chattering and excitement echo through the two colonial buildings, making for a pleasant pandemonium. The children are eagerly learning about their cultural heritage and having a great time.

But on this quiet summer day, I am leading 20 visitors through the Museum of the Filipino People’s 14 galleries, entering each tranquil space and pondering artifacts and artworks. I usually start with our permanent galleries on the third floor, which chronicle the beginnings of our island formation. Through found personal adornment, indigenous pottery, anthropomorphic burial jars and reconstructed burial sites, my visitors intuit the sophistication and living standards of the tribal groups that dotted the archipelago.
In our anthropological galleries, I emphasize the diversity of our country, from its languages and dialects, customary practices, and ways of living. Our artifacts, exquisite brassware from the Muslim south, intricate weavings from the central Visayas to finely chiseled woodcarvings of the Cordilleras, lovingly presented in modern and well-lit display cases, weave a fascinating tale of the island’s richness and kinship to venerable kingdoms and empires in Southeast Asia. Many visitors from these parts, when touring the museum, will remark so often at the similarity of their artifacts and tradition to ours. It takes only a few more “coincidental” artifacts to realize that prior to the arrival of European colonizers, there was a fluidity in trade relations throughout the region and, before we started carving ourselves into nations, were very much connected by trading outriggers large and small, guided only by the night stars. They, in turn, gave the whole region similar epic stories, similar clothing, similar musical instruments, similar words, similar writings, an affinity that is still being reawakened through museums after a lengthy colonial mindset.

My group now thoroughly apprised of their Asian roots is led through the temporary galleries containing exhibitions from abroad, further enhancing our origins. The Museum of the Filipino People has hosted textile exhibits from India, galleon treasures from the Americas, and most recently, the finest collection of gold and brass statuaries from China, further confirming our affinities with old fabled kingdoms. There are still a few galleries in this museum that exhibit our own artistic works and prestigious competitions with their winning entries, like the Philip Morris Arts Awards and the Directory Philippines Corporation Art Competition, grace the walls of this museum. Our young talented artists are given due recognition and their works proudly hang amidst our national masters. Many visitors find them breathtaking because in the midst of our struggling society, we have managed to inculcate a very high level of artistic standards in budding artists today. The museum exalts that genius, and when my group leaves this museum to cross the street to enter the National Gallery of Art, we find clues and answers to such caliber in its seven galleries.

The National Gallery of Art is a recent and second addition to the National Museum’s complex of three buildings given to the public in 1994 by then President Fidel Ramos. The gallery, formerly the Congress Building, was originally designated as the National Library and Museum when it was built in 1916 during the American colonial regime. But it was taken over
by the legislators soon thereafter and became the seat of government, where presidents were sworn in and laws passed until President Ramos reverted the building to the National Museum.

The grand formal entrance of the gallery with its modern and whimsical chandeliers designed by Impy Pilapil was sponsored by Washington Sycip (who sponsored the formal entrance of the Museum of the Filipino People, as well). Its dignified tone lends significantly to the breathtaking feeling when one enters the Luna and Hidalgo main gallery and sees across the room, the massive painting “Spoliarium” by Juan Luna.

The painting’s brooding dark canvas exudes tragedy. The scene is the exit room of the Roman Colosseum called the Spoliarium, hence its name. The injured and dying gladiators are being dragged in. To the far right, a woman is half-sprawled on the floor, with her back turned to us. We do not see her face, but her crouch, her hands seemingly to her face, her head bowed and despondent, reveals only sorrow. To the far left we see Romans cheering on the next batch of gladiators in this blood-letting sport. It is barbarism captured on canvas and the Bellas Artes competition of Spain in 1884 would award this entry the gold prize. To everyone’s happy amazement, the second silver prize would be awarded to another Filipino artist, Felix Resureccion Hidalgo.

This painting inspired the young Jose Rizal, then a medical student and a close friend to both artists. Rizal, in his toast to the two artists at a celebration several weeks after, congratulated them and proceeded to declare the end of colonial patriarchy. After all, he reasons, if Filipinos can now equal the Spaniards in the arts, why couldn’t we be equal in political rights? It was a turning point for young R
izal. He had made a declaration. Several months later, he was involved in campus demonstrations and began to write the first sentences to his anti-colonial novel, “Noli Me Tangere.” The medical student’s career path was irrevocably altered, and he dedicated the rest of his life and even gave up his life for his country. It all started with a painting in front of us.

There is a gallery dedicated solely to the works of our National Artists. In 1972, then President Ferdinand Marcos initiated the award with Fernando Amorsolo as the first recipient. There has been a cortege of artists and sculptors—Manansala, Botong Francisco, Napoleon Abueva, Ang Kiukok and Ben Cabrera, to name a few—given the same accolade and their works hang throughout this exclusive and permanent gallery. What is interesting is the National Museum has secured, through donations, the early works of some of these artists and it is a treat for aficionados to discover the early lines, shapes, and colors that would be the artist’s later imprint.

Several more galleries are on this floor, with the Museum’s holdings stretching from the late 19th-century to the present. The Museum has a bias towards history, so paintings that chronicle the country’s past through Jose Rizal’s sculptures, Manila of the 30s, the tragedies of World War II, People Power, and the continued desire to record the social realism of today have visitors at the end of the tour feeling a sense of wholeness and accomplishment. They had seen their country’s past through the arts and artifacts. They leave the Museum’s grounds with a levity and pride they had not felt before they entered. Jose Rizal once said that the years of colonial domination and the culture imposed made us lose our songs, our way of life to a point that “…we had despised ourselves.”

The National Museum complex, Rizal would agree, returns that life lost to us again.

John L. Silva is Senior Consultant of the National Museum and has the most fascinating stories and insights about the collection. He guides in an interesting and humorous manner and delighting and inspiring his audience to be proud of their culture and history.

A portion of the fees (700 pesos for adults, and 500 pesos for children up to 18 years) goes to John's I LOVE MUSEUM PROGRAM, bringing public school teachers to the National Museum to appreciate the arts and later bring their students. Studies show that an arts educated child raises their academic achievements, promotes love of reading, and become better citizens.

Each tour is three hours in duration, beginning at 10:00 am sharp (ending at 1:00 pm) at the rear entrance of the Museum of the Filipino People, (former Finance Building) Agrifina Circle, Rizal Park. Attendees are requested to wear walking shoes (please no heels) and reservations are strongly encouraged by texting or calling John Silva at 0926 729 9029. Or reach me at jsilva79@mac.com Tour dates are  Sept 24, 27th,  October 1, 4, 5, 8, and 29th, November 2, 5, 9, 12, 19, 22, 23, 26, and 29th, 2008

Please pass this announcement to your friends.

See you at the National Museum.

John L. Silva