Friday, December 15, 2017
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A refuge for the weary

These are stressful times, with worrisome uncertainty in the future not only of the Philippines but of the world. At times like these, it is helpful to pause and seek places of refuge, where we can avoid political noise and enjoy peace and quiet. We can take time off to smell the flowers and enjoy the ocean breeze. Or we can enrich our souls right here in the city, while admiring our rich heritage and items of great beauty and history.

Such a haven is the National Museum. And I ask: When was the last time you visited?

Probably a disappointing number will say they’ve never been to the National Museum. Many will admit that it’s been decades since they last visited, and their memories are of a dusty place with tired and uninspired exhibits. A small number will proudly proclaim that they visited recently and were amazed at how our National Museum has been transformed into a world-class institution. More amazing still is the realization that it is actually comprised of two fully functioning museums—the National Museum of Fine Art (NMFA) housed in the magnificent old Legislative Building, and the National Museum of Anthropology (NMA) located in the old Department of Finance Building in the Agrifina Circle in Rizal Park. And a third museum, the very exciting National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), is nearing completion in what was once the Department of Tourism Building!

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The most famous attraction in the NMFA is of course Juan Luna’s masterpiece, “Spoliarium.” No matter how many photographs one has seen, one can fully appreciate its scale and magnificence only through a face-to-face viewing. But significant and impressive though the painting may be, the NMFA is much more than just the “Spoliarium.”

With word of the NMFA’s vastly improved condition spreading among private and institutional owners of major cultural pieces, a growing number have agreed—or even offered—to have their collections moved to it, mostly on long-term loan arrangements, to allow more people to view and appreciate them. Thus, in recent years the NMFA has gained the privilege of showing major masterpieces like the Botong Francisco murals of the Philippine General Hospital on the progress of medicine in the country, the outstanding Manansala murals that used to hang on the upper walls of the Philamlife Auditorium lobby, a major portion of the impressive art collection of the Government Service Insurance System, and the rare religious art collection of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, among many others. An outstanding gallery on sculpture includes remarkable pieces by no less than Jose Rizal himself. In all there are 24 galleries housing collections of early religious and secular art, 19th- and 20th-century academic, romantic and realistic art and sculpture, and modernist paintings and sculpture.

The NMA, opened in 1998, has among its major attractions the massive cannons and jars, maritime navigational instruments, ceramics and other artifacts from the sunken galleon San Diego. Also highlighted are the famous Maitum jars, burial vessels and coffins, gold and other precious precolonial artifacts and jewelry, and an actual balanghay built and used by early Filipino seafarers. Other exhibits trace the evolution of the Filipino alphabet and language, the artistry and use of textiles in the various regions, and the development of Filipino culture and life through the centuries.

These two museums are air-conditioned and open daily except Monday. Admission is now free all year, after the museum trustees noted significantly improved attendance on free-admission days. It is heartwarming to see once unimaginable lines of people awaiting entrance into the museum on most days! And the NMNH, opening in a few months, will surely be a delightful experience for all.

The National Museum is an exceptional partnership between the government and the private sector whose support has come through priceless collections, management guidance, and financial support and partnerships. It is a quiet yet notable example of how the public and private sectors can collaborate and create a jewel of an institution that enriches the Filipino soul.

Come on a Sunday when traffic is lightest, refresh your soul, and be reminded of how proud we should be to be Filipinos.

Ramon del Rosario (rrdelrosario@gmail.com) is chair of the National Museum.

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TAGS: art, National Museum, National Museum of Anthropology, National Museum of Fine Art
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