(December 6, 2009 Lifestyle Sunday Section, Philippine Daily Inquirer)
People who visit the National Museum want to see all of it. Well, if they did, it would take a week. With a collection dating 20,000 years back and close to a million artifacts, the museum’s collection is overwhelming. Here’s the edited, highlighted version for visitors to the Museum with particular interests and time constraints.
First thing to know is the National Museum in Manila has two buildings. One is called the Museum of the Filipino People (formerly the Finance Building), located on Rizal Park; the other across the street is The National Gallery of Art (formerly the Legislative Building) on Padre Burgos. You can Google a map to the two buildings so you won’t get lost.
If you are an architecture buff, the two American colonial era buildings will astound you. Built in 1916, the enormous five-storey Legislative Building is suffused with Athenian architectural details, like the pediments and the Corinthian columns. The classic Parthenon comes to mind, not by coincidence but as an American branding statement that their country was founded on democratic ideals.
The Finance Building across the street, built in 1939, retains the same details and majesty. Both buildings were destroyed by mortar fire during the liberation of Manila and rebuilt exactly as they once were after World War II. To traipse through the two buildings, admiring it from the outside and reviewing the preserved details inside, with the sensual staircases and the exquisite grillwork would take an hour. More so if you took in the wonderful Rizal Park fronting the Finance Building, designed by the American architect Daniel Burnham to look like a mini-version of the Washington Smithsonian mall. This area is the last remaining example of American city planning in the city.
We are just at the frosting of this museum because inside there is a dizzying choice of galleries.
Are you a nautical fan? A colonial history buff? After entering the Museum of the Filipino People, head straight to the second floor (elevator or stairways). The 16th century galleon San Diego, recovered off Manila Bay in the ‘90’s, is a wondrous return to the history of adventure and daring by intrepid Spanish and Filipino crew who crossed the Pacific Ocean, taking up to five months to get to the Americas. In their hold were the spices (worth as much as gold) silks, porcelain, ivory saints, handcrafted altars and eastern treasures that dazzled the imagination. In return, the Philippines, and eventually all of Asia would be introduced to America’s indigenous plants, vegetables, and the much vaunted silver.
There’s the ship’s navigational instruments including an astrolabe, the envy of nautical museums around the world. Theirs are usually replicas. Ours is the original. If you happen to catch one of my tours, there’s a marvelous story about the ship’s captain, Antonio Morga who would later write a comprehensive history of the islands and, 300 years later, was reviewed and annotated by Jose Rizal. What an incredible meeting of the minds, through centuries, with Rizal showing off his mettle as an ethnologist!
If you’re into porcelain, be prepared to be awed by the massive collection of Ming jars, jarlets, and plates recovered from the San Diego at depths of 160 feet still gleaming, still enrapturing those passionate for this dynasty’s treasures. And in a nearby room on the same second floor, the Museum shows off the most incredible selection of Chinese junk artifacts recovered from the Palawan seas. Jars from Siam, Cambodia, and Vietnam, plates and jarlets from China all are mouth-watering to behold.
If you are a budding archeologist or fascinated by cultural artifacts, the third floor alone with three galleries will suffice anyone’s curiosity for the very best in ethnographic material. Shell necklaces, thousands of years old, burial jars, century old handcrafted household items, wooden deities, elaborate textile, brassware and so much more helps one reconstruct the days of yore and the refined lives of our ancestors. A must see of course is the Manunggul jar, the serene burial jar with two spirits on a boat headed for a journey in the afterlife. To ponder the jar is to be transported back to a life that revered our departed ancestors.
Like the labyrinthian Louvre Museum in Paris, where a sizeable number of visitors each year visit just to see the Mona Lisa, the must-not-miss equivalent here is the Spoliarium by Juan Luna. Ensconced on the ground floor of the National Gallery of Art, this looming canvas stretched throughout one big wall is Luna’s opus. Dying gladiators are being dragged into a dungeon while Romans to the side continue to gaze in the stadium at another bloodletting spectacle. A disconsolate woman crouched on the ground, her back to us, expresses deep grief. There is allegory in this painting; Luna sees the lifeless gladiators as Filipinos and the Romans as the Spaniards. The painting inspired the likes of Jose Rizal which led to the making of our nation!
The tall painting by Luna’s contemporary and best friend, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, across the room, facing the Spoliarium cannot be overlooked as well. The Assassination of Governor Bustamante By The Friars, depicting the stabbing of the Governor by ruthless priests is a somber reminder of past colonial excesses and why revolution was inevitable.
Want a feel of the Museum’s 3,000 paintings and sculptures? Head to the third floor where three galleries devoted to paintings and sculpture by National Artists, from Fernando Amorsolo to Bencab and a wonderful array of master and contemporary paintings by Fabian de la Rosa, Dominador Castaneda, Diosdado Lorenzo, and many more reside. All given pride of place in the pantheon of Philippine painters. If you are attentive enough, you’ll come face to face with a small Jose Rizal sculpture called Mother’s Revenge.
There’s always temporary exhibits solely worth going. Currently at the Museum of the Filipino People, (fourth floor) there a fabulous retrospective of couturier Salvacion Lim Higgins’ dresses and gowns she created from the 50’s to the ‘80’s.
Each of these “bite-sized” sections of the National Museum can be done under an hour and is enough to satisfy a visitor. After all, museum visits shouldn’t be done once as is often the case in this country. A museum should be a fountain of culture and the arts we all regularly drink from and refresh in.
John L. Silva is Senior Consultant to the National Museum. He regularly leads more extensive tours of the National Museum. Check his blogsite http://johnsilva.blogspot.com/ for more information or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org for tour schedules.