Of Glossy Pages

I used to believe that museums represented culture and refinement. When I was younger, the only encounter I had the of museums and art galleries were through the glossy of encyclopedias I used to devour. Yes, I grew up in the unfilled seams of the pages of books, encyclopedias and newspapers. It may sound unorthodox but I did have some awesome childhood, really. The thing is that, when I was younger, museums were just a thing of the mind, that I would never find myself within its labyrinth.

All of that changed one fine summer day when (perhaps because of boredom) my friends planned for an excursion, somewhere near, somewhere we can explore in less than a day. Luckily, that time, there was free admission to the National Museum. None of us have ever visited the museum, so we all agreed to drop by and see what is in store for us.

Take note that this was in May 2015. Before admission was made permanently free in June 2016, one can explore the National Museum (and all its branches) for free only in October, the National Museum month or during special promotions, such as this one.

Background

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National Museum of the Philippines logo. Photo by Wikipedia.

The National Museum of the Philippines doesn’t only refer to a single museum. Rather, it is an umbrella organization which was designated by the national government to supervise national museums all over the country. Moreover, it is in charge of restoring and safeguarding important cultural properties, sites and reservations throughout the country.

The main museums are located in the National Museum Complex in Manila, near the historic Rizal Park. Amongst the museums in the complex are the National Museum of Fine Arts, National Museum of Anthropology (also known as the Museum of the Filipino people), the recently opened National Museum of Natural History and the National Planetarium.

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There are also regional museums located outside Metro Manila. I have been in the proximity of one of them in 2006. During the Regional Schools Press Conference in Lagawe, Ifugao, we made a side-trip to the neighboring town of Kiangan where a memorial was put up to commemorate the surrender of General Tomoyuki Yamashita. In front of the War Memorial is the Kiangan Branch of the National Museum (which I never realized then). It houses relics from the various Ifugao relics, including the prominent binullol, a granary idol.

I came across another branch of the museum in Boac, Marinduque but unfortunately it was closed when we were there. Another regional branch can be found in Kapangan, Benguet, a town known for its mummies. Other branches can be found in Angono, Riza; Vigan and Magsingal, Ilocos Sur; Butuan City; Quezon, Palawan; Jolo, Sulu among others. Each one is strategically placed to safeguard the arts of a particular place, such as the case of Kiangan and Kapangan branches.

To learn more about the National Museum of the Philippines, you may check their website.

The Parthenon of the Arts

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“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” ~ Oscar Wilde

As the National Museum Complex is closer to where we were residing, that was our target for our weekend excursion. So, on a scorching afternoon, we wound our way to the National Museum of Fine Arts. (I am not sure, I think the National Museum of Anthropology was undergoing renovation that time). It was once called the National Art Gallery and is housed in the old Legislative Building.

It being a weekend, and it being free of admission charges, a lot have queued to explore the museum. But it was nothing compared to the queues when the Museum of Natural History was opened this year. Apparently, it wasn’t only us who have heard about the free admission. Although it may sound tedious, it warmed my heart because there are still people who are willing to go out and explore these Parthenon of the arts. But let us admit it, the biggest attraction is the free admission. Nevertheless, it is still an opportunity to learn and be up and about.

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Sunset in Paris by Juan Luna.

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Rizal the Reformist by Martino Abellana.
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A miniature wooden carving of the Spoliarium.

The museum is divided into different halls, each hall housing different types of artworks. One such hall is the Ablaza Hall Foundation of Filipino Arts. Inside are several religious relics and images. Aside from carvings of saints, paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Jesus can be found in the gallery. The Fundacion Santiago Hall, meanwhile, houses different academic and neoclassical sculptures. One gallery pays homage to Dr. Jose P. Rizal Hall. There are galleries dedicated to different types of paintings such as contemporary, modernist, academic and romantic arts.

Amongst the famous artworks displayed in the gallery are Juan Luna’s The Parisian Life, Sunset in Paris, A Portrait of a Lady, and El Bulaquena; Vincent S. Manansala’s Planting of the First Cross; Fernando Amorsolo’s The Burning of Manila; and Carlos Francisco’s The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines. Paintings by other great artists such as Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo and Guillermo Tolentino are also in display.

The main gallery, and the most prominent one, is the Spoliarium Hall; it is the only hall that houses a single artwork. This artwork is none other than Juan Luna’s famed Spoliarium (from which the hall was named after). Now this got me nostalgic because I only saw it in history books – it felt surreal being in its company. I never expected its scale though; it was bigger than life. To the uninitiated, this vivid artwork depicting dead gladiators being dragged is renowned for its gold medal victory in the Exposicion Ncional de Bellas Artes in 1884 in Madrid, Spain.

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And of course, who doesn’t know Spoliarium by Juan Luan.

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There are countless artworks to be seen in the gallery but I can’t help but notice how many of these paintings are influenced by the Spanish colonization of the country, which is kind of understandable because more than three centuries of the country’s history was molded by these colonizers. It is no surprise that most of the paintings and carvings pertain to religious objects or events. There were also paintings about daily Filipino activities such as farming; and paintings that portray national issues or historic events. All in all, there were a lot of things that one can see and observe in the museum.

Of all the galleries, the one that I enjoyed the most was the gallery where most Juan Luna’s artworks is situated. I can’t help but be in awe of his works. I am no art connoisseur myself but his works were simply breathtaking. Our afternoon in the gallery is a fine arts appreciation class that is worth it. Now I just need to explore the other museums in the complex.

This weekend off made me realize something. Our concept of “escaping the city” is too literal. Because of this, we look for safe havens outside its boundaries not knowing that there are gems within its limits. There are a lot of places to explore within the metro alone. The National Museum is just one of many.

Practicalities

  • The National Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
  • Always observe museum etiquette:
    • Do not eat or drink inside;
    • Do not touch museum objects;
    • Do not use flash photography;
    • Observe silence;
    • Do not obstruct view, always be considerate of other viewers;
    • Do not conduct a “photoshoot”;
    • Do not litter; and
    • Do not imitate the artworks, especially the sculptures and carvings.
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What I meant when I said it was bigger than life.
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