Rediscovering my country through its museums in Manila

(Doreen is a writer and an international development worker who has worked in some of the world’s war zones. She is now based in Manila as a coordinator for a Pacific-wide climate adaptation project.)

As someone who has recently returned to the country after 15 nomadic years as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), I still feel like a tourist here sometimes. Maybe that is why I found myself gravitating to the nostalgic areas of Manila, having recently moved here from Bonifacio Global City (BGC), to everybody’s amusement (“who does that?”).

Manila, after all, has had its day while BGC is the emerald city on the hill. But Manila is the place that has a soul and a lot of character with its old streets and landmarks fronting Manila Bay. (albeit much of it is now unfortunately neglected or threatened).   

One thing that I certainly appreciate about Manila is the abundance of museums. And, fortunately, having family and friends from abroad visiting always gives me a good excuse to visit the National Museum of Fine Arts (also known as the National Art Gallery) and the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. For visiting friends with children, the Natural History Museum and the Museo Pambata (Children’s Museum) are always a hit with the little ones.

Here are some tips for visiting these veritable treasure troves of museums from the accidental tourist guide that I have since become.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

Padre Burgos Ave, Ermita, Manila

Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free

Housed in a majestic neoclassical building with a courtyard, the National Art Gallery surveys classical Philippine art from the 17th to 20th centuries. One will find here a most impressive collection of work by the revolutionary Filipino artist Juan Luna, including the larger than life “Spoliarium” that won the gold medal at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884 in Madrid, “Portrait of a Lady, La Bulaqueña” (the Mona Lisa of the Philippine artworld), and others. Another highlight is Félix Resurrección Hidalgo’s “El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante (The Assassination of Governor Bustamante).” This museum houses so many great paintings, sculptures and religious artifacts from as far back as the 17th and 19th centuries that one should realistically allot at least a couple hours for a visit.

One should also make it a point to visit the Jose Rizal exhibit, which features the few pieces of sculpture created by our genius national hero. I knew he was a doctor, an engineer, a great writer who wrote the Great Filipino Novel, as well as an artist, but seeing his sculpture made me wonder if the guy was a mere mortal. It also made me wonder if it was because there was no social media during his time that he was able to do so many things so brilliantly! His “Revenge of the Mother” sculpture showing a dog futilely biting a crocodile that has snapped its puppy is a  haunting masterpiece.

Jose Rizal’s “Revenge of the Mother” sculpture is a haunting masterpiece at the National Museum of Fine Arts.

NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM

T.M. Kalaw corner General Luna Streets, Rizal Park, Manila

Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free

The Natural History Museum, dedicated to the Philippines’ biodiversity and evolving flora and fauna, just opened on International Museum Day in mid-2018. It is considered one of the Philippines’ most ambitious cultural projects to date. The building is in itself a modern cultural marvel: its eye-catching glass dome is actually the canopy of the Tree of Life and  serves to usher natural light into the futuristic edifice. Visitors board an elevator at the base of the Tree of Life to begin their tour at the highest floor and then walk their way down.

An elevator at the base of the Tree of Life takes the museum’s visitors to the top, where they start the tour.

The crown jewel of this scientific museum is the recently discovered archaeological find of Rhinoceros philippinensis, an ancient rhinoceros, dating back to 709,000 years, that bears evidence of cut and percussion marks made by early humans. It is a strong evidence of early human occupation in the Philippines, and is one of the biggest anthropological discoveries of late.

Rhinoceros philippinensis, an ancient rhinoceros, dating back to 709,000 years, that bears evidence of cut and percussion marks made by early humans at the Natural History Museum

Another attraction is the skeletal remains of Lolong, once the world’s largest saltwater crocodile ever captured (as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records).

At the Natural History Museum are the skeletal remains of Lolong, once the world’s largest saltwater crocodile ever captured.

The Natural History Museum also features several immersive exhibits that children will find interesting, such as the simulation of a submarine whose windows are videos of aquatic life, and a blackout room that shows deep sea creatures.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Manila is “Shutter/Screen, Window/Veil: Gendered Bodies in Southeast Asia,” featuring works by leading female artists in Southeast Asia such as Julie Lluch Dalena.

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF MANILA

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Complex, Roxas Boulevard, Malate, Manila

Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Admission: P100 for adults and children above three years old; P80 for senior citizens and PWDs

Free admissions on Tuesdays

The Metropolitan Museum of Manila (MET) exhibits contemporary Filipino and international art. The museum embraces the Art for All philosophy, showcasing all forms of art  — text, audio, visual, audiovisual — and reaching out to different audiences through dynamic partnerships.

Its changing exhibits usually feature the most interesting contemporary artists as well as the museum’s extensive art and jewelry collections. Current exhibits include: “Shutter/Screen, Window/Veil: Gendered Bodies in Southeast Asia,” which pays tribute to the role of women in the Philippines in transforming the role of art in contemporary societies; “Sa Dagat at Bundok: Wynn Wynn Ong,” featuring the works of a celebrated female jewelry designer celebrating the diversity of Philippine culture, and “Fashion Revolution,” showcasing efforts by forward-looking brands to make fashion sustainable and ecological.

Entrance to Body Works at Museo Pambata, where children learn about the different organs of the body

MUSEO PAMBATA

Roxas Boulevard corner South Drive, Manila

Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. (closed on select holidays)

Admission: P250 (free for Manila residents with valid ID on Tuesdays and 50 percent  off on other days)

Children (and kids-at-heart) are reluctant to leave this happy place at closing time. Museo Pambata is a hands-on interactive museum where children learn (while playing) about Philippine history, anatomy, and the environment. Here, children are encouraged to interact with various exhibits and have a great time riding a Spanish galleon, bargaining at the Pamilihang Bayan (Marketplace), or getting swallowed by Katawan Ko (Body Works).

They can also get on board a dummy Diwata-1 microsatellite the Philippines launched in 2016 to capture data and images that may be used for weather observation, environmental monitoring, disaster risk management, among others.

AND THERE ARE MANY MORE!

This is by no means an exhaustive listing of all the museums in old Manila area. I have not had the chance to visit the Museum of the Filipino People (also known as the Museum of Antrhopology located in the National Museum complex in Luneta), and the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino (Museum of Filipino Culture). Then there are also the Bahay Tsinoy and Jose Rizal Museum in Intramuros (the Walled City alone has eight museums!), which I had visited many years ago and hope to revisit. And I look forward to the completion of The Galeón: Manila–Acapulco Galleon Museum, currently under construction at the SM Mall of Asia complex in Pasay. The maritime museum will house a full-scale replica of a Spanish galleon.

For someone who is still trying to understand the homeland after a long absence, I find these museums most valuable. At their best, museums can help us achieve self-knowledge as they remind us of the struggles of our people and our troubled planet.

Contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton says that art museums can even potentially be “apothecaries of our deeper selves.” So, next time you find yourself in the the bay area and Manila, enjoy the many museums that you can visit.

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