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An empty museum with stories to tell

Much of the pleasure of traveling is accidentally stumbling upon a surprising discovery. A funny thing happened to four of us short-time visitors to Iloilo on our way to visit the Iloilo museum, city or provincial, whatever we found first. We were directed to a building behind the City Hall, itself a remarkable structure dating back to colonial times.

The black thick bars on the windows of the building were fortress-like and forbidding. Were we in the right place, we wondered; the sign on top of the entrance said “Prison of Iloilo,” and below it, 1911.  We were ready to turn back in disappointment when the guard welcomed us with a strange statement: “This museum is empty and not open yet…”—but we were welcome to visit.

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What was there to see, we thought? But Marz Ledesma, museum guide, reassured us there was much to see. Even with nothing on display, the building itself had much to say.

This is the Museum of Western Visayas, one of the satellite museums of the National Museum of the Philippines; it is scheduled to formally open its Habi gallery in early December. Who can think of weaving and Philippine textiles without thinking of Sen. Loren Legarda, who is now running for representative of Antique, the province of her maternal grandfather? We had a sneak peek of handwoven fabrics and Philippine fashion still in boxes, soon ready to be seen by all. Also awaiting its spot is a statue of President Manuel Roxas, donated by his heirs to the museum.

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And today, the building took center stage with its rich history. The concrete sign identifying the building as a prison house was a recent discovery. When the abandoned building in 2006 was being retrofitted and repurposed, the worn-out sign on this very spot was removed. And when further cleaning up was made, the 1911 sign was uncovered. A lovely detail for a museum.

Retained on the main entrance, with its original jail bars, is a faded original orange sign announcing the regular visiting hours, conjugal visits and consultation day for prisoners. A brass sign has been polished to show the prison’s 1911 beginnings, giving credit to the individuals responsible for it: Ruperto Montinola (governor), W.W. Barclay (provincial treasurer), George J. Muni (acting treasurer), Cirilo Mapa (third member), H.O. Leary (contractor). While it authenticates the age of the building, it made me smile thinking of how, even then, it was important for politicians to immortalize themselves.

That detail did not detract from the charm of the building, mind you. Impressive was the massive structure of pure concrete, not with a single hollow block. There is a skylight brightening up the museum in the middle, where the prisoners’ basketball court used to be.

On the second floor is a patch of greenery, both manmade and natural, which allows a view of the city. The watch towers for the guard on the four corners still stand there, and one is invited to feel the cool temperature that their dome-like roofs provide. From this vantage view on the upper floor, the guard can monitor the prisoners’ activities below. There is a heavy concrete slab that opens with much effort and leads to a secret stairway for the guard to access the ground floor.

Much of the original heavy-duty nuts and bolts are still in use there today. In fact, the office of the museum staff is so secure with its heavy grill door that they can be trapped inside, because there is a no-nonsense barrel bolt from the outside. On this narrow hallway is the bartolina or solitary detention room for repeated offenders, where they are left confined alone for days.

Soon, the Museum of Western Visayas will open all its galleries, initially displaying all the items currently in the National Museum related to Western Visayas. It will be a showcase of the richness of local culture that is worth replicating in other parts of the country. All provinces deserve to swell in pride over the wealth in their midst.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: column, Iloilo, museum, opinion, Philippine update
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