Day at the museum

Carina Santos - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines -To celebrate Museum Month, the National Museum has opened its doors for the entire month of October for free. While Sundays have always been “free entrance day” at the National Museum, this month-long deal opens up six more days for Filipinos to enjoy cultural treasures, like Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” (with an “i”) of course, free of charge.

Over the past few weeks, I went to the National Museum’s National Art Gallery twice to accompany people who haven’t been there before. There are a lot of branches of the National Museum, and we learned this the hard way when we started looking for paintings at the Museum of the Filipino People. Thankfully, the National Art Gallery was just right across the street.

The reactions of the National Museum n00bs were unanimous — they were impressed! They just saw the structure, so far, but this is a good sign. I think it was also because they expected something worse, which is sad in itself, but that’s another story.

Having gone there last as a college student, I had a vague idea of the “gems” to look for, which included the aforementioned and hard-to-miss “Spoliarium,” a bloody scene plucked out of Ancient Rome that is notable even just for its size (a whopping 160in x 280in) and seeming suitability for many-a-selfie as I saw on that Sunday afternoon. I was also on the lookout for a work by Vicente Manansala called “Planting of the First Cross,” and one by José Joya called “Hills of Nikko.” I discovered many other interesting bits as well, including some church artifacts from the 1700s and a series of 14 paintings of the Basi Revolt by Esteban Pichay Villanueva, which is apparently the first visually documented historical event in the Philippines.

There are also new installations and exhibits like the Guillermo Tolentino collection, where I recognized a model of my great grandfather, Nicanor Reyes, from my periphery. Take note of the little exhibits scattered all over the building, apart from their permanent collection. In the room that housed “Spoliarium,” there was a side exhibit of different Filipino artists’ palettes (e.g. BenCab’s newspapers, Arturo Luz’ yogurt cups, Malang’s shot glasses filled with gouache, but erroneously referred to as acrylic in the title card).

Dedicated to Rizal

Among the permanent collection is also a small room dedicated to Rizal, which contains works by him and of him, a hall that houses a series by Botong Francisco that used to be kept at the Philippine General Hospital. There’s also an inordinate number of works by Luna.

While the building itself is impressive in size, there are a lot of closed rooms and off-limits areas during both of my visits. When I asked one of the staff members what could be seen upstairs, she just said “Juan Luna. ‘Parisian Life.’” True enough, most of the rooms were filled with art by the likes of  H.R. Ocampo and BenCab. There were also covered items that were obviously not on display, which in my opinion should have been kept in backrooms or storage and not the elevator landing.

Although the National Art Gallery is in pretty good shape, there are also a lot of missed opportunities for a truly enjoyable experience. For example, a more streamlined process of registration and payment would be very appreciated. It would also be nice to know what to expect and where to look for a certain work of art. There were no arrows to point you in the right direction, or maps to tell you where to find something you might be looking for.

The lack of signs can make you feel like a headless chicken; going from room to room at the National Museum (both at the National Art Gallery and Museum of the Filipino People, where we got lost) was like snaking around the dim back hallways of buildings. It was like discovering secret passages that you didn’t mean to see, and while I appreciate some mystery at times, I did expect more direction and curation from the National Museum team, in this respect. After all, you want people to keep coming back, so might as well make a great impression.

The National Art Gallery can give you a pretty good (though still not complete) grasp of the progression of Philippine art from the time of the Spanish colonization to the post-war modernist art of the likes of Ang Kiukok, but nothing much beyond that time period.  For that, you have to rely on other museums. Or, if you want to be really recent, give the numerous galleries around the metro a visit.

Still, it’s worth the look. After all, for the duration of October, admission is free.

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Tweet the author @presidents.

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The National Art Gallery is located along Padre Burgos Avenue, Manila. The Museum of the Filipino People is located along Finance Road, Manila. For more information visit http://www.nationalmuseum.gov.ph/

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