Rediscovering, revisiting the National Museum

On Independence Day, Rappler finds out if the National Museum is still relevant and why it is worth a visit

THE NATIONAL MUSEUM. What is now the National Museum was the Legislative Hall before World War II. All photos by Pia Ranada

MANILA, Philippines – Independence Day is more than a celebration of the moment our country’s first president, Emilio Aguinaldo, waved the national flag from the window of his house to declare sovereignty from Spanish rule.

Independence Day is a celebration of everything that makes us uniquely Filipino, everything that unites us and reminds us we are one people.

A seemingly obvious option for Filipinos wishing to rediscover the treasures of our culture and history is to visit the National Museum; yet a surprising number of Filipinos have yet to set foot in its tiled, high-ceilinged rooms and corridors.

This may be because a visit to the museum is not everyone’s idea of a great time. I know friends who say they have only visited the museum once and only because they were required to for a school project or field trip. 

Then there is the belief that truly connecting with culture means walking its streets, taking in the sights, sounds, smells and textures of a living, breathing world instead of looking at petrified versions under sterilized glass cages.

If such perspectives exist, how relevant are museums to keeping Philippine culture and history alive and well? Why should we visit our National Museum?

The day before Independence Day, I visited the National Museum on Padre Burgos Street in Manila to find out.

Glory days

GARDEN OF CULTURE. This enclosed garden lets visitors rest and take in the beauty and history of the building

The National Museum of the Philippines is every bit as imposing and grand as it must have been in its days as the old Legislative Building. One of the jewels in urban planner Daniel Burnham’s pre-World War II design of Manila, it was inaugurated in 1926 and housed the Senate, House of Representatives and National Library, according to the museum’s website.

On the steps leading to its columned front, Manuel L. Quezon was sworn in as President of the Commonwealth, cementing the museum’s place in our nation’s history.

The lobby is a humbler sight with a simple reception area where visitors sign in a logbook, pay the fees and deposit their bags. It is all a bit underwhelming with no brochures or maps usually found in museum reception areas.

The receptionists are pleasant enough but have to refer you to one of the museum’s tour guides if you want more information about the museum’s galleries and features. Tour guides themselves are available only through reservation made days before your visit.  

Tour guide Rose Alipio kindly answered my questions despite my being a walk-in visitor. She told me about the 11 galleries that have been renovated since 2010 after the museum received funding from President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino and donations from private entities.

Visitors can also enjoy cheaper entrance tickets (although entrance is free for all on Independence Day). Today, P150 per adult gets you in both the National Art Gallery and the Museum of the Filipino People, the two major divisions of the National Museum. Previously, the entrance fee to each of these divisions was P100 per adult.

Renovations, new collections

NEWLY-RENOVATED. Gallery I (Luis I. Ablaza Hall) contains religious art from the 17th to 19th centuries

News of these renovations should be music to the ears of every Filipino. From the stuffy rooms and unremarkable interiors of the National Museum of my memory, I walked into pleasantly cool air-conditioned rooms with walls painted in lively colors.

Even the sunlight streaming from the tall windows seemed new. 

Though the whale skeleton — a classic feature of the museum — still silently contemplates visitors from its perch in the zoology gallery, there are now more things to see in the museum. 

An entire wing of the museum is dedicated to the newly-donated art collection of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). The 3 newly-renovated galleries of this wing display paintings by Juan Luna, Fernando Amorsolo, BenCab, Juvenal Sanso, Vicente Manansala and many more. 

ART FOR ALL. Young museum-goers explore the National Art Gallery

Undoubtedly the “rock star” of the new collection is Juan Luna’s “The Parisian Life,” a painting of a Caucasian woman sitting in an establishment (perhaps a restaurant) as 3 men look on. These 3 men are said to be Dr Jose Rizal, Juan Luna and Dr Ariston Lim, the original owner of the painting.

Luna painted it in Paris in 1892. It went on to win the silver medal at the 1904 Saint Louis Exposition, after Luna’s death. In 2002, it was bought by the GSIS at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong for US$ 859,924 (around P46 million at the time), was toured around the Philippines (just like any rockstar) then donated to the National Museum. 

Visitors can also look forward to seeing the murals of national artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco that once graced the walls of the entrance to the Philippine General Hospital. Declared a national treasure, these 4 paintings depict and are dedicated to the Progress of Medicine. 

MEMORIES OF WAR. Also newly-renovated, Gallery VIII (Silvina & Juan C. Laya Hall) contains paintings and sculpture depicting the Philippines during World War II

Galleries housing older collections have also gotten a makeover. The Fundacion Santiago Hall now has sculptures by Isabelo Tampinco and Guillermo Tolentino within vividly tangerine walls. The highlight of the National Art Gallery, Juan Luna’s larger-than-life “Spoliarium,” still hangs in the “Masters” gallery beside the lobby, facing another masterpiece, Felix Hidalgo’s “La Tragedia de Gobernador Bustamante.” 

Paintings, artifacts, sculptures and other displayed treasures are well lit and it is a pleasure to walk amongst them. The security personnel present in each gallery warmly receive guests and are happy to give you what information they have on the contents of the gallery.  

Passing through corridors to get from one collection to another, I noticed closed doors with signs declaring rooms under renovation. This only makes me more excited to see what the coming months will bring to the National Museum.

My curiosity was already piqued by Rose when she mentioned that the building of the Department of Tourism will soon house the Museum of Natural History.

A worthwhile option

GREAT SCULPTORS. Gallery IV (Fundacion Santiago) hall boasts of a beautiful assembly of sculptures from some of the greatest Filipino artists

Exploring the museum convinces me that although there are many ways we can reconnect with our culture and history, visiting a museum is an enriching option worth taking. It may be less action-packed then, say, attending a fiesta or parade, but it offers many things that no fiesta or parade can give.

Its haloed halls, silent as a library, allow visitors the time to marvel at the master strokes of the greatest Filipino painters, or appreciate the extreme age of Chinese porcelain vases or the remains of a balangay, the boat of pre-colonial Filipinos.

Perhaps each of us should visit the museum on our own, outside academic requirements, so that we see the museum’s offerings through our own eyes, not through the lens of a professor or a group paper that must be accomplished the next day. 

In many ways, making the contents of the museum relevant is up to us. We should seek connections to the artifacts and artworks displayed instead of absorbing their importance as we would the facts and statistics in a report.

We should make museum visits a personal quest for finding our roots instead of a tedious cramming of information.

HALL OF LAWS. The old session hall of the senate was where some of our first laws were crafted

As an avid reader of books about war, I found myself drawn towards paintings of the Bataan Death March and the ghastly remains of bombed landmarks in war-ravaged Manila.

As a citizen exposed everyday to news about the latest Senate happenings, I was awestruck to be standing in the Old Session Hall of the Senate where great minds like Sergio Osmeña, Sr. and Claro M. Recto must have debated.

Anyone looking for a reason to be proud of Filipinos only has to walk up to a Luna, Hidalgo or BenCab painting to know world-renowned Filipino talent. 

Drawing from our well of experiences and linking them to the objects displayed in the museum makes the trip more rewarding and, ultimately, more relevant. 

Still to come

LARGER-THAN-LIFE. Juan Luna's "Spoliarium" is definitely a major highlight for many museum-goers

That said, there is still much that can be done by the management of the National Museum to encourage more visitors and make the museum experience more informative and engaging.

Renovating rooms, adding air-conditioning and increasing its trove of treasures is one good start, but more steps have to be taken. Providing brochures and maps to help visitors make the most of their trip is a helpful addition that would lessen dependence on tour guides.

This way, walk-ins would have just as enriching a tour as visitors who reserved a tour guide days before.

If the budget allows, the museum might also want to consider installing audio-visual technology such as audio recordings that can explain the significance of a painting or artifact to a museum-goer without the need for a tour guide.

Other museums in the Philippines (such as the Ayala Museum in Makati) have added a visual component with simple video sequences narrating important moments in our country’s history like the Martial Law era or World War II.  

Rose, the tour guide I spoke with, also admitted the museum would benefit from better promotions. A website and Facebook page (now with more than 10,000 likes) help the museum establish an online presence and reach out to younger Filipinos, but a youthful and aggressive promotional campaign of its new galleries and collections would boost even more interest. 

The doors of the museum are open to everyone. It is a museum all Filipinos can be proud of. More importantly, it is a work-in-progress all Filipinos can contribute to.

The National Museum is a cradle of heritage we should visit not just on June 12, but on any day we need reminding of what it means to be a Filipino. –

The National Museum of the Philippines is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 5pm.

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