A Relief to National Forgetfullness

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I used to not think much about Philippine museums, until I saw this one.

As a culture, us Filipinos have been accused of lacking a sense of heritage and history, and when you are country where the majority of twenty-somethings can’t even describe the events of a significant revolution that happened as recently as 1986, then it’s kind of hard to dispute that accusation. And therefore I thought it was a given that any place with historical significance in the country would be left under-appreciated, ill-maintained and worse, barely there. Which is why it was a surprise to me when I saw in the interior of the National Museum’s National Art Gallery.

The National Art Gallery is housed in an old, imposing building in the historical district of Manila, near the Intramuros and the City Hall. The building, built during the American occupation, used to house the government’s legislative arm, until the congress and the senate moved out in the 1980s and 1990s. Today the building hosts an impressive collection of works from some of the country’s most prominent artists – and heroes.

Juan Luna's gigantic Spoliarium, the first painting to greet each visitor.

Juan Luna’s gigantic Spoliarium, the first painting to greet each visitor.

Each visitor is welcomed by the Spoliarium, the massive, award winning masterpiece of Juan Luna, an artist, patriot and a contemporary of the country’s national hero. Located in the museum’s largest gallery (or what used to be congress’ session hall), the Spoliarium commands respect and awe in a way that no other painting I’ve seen before can. The rest of the galleries in the museum contain paintings and sculptures from renowned artists like Fernando Amorsolo, and some form other important persons of history like the national hero himself, Jose Rizal.

A tour through the museum’s extensive collection gives a picture of how the country changed through time, from the Spanish colonisation, to the various insurgencies and revolutions against the coloniser, to the horrors of the Japanese occupation, all the way up to the recent times. Surprisingly very well kept, a trip to the museum gives a relief to the epidemic of “national forgetfulness”, and gives a very good shot at making people realise and appreciate how far the country has gone, despite some lingering woes, what it can still become.

With it’s brightly lit galleries and visible care in handling the pieces of art, it demonstrates the value in preserving national history and shows that like the works of Luna, Amorsolo and Rizal, there are things that we may have already forgotten, but would need to be proud of. It’s a reminder that there is beauty – that needs to be preserved and appreciated – in this country’s madness.

A painting by Juan Luna's contemporary, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo

A painting by Juan Luna’s contemporary, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo

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A bust and painting of the Philippine National Hero, Jose Rizal

A bust and painting of the Philippine National Hero, Jose Rizal

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An unfinished portrait, by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo

An unfinished portrait, by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo

Portaits, by Fernando Amorsolo

Portaits, by Fernando Amorsolo

The World War II gallery, memorialising the atrocities of the Japanese occupation and the destruction of Manila.

The World War II gallery, memorialising the atrocities of the Japanese occupation and the destruction of Manila.

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I myself am not a big fan of museums, and when I travel I usually leave museums out of the itinerary unless I have tons of time to kill, but I will contradict my self this time. If you are ever in Manila, you must not miss the National Museum’s National Art Gallery.

The museum is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Entrance is 150 Php (around US$3) from Tuesday to Saturday, and is free on Sunday.

*All photos taken March 2014, with an Olympus EPM-2 and Zuiko 14-42mm IIR.

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