Brian's Blogs

Manila’s National Museum of the Philippines

Fans of your favourite blogger know that I am well into visiting museums. During my time in Beijing, I must have visited over 50 of them; but for some reason, the same can not be said of museums in the Philippines. I’m not sure what it is that makes them – for me, at least – less desirable as must-see sites; but on a recent trip to Manila I decided the time was right to correct this negative feeling. I headed out for the National Museum, no less, as a good way to start my Pinoy education.

The National Museum was actually designed in 1918 as a public library by an American consulting architect of the Bureau of Public Works called Ralph Harrington Doane, and his assistant Antonio Toledo. But work having been suspended several times because of lack of funds, it was eventually decided that the building should be used by the Legislature. The building was inaugurated on the 16th July 1926, and by then had cost four million pesos – way over the original estimates.

Upon its completion, the upper floors were occupied by the Senate and House of Representatives while the ground floor was occupied by the National Library. During the shelling and bombing of Manila in 1945 it suffered severe damage, but was reconstructed in 1946 following the original plans but with some revisions. In 1996, the Senate moved out of the building, and in 2003, renovation started to transform it into the National Art Gallery of the National Museum.

The Museum lies just outside Rizal Park in downtown Manila, not a stone’s throw (well, not if thrown by someone who’s relatively fit) from the statue of the Sentinel of Freedom, a monstrosity in the park itself which was erected in 2004 during President Aroyo’s tenure of office. It was part-funded by the Korean Freedom League, no doubt to show their solidarity with another country in the region which suffered under the occupation of the Japs during the Second World War.

Anyway, that apart, the museum itself (which is badly signposted, and has railings blocking the entrance in the most unlikely places) is actually rather a nice building.

It’s built round a courtyard, and inside the main building is a circular staircase which positively invites the visitor to climb up it.

The corridors are long and semi-ornate and the whole place has a grandiose feel to it. Already I’m warming to the museum, before having actually seen anything of note.

But before going any further, there is time first of all to inspect a typical Ifugao house, which the Petron Corporation (the largest oil refining and marketing company in the Philippines, supplying more than a third of the country's oil requirements) has taken upon themselves to park in the central courtyard for all to wonder at. (Ifugao is a landlocked province in northern Luzon, famed for its 2000-year-old rice terraces which have been carved into the mountains and which in 1995 were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

You can climb up a little ladder and stare up into the one roomed house (or studio apartment as the yuppies might call it). The heavily thatched roof serves as protection against rain and cold; but apart from the craftsmanship of the building, there’s not a great deal to see.

So it’s back inside once again where we start with a gallery on the ground floor featuring a walk-in diorama depicting the wrecksite of a Spanish ship called the "San Diego".

San Diego was a 3-masted trading vessel built in Cebu in 1590 by European builders. It was about 40 metres long, 12 metres wide and eight metres high, with four decks and was capable of hauling some 700 tons of cargo. It was converted into a warship by the then Vice-Governor General of the Philippines, Antonio de Morga; but unfortunately it then clashed with a Dutch ship on December 14th, 1600, just off Manila Bay, where it promptly sank.

It appears the beastly Dutch were intent on competing with the poor Spaniards in the trade of goods from Asia. A certain Olivier van Noort had sailed his fleet into Philippine waters and the incensed Spaniards ordered de Morga to prepare for battle, which he duly did with a small ship called the San Bartolome, together with the San Diego.

The Dutch also had two ships – the Mauritius and the Eendracht. Mauritius fired the first shot, (effectively proving that they were the bad guys) and the San Diego returned fire and rammed it – which it turned out a short while later, was not really the best of ideas.

All odds were in favour of the Spanish. The San Diego was four times larger than the Mauritius; it had a crew of 450 rested men and massive fire power with 14 cannons taken from the Manila fortress. But despite the quantity and variety of artillery on board, only one shot was fired by the San Diego. It appears there was so much cargo on board that the newly installed gunports had to be kept shut in order to prevent water from entering the submerged portholes!

After six hours of skirmishing, San Diego disengaged to avoid catching fire from the Dutch ship. But due to the fact that no one had thought to remove that heavy cargo from its hold before going into battle, it sank before it could reach Fortune Island, Batangas – not helped by the additional fact that there happened to be a gaping hole in its bow. The Mauritius managed to escape to Borneo, but the Eendracht was captured.

According to the exhibition blurb, the artefacts on display were all recovered from the sunken vessel; but I have to say that quite apart from the lack of security on some of the exhibits (which seems amazing in a country like the Phils) some of the plates and other bits and pieces look like they have come straight out of a Woolworth’s Christmas sale, rather than having lain on the ocean floor for some four centuries. Anyway, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Even the cannon look like they have come out of a second rate film set factory.

Having marvelled at the sale bargains of Woolworth’s San Diego branch, we are signposted upstairs to Exhibit Gallery II on the second floor (a.k.a. first floor, if talking in H.M.the Q.’s vernacular). Here on display are countless more artefacts from the San Diego, such as ceramics, coins, pottery, jewellery, armaments and other miscellaneous odds and ends. The San Diego contained over 5,000 objects, essentially representing a time capsule of Asia, Europe and America in those heady days of yesteryear.

Anyway, lest you overdose on San Diego fun, the next gallery suddenly changes track and concentrates on five centuries of maritime trade in the Philippines before the arrival of westerners. On display are rare pieces recovered by the National Museum from five wrecksites reflecting maritime trade among East Asian countries, before the arrival of the Spaniards to the Philippine archipelago.

Some pieces are exquisite – such as this carved wooden table top…

But it’s not long before the Spaniards rear their heads up once again as we walk in to a gallery with a display of pictures of boats, such as this one…

The body of water between Mexico, Peru and the Philippines became known as the Spanish Lake and served as a route for the galleon trade that made use of the winds and sea currents in the area. From 1565 to 1813, westward voyages were made from Acapulco beginning in February or March and lasting three months. The return trip from Manila to Acapulco would leave in June or July and take twice as long. Up to four ships were used all year round. Mule trains were then used to transport goods overland from Acapulco to Vera Cruz, where they were then shipped to Seville in Spain – their final destination.

Along a corridor on this floor there are some more full sized cannons and helmets used by Spanish soldiers, together with some of the armaments. And soon one comes face to face with the ill-fated Antonio de Morga, the commander of the San Diego. There are even some ancient navigational instruments here and a book that contains the historical account of the San Diego’s sinking, written by de Morga himself and called Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, which he published in Mexico in 1609. On display are two Spanish editions with three translations into English, which portray de Morga as a hero of the battle. Well, what a surprise!

But without a word we once again leave the San Diego, and this time head off into a totally different gallery stuffed full of nature… starting off with botanical drawings…

… and then move on to pressed dried plants indigenous to the islands. Here's a preserved sample of Flagellaria Indica which can be found in secondary forests across the archipelago and whose stems are used for tying things up.

Having viewed countless colourless remains of flora, there are displays of insects and butterflies pinned to boards, though I am left wondering why fifty of the same butterfly (Ideopsis Juventa Manillana, in case you are interested) should be any better than, say, 50 different species of butterfly, which might be a tad more interesting. I guess it all goes to prove that you can’t please everybody all the time.

Grasshoppity crickets anyone? At least these have some variety, I guess.

Next up it’s a very sad specimen of a Philippine Flying Lemur – which actually isn't a lemur at all and doesn't fly! Looks a bit moth eaten to me!

Talking of moth-eaten, there’s also a stuffed Tanygnathus Lucionensis (Blue naped Parrot to you and me!) nearby of which I am sure I have seen some in Palawan flying through the forest.

Next, it’s the turn of the Tokay Gecko - or Gekko Gecko Linnaeus, to give it its Latin name. It’s one of the largest species of geckoes in the world, reaching lengths of up to 35 cms. It is quite common in the Phils and, again, I am sure I have seen some in Palawan.

Oh no… once again we’re back to spoils from ship wrecks. If there’s one thing I find annoying about this museum, it’s this to-ing and fro-ing between exhibits, with little thought apparently having been given to leading the visitor through one subject before jumping off to another totally different area.

So, where was I? Oh yes! Centuries before the coming of the Spaniards, merchant vessels were already sailing through Southeast Asia bringing trade and commerce to the Philippine Islands. Some reached their destinations, while fortunately for historians, others sunk because of natural calamities or because they were attacked by pirates. These vessels carried various ceramics and other commodities from China, Vietnam and Thailand.

On display are large Spanish and Siamese jars that contained provisions for the passengers of the ship consisting of preserved fruits, sardines, salted meat, wine, vinegar and drinking water.

Plates, bowls, cups and bottles were mostly decorated with birds, cockerels, geese and deer designs, which were all popular during the 16th century. This bowl bears the reign mark of Emperor Wan Li of China who reigned from 1572 to 1620, during the latter portion of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

And here's a "kendi" which you can drink from without it touching your lips. It comes originally from Malaysia and the word is derived fro the Sanskrit – Kundika, described as a ritual jug.

Not all the exhibits in the museum appear to have been retrieved from the sea bed or rescued from the taxidermists’ workshops. There are also a number of things that have been found in caves. We’re told that the Philippine archipelago was formed about 70 million years ago, the result of million of years of volcanic and tectonic activities. The earliest evidence of people in the Philippines can be dated to 750,000 years ago.

Here’s a picture of an early Filipino – obviously having a bad hair day. Problem is – is it a He or a She? The mammaries look pretty female to my untutored eye (!) but he/she/it is wielding a spear. Maybe she’s waiting for her hubby to get back home to give him hell for staying out late with the lads?

It appears that Filipinos – or is it the curators of this museum – are obsessed with breasts. Round the corner from the bad-hair-day-woman is an exhibit known as a Masuso pot, sporting (if that is the right word) four breasts. Because of looting and destruction of archaeological sites, the museum doesn't know what culture or historic period they actually belong to... "we can only guess" says the helpful card underneath!

In the Archaeological Treasures Gallery, we’re in for another treat… a collection of secondary burial jar collections … ooh! This involves digging up a dead body once the corpse has decomposed, and then cleaning, painting or treating the bones in a ritual ceremony.

Some of these burial jars are made of earthenware with the design and form of human figures and they were recovered in Ayub cave in Saranggani (formerly South Cotabato) in 1991. The head-shaped covers are not found in other burial sites in the country, nor in any other Asian country.

The museum also focuses on ethnographic exhibits from around the Philippines, showcasing what it calls a tapestry of cultures. All ethnic groups in the Philippines speak languages that belong to the Austronesian family. But it is the variety of cultural diversity throughout the archipelago that makes the Philippines unique.

Unsurprisingly, tribute is made to the country’s number one hero – Dr. Jose P. Rizal, or José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda, to give him his correct name – for his role in Philippine ethnography.

Rizal was a Filipino nationalist, writer and revolutionary who was born in 1861 and executed 35 years later for treason and sedition. He is widely considered the greatest national hero of the Philippines. He was the author of Noli Me Tángere, El Filibusterismo and a number of poems and essays, and a leading scholar of Filipino culture, collecting ethnographic specimens for his studies, some of which were given to friends abroad.

In this gallery, I particularly like the furry backpack or "Bango" used by the Ifugao to carry food and other personal items. Can you imagine mincing down the high street with one of these on your back? Magic!

Talking of Ifugao, there’s a model of an Ifugao house (just in case one missed the real thing in the courtyard outside) which the museum blurb describes as “an extraordinary structure built without a single nail and filled with ritual significance” … in front of a mock-up of one of the walls of the house held together with, errr, nails!

Another distinctive feature of the Ifugao house, we are told, “is the rat guard made of round wooden blocks fitted around the house posts just below the floor beams, keeping rats out of the house”.... and I can’t help but wish that the owner of one of the hotels in Coron, Palawan where I stayed had visited this museum. (When I opened up a packet of soap in the shower one evening, by the following morning it had “walked” into the bedroom and grown gnaw marks all around it.)

Also on display are some lovely musical instruments – this being a Filipino version of a gamelan… slowly collecting dust.

But enough of ethnography! As you make your way to the top floor, you can immerse yourself in a world of more plants, stuffed animals and … fashion!

But first you have to wade your way through some rather nice collections of dried plants, together with explanatory notices including what to take for hair loss, headaches, rheumatic pains, menstrual problems, itchy skin, hernias, dysentery and carbuncles!

No itchy skin and carbuncles? Ok, so move on to a couple of stuffed northern Luzon Cloud Rats – the largest rodents living in Asia, weighing in at over two and a half kilos each.

A couple of cases away, you can see a Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi) stuffed in 1896 – one of the world's rarest, tallest, and most powerful bird of prey and one of the most threatened animals on earth. (Well, I guess they would be if everyone decided to stuff them in glass cases!) Those of my fans who studied Greek will know that “pithecus” means ape or monkey and "phagus" means eater of. (When it was discovered, the eagle was observed to prey almost exclusively on monkeys.) In 1995 President Ramos declared the Philippine Eagle to be the country's national bird.

Another endangered species captured for all to gawk at is a Spot-billed Pelican, a.k.a. Pelecanus Philippenses which, despite its name, has been extinct in the archipelago since the 1940s!

Having such a diverse ethnic background, it is not surprising that the country is rich in a variety of languages. And before the arrival of the Spaniards and the use of a Latin script was widely adopted, one of the more common writing forms was something called Baybayin (which even features on the 100 peso bank note). In this picture, someone called Doki Natividad had a prayer of guidance and protection for his family permanently tattooed on his back.

And just in case you want to practise your baybayin, there are guides posted up on the walls showing you how to write your name…

The final gallery features traditional Philippine textiles, together with some of the looms used to create them. Here's an outfit from the Bontoc Mountain Province – a "lufid ay sinangadam", or one of ten types of rectangular wrap skirts worn during official or religious events.

And here is an Ilokano foot loom from La Union

Finally, thanks to the American Museum of Natural History, there is also a small collection of photographs of various Philippine ethnic groups, shown at the St Louis World Fair of 1904.

And that, dear readers, is a blow by blow account of the types of things you are going to see if you ever get the urge to visit this museum.

In summary, I guess, there are plenty of things to gawp at, but – I'm sory to admit – I left feeling unsatiated by the stuff on offer. I fear I won’t be returning to this place any time soon.

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