One of the advantages of touring historical sites nowadays is having a digital travel companion on hand– the internet. Sans tour guides, one can easily search the backgrounds of any particular artwork as you go along
By Justine Castellon with Julia Antonina
A post-summer outing with teenagers at home is more than challenging. Just weeks ago, it was much easier to get them out of the house — anything with sand, water and camping are absolute blockbusters. Of course, anything involving plane rides and shopping sprees is also a total winner. However, these activities require at least a 24-hour lead time, and with work deadlines looming ahead, it simply wasn’t feasible.
With fingers crossed, I asked my 12-year old daughter Julia for her choice of short-distance travel destinations (emphasizing the word “short” with finger gestures). “You and dad promised me a tour at the National Museum,” she answered with an expression that made me guilty. I felt a bit of shame for not having brought our kids to our country’s very own museum, while we can find time to explore the cultural sites of foreign countries. To be honest, I myself have not set foot in the museum simply because it’s not my idea of a great time during my school years.
Both first timers in a national museum tour, we packed our Nikon DLSR, lenses, a monopod and a back-up digital camera. A thirty minute-drive from Tomas Morato in Quezon City, the National Museum of the Philippines is located at P.Burgos Drive, Ermita, Manila, beside Rizal Park. It was formerly known as the Old Congress Building (also known as the Old Legislative Building), former home to various legislative bodies of the Philippine government from 1926 to 1972, and again from 1987 to 1997. Originally designed by Ralph Harrington Duane and Antonio Toledo in 1918, this building was intended to be the future home of the National Library of the Philippines, according to the Plan of Manila of Daniel H. Burnham.
We were very lucky to find out that the museum is offering free admission on Sundays. We were able to park just across the grandiose five-story building entrance with tall Corinthian columns – the sight of which can make you feel like you’re in another part of the world and in another time. Unfortunately, Flash photography is not allowed inside the museum. Neither was the DSLR going to be allowed, as this requires a special permit. “Patay, I can’t even document this trip (meaning I can’t post to my Instagram),”said Julia, disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? Here we are inside the museum with a deadline to beat, and we just found out that we cannot showcase the beauty of our heritage the way we were planning to. Finally, I asked the guard, “Manong pwede ba itong telepono ko?” When we got the go signal to proceed, Julia couldn’t hide her amusement, as our phone is equipped with an 8 Megapixel camera.
THE HALL OF MASTERS
When you enter the main gallery located on the ground floor of the museum it is impossible to miss Juan Luna’s Spoliarium – located in the main hall. Viewing this famous painting in person is totally different from print and digital screening. First, it is huge! Measuring four meters in height and seven meters in width. The painting evokes powerful emotions as it depicts the aftermath of an event at the Coliseum where the bodies of dead gladiators were being dragged from a Roman arena. This oil painting by Luna in Rome in 1884, won the second prize at the Madrid Academy Exhibition of Oil Paintings and garnered a gold metal in Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes. It is perhaps the most internationally renowned piece of modern Filipino art. Historically, this artwork inspired the young Jose Rizal (a close friend of Juan Luna and Felix Resureccion Hildalgo) and started the seeds of the Philippine revolution. Apparently, Rizal saw the similarities in the painting to the cruelty being unleashed by the Spaniards in the Philippines and he began to compose the anti-colonial novel, Noli Me Tangere. “And it all started with the painting in front of us,” whispered Julia.
Across the Spoliarium is another huge and equally stunning painting – the famous Felix Hidalgo’s The Assassination of Bustamante. According to one of Ambeth Ocampo’s writings, Fernando Manuel de Bustillo Bustamante y Rueda was governor general of the Philippines from 1717-1719. He imposed strict tax collection to increase government revenue. He was never well-liked by the people and he clashed with the Church over the issue of sanctuary. In those times police authorities could not forcibly take the person out of the church unless the church surrendered that person. Bustamante ordered the arrest and imprisonment of major religious personalities, including Francisco de la Cuesta. Like the other visitors, we can only stand in awe at the paintings of the two masters.
THE GALLERIES HOUSING THE NATIONAL TREASURES
One of the advantages of touring historical sites nowadays is having a digital travel companion on hand– the internet. Sans tour guides, one can easily search the backgrounds of any particular artwork as you go along. Julia and I discussed the history behind every masterpiece with our dear friend GOOGLE.
Our next stop is the Gallery XII or Security Bank Hall (this gallery has been renovated with the assistance of the Security Bank) to where national artist for sculpture Guillermo E. Tolentino (whose career spanned from the 1920s to the 1970s) showcased his masterpieces in the field of portraiture and human form. This exhibition gallery, features his rarely seen works such as busts of national heroes and historical personalities such as José Rizal, Manuel L. Quezon, Ramon Magsaysay and Ferdinand Marcos, all in bronze-finish polychrome plaster. Other displays comprise Tolentino’s paintings such as Filipinos Illustres and other polychrome and plaster-of-Paris busts portraying ordinary Filipinos.
The Gallery III housed the works of our national artists during the last three decades of the 19th century. It also highlights the works of Lorenzo Guerrero, Gaston O’Farrel, Felix Martinez and our National Cultural Treasures such as Feeding the Chickens by Simon Flores and Una Bulaquena by Juan Luna. In this gallery, you will also see the portrait of Don Luis Perez Dasmarinas (Governor-general of the Philippines from December 3, 1593 to July 14, 1596) , an oil in canvas in 1896 by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo.
Several galleries are devoted to the works of our great modernists such as Victorio Edades, Diosdado Lorenzo, Vicente Manansala, Jose Joya, and Ben Cabrera among other artists whose great works were spread out across various galleries. These paintings were instrumental in setting bold directions for Philippine art from the 1930s to the twentieth century. Other Rizal’s works such as the famous Mother’s Revenge, a declared National Cultural Treasure and original sculptures and one fine drawing from his 1886 sojourn in Berlin are showcased in the same gallery with several portrait busts and paintings of Rizal by eminent Filipino artists, including IsabeloTampinco, Graciano Nepomuceno, Guillermo Tolentino and Martino Abellana from the early 20th century until the 1950s.
The Luis Ablaza Hall sheltered colonial Philippine religious art of the 17th to the 19th centuries, prominent among which is the retablo from the church of San Nicolas de Tolentino in Dimiao, Bohol together with a selection of carved religious images or santos, reliefs and paintings. Next to it is the gallery of collection from the earliest Philippine paintings depicting a historical political event, the Basi Revolt series by Esteban Villanueva of Vigan. They depict in naïve and vivid style the famous 1807 uprising in Ilocos against colonial rule that would improve tariffs and restrictions on their famous sugarcane-based wine.
One section we found to our fascination was the room that entirely devoted to Fernando Amorsolo’s works – from his sketches to his paintings and how he gave life to his canvas with his famous strokes and colors. “Who’s she?” was Julia’s first question to her dad when she the saw unfinished Portrait of a Lady by Amorsolo in 1892. Being the historian in the family, my husband Carlos explained that the girl’s identity is still vague and clouded with mystery similar to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Nonetheless, it is beautiful despite its unfinished form (perhaps that added to its appeal). The lesser-known Amorsolo, Fernando’s younger brother Pablo, likewise showcased his work among favorites is a painting he did for the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes.
And, of course a tour to the national treasures will not be complete without seeing Juan Luna’s The Parisian Life. Also known as Interior d’Un Café or “Inside a Café”, is one of Luna’s obra maestras done in Paris, France in 1892. While this isn’t his most popular painting (it is the “Spoliarium”) but the story behind it is very unusual as it was brought back home for P46 million through an auction bid by GSIS which triggered several controversies. This painting shows a lady wearing a flamboyant hat in French dress. Not so far from her back are three men who look like they were trading gossip about her. To date, the painting is now valued at P200 million.
One notable place that Julia and I were really excited to see is the old Senate Session Hall at the 3rd floor of the building. It was based on the original design of Ralph Harrington Duane as revised by Juan Arellano has been restored to its pre-war glory, from its rich cream-colored walls down to its vibrant red floors and baseboards. A former home to members of the Philippine Senate from 1926 to 1996, the historic venue had been a silent witness as senators from various periods charted the Philippines’ forthcoming. The Session Hall had murals, which were painted by Arellano in between the overhead concrete fretwork, and statues by sculptor Isabelo Tampinco.
Like other museums in the world, the National Museum displays its own collection of specimens of existing animals and mammalian fossils from stegodons and rhinoceros. According to the National Museum (Geology Division) website, these were found in Iloilo, Pangasinan, Metro Manila and Cagayan Valley, side by side with an extensive mapping of Pleistocene sediments in an attempt to discover the earliest man in the Philippines. These collections that survived the war were rehabilitated and were augmented mainly through field expeditions, donations, purchases and exchanges with other museums. Also part of the osteological reference collection, were prehistoric bones from archaeological sites and a skeleton of a sperm whale recovered from Marinduque, prominently displayed in Gallery XV.
We couldn’t get enough of the displayed treasures and the history behind them. The security personnel present during our tour were very warm and accommodating to guests and were glad to give whatever information you need regarding the contents of the gallery.
The doors of the museum are open to everyone. It is a museum all Filipinos can be proud of. There are so many great treasures within the walls of the National Museum. Exploring these treasures reconnects us with our culture and history. Visiting a museum is an educational option worth taking – not just regular academic requirements. You have to take your time marveling at the master strokes of the greatest Filipino artists.
- Visit on a Sunday (it’s FREE)
- Bring a higher megapixel camera phone with 3G connection (for instant browsing when needed for historical background)
- Marvel at the artworks, reflect on them before you do the usual thing – e.g. FB, Twitter, Instagram picture perfect
- Do not hesitate to ask the guards on every gallery about the displays – you’ll be surprised how knowledgeable they are about our national artists
- Travel ultra light.
Must Not Do’s
- Do not bring your camera lenses, flash, tripods – the guard will not allow you bring those inside.
- Do not touch the displays as instructed in every gallery
- If you bring your children below 4 years old, do not allow them to wander by themselves
- Do not bring food inside the gallery
- If you want to take your photos for (for your IG|FB\Twitter) – be mindful of other visitors who are there to view the artwork and not for the wacky shots.