I have always wanted to visit one of the National Museums in Manila City. However, my schedule when visiting the capital tends to be tight and gives me no time to visit the museums.
During a trip to Manila in July, I was lucky to find time to make a quick visit to some of the museums under the National Museum. While I was able to make time, unfortunately, I only have two hours to enjoy the museum that I may be visiting before it closes.
I opted to visit the National Art Gallery or the National Museum of Fine Arts (Mofa) during my trip to Manila.
The Mofa is housed under the former Legislative building, which was originally designed as the public library by Ralph Harrington Doane. At a glance, you can say that the building holds a lot of history.
The first gallery I visited was where the Spoliarium is. The gallery is the first you will see after writing down your name on the logbook.
You will be greeted by Guillermo E. Tolentino’s Diwata. According to its description, the “statue is an example of how the sculptor intended to forsake that sculptural tradition but could not. It is a reminder that the National Artist continued to accept commissioned private work despite his then newly acquired fame.”
After turning the corner, I was finally able to see for the first time the famed Spoliarium by Juan Luan. At 4.22 meters by 7.675 meters, this is the largest painting in the Philippines.
Painted in 1884, the National Artist’s “painting features a glimpse of Roman history centered on the bloody carnage brought by gladiatorial matches.”
I have seen photos of the Spoliarium but seeing it in person, I was in awe. I am not someone who is well versed when it comes to visual arts, but a regular person like me can say that this is one magnificent artwork.
I spent a few minutes just appreciating the artwork or trying to get a great photo of it. However, my photos could not do justice as to how beautiful the Spoliarium is.
Remembering that I only have less than two hours to enjoy the museum, I continued my exploration of the museum, visiting one gallery after another.
I eventually found myself in a gallery showcasing Philippine fashion. The gallery features 116 years of Philippine fashion pieces from the house of R.T. Paras. From ball gowns to Filipinianas to wedding dresses, the gallery gives visitors a glimpse and taste of the beauty of Philippine fashion.
Another area of the museum that stood out to me was the old session hall of the former legislative building. Here you will find the History of Manila, also known as Filipino Struggles Through History, by National Artist Carlos V. Francisco.
According to its description, the work “was the culmination of the artist’s acclaimed efforts towards depicting the sweeping history of the Filipino people.” Considered as his “most monumental” work, the History of Manila was Francisco’s last work before he died in 1969.
What I love about exploring the Mofa was art is not only found within the galleries but there are also artworks like paintings and sculptures along the hallway.
You will also find in the museum the unfinished portrait of Florencia “Nena” Singson Gonzales-Belo by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo.
The National Art Gallery or the National Museum of Fine Arts was too big for a two-hour walkthrough. I wanted to spend more time in the galleries and understand the artworks on display.
After quickly doing a sweep from the first to the fourth floor of the museum, I was somehow partially happy and decided to revisit some of the galleries that I bookmarked in my mind.
Knowing that the National Museum of Natural History was just a five-minute walk from Mofa, I decided to also do a quick visit to the museum. Checking my watch, I will only have 45 minutes before the museum closes. Short but it is better than nothing.
Located along Agrifina Circle in Rizal Park, Manila, the Natural History Museum is housed in the former home of Department of Tourism. The building was stunning with its neoclassical design. I did some digging about the building and found out that it was originally built to be the Agriculture and Commerce building in the 1940s. It was designed by Filipino Architect Antonio Toledo.
As grand as the entrance of the museum, the lobby of the museum is also grand. Once you pass the area where you write your name on a logbook, you will be greeted by a spacious courtyard. Here, you will see the centerpiece of the museum, the “Tree of Life”, a double helix structure that supports the museum’s dome.
The Mofa was big but at six stories, the Natural History museum was bigger.
I had no idea where to begin because of how big the museum was. After checking their guide, I opted to visit the floor where you can find Philippine fauna and will work my way down from there.
The gallery for Philippine fauna had a taxidermied skin of Lolong as its centerpiece. It was a magnificent centerpiece. It makes you realize how majestic yet terrifying apex predators can be. Looking at Lolong, I can’t help but think it was a modern-day dinosaur. Well, dinosaurs are reptiles after all.
The gallery also has taxidermied versions of many endemic species of the Philippines like the Philippine eagle, Philippine eagle-owl, and the Tamaraw.
Next, I found myself in the gallery showcasing the geology of the Philippines. It is here where I appreciated how interactive the museum was. There was an exhibit where you place your hand on a screen and it shows how hot your hands are.
It is also amusing to see so many rocks and minerals on display. There are so many things to learn from these rocks inside display cases.
Then I found myself in a gallery depicting the importance of mangroves. There was a pathway with faux mangroves on the side. It also showcases how mangroves protect us and the diversity of flora and fauna you can find in the environment.
The last gallery I found myself in was one that depicts the marine life in the Philippines.
There was a display case comparing the mouth of a modern-day shark and a megalodon. The difference was big. They also have a room in this gallery where they show how dark it is in the deeper parts of the ocean where the light does not reach. The most interesting part here is the display of preserved sea life in large glass jars.
As I was about to exit the gallery, they announced that the museum is about to close. I was a bit sad that my visit to the museum was about to end here. I wanted to visit the other galleries and learn more. Unfortunately, time was not on my side.
The visit to Mofa and the Natural History Museum may be short but it was a whole lot of fun. I may be feeling a bit sad leaving the museum but a part of me was also happy to know that more surprises await me the next time I visit the museums in Manila.
This article was first published as a two-part series in SunStar Davao under my Kape Diaries column. You can read the first part here and the second part here.