Who is the Filipino?: A Tour of the National Museum

Who is the Filipino?

It’s a question with no simple answer. It has been a contentious issue, in fact, that the eligibility of one presidential aspirant based on her citizenship caused a furious debate. Is it by race? By birth? By the language spoken? By a shared culture and history? By a proclaimed love of an arbitrarily defined territory?

The answer has eluded experts for decades as the concept of a Filipino nation can only be defined by many things to an extent. From the start, the islands that now comprise the Philippines have been essentially a collection of tribes with their own history, culture and traditions. These differences have made it difficult for efforts to unite the country, as seen most recently in the just-concluded presidential elections.

Nevertheless, gaining mutual understanding and respect among fellow Filipinos starts with a careful study of how our country came to be and the various factors that shaped our nation. It is with this mindset that I and a friend visit the National Museum on a weekend to get a better understanding on what really makes a Filipino a Filipino.

Housed in the former Legislative Building, the National Museum of Fine Arts contains examples of the Philippines’ visual artistry.
The prestige of Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” looms large in the museum’s main gallery.
An unfinished painting of Fernando Amorsolo is on display in the museum. Amorsolo, one of the most important Filipino artists, died in 1972 while working on the painting.
Left, a sculpture of a prehistoric man stands in one of the hallways. Right, a doorway leads to a room containing Amorsolo’s numerous sketches.
Various commissioned works from the Spanish colonial times deck the walls of a gallery.
The altar piece from the Church of San Nicolas in Bohol is an example of a religious-themed art on display.
The museum’s staircase is in itself an artwork especially under the morning light.
The old Senate Session Hall houses temporary exhibitions.

The National Museum of the Philippines is responsible for preserving various collections that feature the ethnographic, anthropological, archaeological and artistic makeup of the country. It operates several museums across the country, chief of which are the National Museum of Fine Arts and the National Museum of Anthropology, both located in the northeastern end of Rizal Park in Manila.

The National Museum of Fine Arts, also known as the National Art Gallery, is housed in the what used to be the Legislative Building. Designed by Ralph Harrington Doane and his assistant Antonio Toledo, the building has classical features that uses stylized Corinthian columns, ornamentation and Renaissance-style sculptures. It was originally planned to be a library but with the establishment of the Commonwealth government, it was revised to house the Legislature.

The main gallery used to be the Session Hall where the House of Representatives convened, most notably the 1934 Constitutional Convention chaired by Claro M. Recto. Today, it’s the first room that greets visitors, containing the Spoliarium by Juan Luna and the El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante (The Assassination of Governor Bustamante) by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo.

The museum also features a number of work by National Artist Fernando C. Amorsolo who gained international acclaim for his classical-style oil paintings of rural life.

The old Senate Session Hall on the third floor is a graceful and stylish room reminiscent of grandiose European palaces. The hall’s entablature contains sculptures that represent great lawmakers and moralists in history, such as Charlemagne, Hugo Grotius, Pope Leo XIII, Woodrow Wilson and Apolinario Mabini. Today it houses temporary exhibits by modern artists.

Artifacts from the sunken galleon San Diego comprise most of the exhibits in the second floor of the National Museum of Anthropology.
Ancient burial jars from Sarangani provide a glimpse of death-related practices among early Filipinos.
The “Hibla ng Lahing Filipino” focuses on the textiles of the Philippines’ ethnolinguistic groups.
The exhibit on rice aims to educate visitors on the grain’s importance and how it is affected by climate change.
The “Filipinas” photo exhibit showcases various Filipino women who have made major contributions in their fields of expertise.

When we have our fill of visual arts, we cross the street to the building that formerly housed the Department of Finance. Now it’s the home of the National Museum of Anthropology, which houses the wreck of the galleon San Diego, as well as ancient artifacts, and various ethnographic and even zoological collections.

The archeological division has secondary burial jar collections as well as samples of other utilitarian vessels unearthed from different cave sites in the Philippines, most notably in the town of Maitum in Sarangani.

Of a particular interest on a personal note is the ethnographic exhibit, which focuses on the country’s social and cultural diversity. The cultural influences brought about by migrations and responses to the environment have created various ethnolinguistic groups that are, while different in many levels, are fundamentally connected to each other.

Understanding a few things about Philippine history and the Filipino culture is only the beginning to getting a grasp of our identity. We’re not going to pretend that we have come away with answers. But the keystone, the real reason to study our history and culture, is that as we begin to study one another with a willingness to question our prejudices and even our societal values, we embark on the journey for equality.

And maybe – just maybe – then, we have made a significant step to giving meaning to the people who fought for the country’s independence.

6 thoughts on “Who is the Filipino?: A Tour of the National Museum

  1. I miss visiting that place! The last time I went there was when we held a book launch on the life and art of sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, whose works adorn the Senate Session Hall. 😀

    1. Visit it again! I don’t know when exactly did you last visit, but it must be a long time ago. Hehe. There are new exhibits, plus the museum extended the free admission for the whole month of June

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