City of Manila

A Day At The National Museum (Part 1: the National Art Gallery)

I wish I could say that museums in the Philippines are as well-visited as museums in the countries. The fact is sadly, museums here are not much promoted as destinations to be visited by locals and tourists. Yes, for some reason, some travel books and sites about the Philippines do not emphasize that visiting a museum here is a must-do.

Do Filipinos couldn’t care less about museums and the things being showcased there? Do they generally find museums boring compared to malls and beaches? Do some think our museums here suck? While I have no answer to the first 2 questions, I must say that the answer to the 3rd question is a definite no. Sure, the country does not have museums as stunning and rich as those in Europe but that does not mean we do not have anything worthy to showcase. If you wish to see what I mean, try to pay a visit to the country’s premier museum, the National Museum.

First things first, the National Museum is not just a single building but a complex of two, well soon to be three, buildings encompassing an area just past Manila City Hall to the Rizal Park grounds. The most well-known of these buildings would be the one which is the National Art Gallery, where many works of the country’s artists, especially its National Artists are housed.

This building itself has a history of its own, dating back to Daniel Burnham’s 1905 Manila masterplan which envisioned a home for the then newly-established Museo-Biblioteca de Filipinas or the Museum-Library of the Philippines, the precursor to today’s National Library, National Archives, and the National Museum. The Burnham plan also envisioned a home for the National Legislature right across it in what is now the northern part of Rizal Park where the Agrifina Circle area is now. The construction of this home of the Museum-Library would begin in 1918, designed by an American architect Ralph Harrington Doane and Filipino architect Antonio Toledo. (his name would figure later in our story)

Lack of funding would cause the completion of the building be delayed, which was nevertheless considerable progress when compared to the “progress” of the construction of the planned Legislative building, where nothing was even started yet on the ground where it was supposed to be due to funding matters they say. Finally, it was decided to scrap the idea of that Legislative building and have it occupy instead the building of the Museum-Library instead. That merited a change in the building’s layout, thus the building underwent an interior redesign courtesy of another renowned architect whose name should be familiar to the readers of this blog: Juan Arellano.

the logo of the National Museum, the character in the middle stands for the character “Pa” which is short for the Filipino word “Pamana” or heritage, written in the precolonial script known as baybayin

The building was formally opened in July 11, 1926, in time for the opening of the Second Regular Session of the the bicameral 7th Philippine Legislature. It would also be the site of the constitutional convention that drafted the 1935 Constitution and the inauguration of the self-governing Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, with Manuel L., Quezon who served as Senate President in this storied structure took oath this time as president of the country.

Sergio Osmeña, the first Speaker of the House of Representatives (the Lower House) which used to occupy the upper ground floor of the building
Manuel Quezon, the first President of the Senate (the Upper House) which used to occupy the second floor of the building
commemorative marker of the 1934 Constitutional Convention that convened in this building

The Legislative Building would suffer considerable damage during World War II, but was rebuilt soon afterward, thanks in part to the assistance of the United States government. As soon as the Philippines gained independence from the United States in 1946, the building would continue to serve as the home of country’s legislative branch until the declaration of Martial Law in 1972 with the legislature abolished, as well as the site of the 1971-73 constitutional convention.

When the legislature was reopened in 1978 as the Batasang Pambansa, it was housed at the new Batasang Pambansa complex up north in Quezon City. When bicameral legislature was restored in 1987, the lower House opted to stay in the Batasang Pambansa while the Senate returned to the old Legislative Building, sharing space with the National Museum which has now occupied the building as well. The Senate would eventually move out by 1997 and it has been exclusively used by the National Museum ever since as the National Art Gallery.

The former session hall of the Lower House hall is now a gallery dedicated to the Filipino masters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, whose respective masterpieces “Spoliarium” and “The Assassination of Governor Bustamante” hang prominently along with other works.

Hidalgo’s “The Assassination of Governor Bustamante,” based on an actual historical event
Luna’s “Spoliarium”

The former Senate session hall went through a renovation recently, and was reopened to become a special venue for limited-run exhibits and other events in the museum.

In addition, the National Art Gallery is home to works of other Philippine masters in visual arts like Guillermo Tolentino, Isabelo Tampinco, Carlos V. Francisco, Fernando Amorsolo, Galo Ocampo, Jose Joya, Victorio Edades, Vicente Manansala, Napoleon Abueva, among many others.

It is also home to various art collections which have made the museum their new home. Such is the case for instance of a considerable number of artworks from the GSIS, including the famed (controversial at one point due to the instances of its acquisition by the GSIS) Juan Luna painting “Parisian Life.” Another notable example is Carlos V. Francisco’s 4-part mural “Progress of Medicine” which originally was seen at the main hall of the Philippine General Hospital, but has been relocated here to the National Museum which also spearheaded its restoration.

Carlos Francisco’s “Progress of Medicine”
part of a series of paintings about the Basi Revolt by Esteban Villanueva, the earliest known artwork depicting a historical event. originally displayed at the ancestral house of Fr. Jose Burgos but are displayed temporarily at the National Art Gallery for study and safekeeping, pending transfer back to Ilocos Sur for it to be housed at the planned National Museum branch in the province
Luna’s “Parisian Life” which used to be on display at the GSIS Museum before it was transferred to the National Art Gallery, among some other paintings from the GSIS Collection

Another notable collection is its sizeable Rizaliana. These are not just about some artworks depicting Rizal. It also has a few sculptures and sketches done by Jose Rizal himself, who among other things has a talent for art as well.

At this time of writing, the National Museum is undergoing a renovation of its own so not all the halls and galleries in the National Art Gallery are open to the public at the moment. So far, the prospects of a bigger and better National Art Gallery are promising. It would be interesting to see what’s in store in the future.

Next: the Museum of the Filipino People and the planned Museum of Natural History

Acknowledgements as well to the National Museum; click on the hyperlink for more information about the museum

© The Urban Roamer

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