Monday, March 03, 2003

one for the soul

I'm telling you, there was so much to see at the National Museum. Here are some highlights (and this functions as my reaction paper since I jokingly told my staff one was required).

Last week, my partner Marc and I took our company staff for a day of culture (which was the original plan, but I'm getting ahead of myself). Nikki and Jason (who both have both personal and professional ties to Pipe) joined us as we piled into the rental van and headed off for the National Museum. Just travelling there was amusing, since I'm stuck in a van with a bunch of off-kilter people. One of them pointed out a signboard that extolled the fantastic nature of a man's repair capabilities - not just zippers and umbrellas but he repairs your luck as well (now that we know where Noli has his stand, we'll visit him when we need the best joss).

Anyway, I've been raring to go to Manila's museums for the longest time but was always disheartened by the things I heard about the state of our institutions - filthy, disorganized, far and not worth the trip. However, with our country's reclamation of Juan Luna's Spolarium, interest in our cultural heritage (not just artwork) waxed. There was even a well-recieved production at the Cultural Center of the Philippines about Luna's life and times with Robert Sena and Ryan Cayabyab.

Now one of the things about my business is the fact that we've narrowed down our choice of clientele, and one of these groups is the NGO (Non-Government Organization). Since we do a lot of varied work for these entities, Marc and I end up talking directly to the Board of Directors. One of our NGO clients has John Silva as a Director.

John Silva is the head of the National Museum and a hilarious (and very knowledgeable) man. When he heard about Pipe's intent to visit his museum, he made himself available as our tour guide. So we didn't have to suffer the charms of some ignorant volunteer - instead, we had a free-flowing walkabout all over the museum, accompanied by Silva's color commentary.

In addition, I got to take pictures - not that it prevented three different guards from trying to stop me (there's a lot more, but these are among the ones I really like - I think the inner photographer in me is crying out).

We began in the central garden which was nicely juxtaposed against the rebuilt Department of Finance building. During World War II, the Japanese retreated to this particular and used it as their headquarters. Naturally, the Americans hit them with heavy mortar fire and leveled the place. Around 90% of the museum's collection went up in smoke. The old blueprints were found much later and the reconstructed edifice is a replica of how it was before the bad times. (Gah! I feel a seque about the absurdity of Bush's "Coalition of the Willing" coming on. Wait, wait. There, it's gone.)

Before the government turned over the building to the National Museum, it was in a sad and sorry state. Squatters lived within the halls and feces was displayed instead of art (the origin of all the bad press I heard - and it was apparently true!). Ultimately, the National Museum was granted three buildings, including the old Department of Tourism (unfortunately, a great deal of brouhaha concerning the old Jai Alai building resulted in a gaping hole where art could have been displayed).

In his overview about the National Museum, he related an anecdote about a ghost that walked the fifth floor, which naturally set all our minds racing (alas, the fifth floor was not to be part of the tour).

We began our inspection of the halls and exhibits with the Archaeology Department. This was a pleasant surprise because I did not even expect the National Museum to have such a thing (I was under the impression all we'd see were paintings and sculptures). Silva, in planning the exhibit, decided to make the hall more interactive. Certain pieces can be touched, for example, and old bones are positioned in the context to the creature that owned them.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there was already a strong Filipino culture (how tempted I am to call them Katao, the natives of Hinirang). This is exemplified by the plethora of artifacts on display. We saw a balanggay, which is a huge boat that carried families across the archipelago. Eventually, the word became barangay, which is the basic tribal unit. I saw a lot of pots, bowls and similar artifacts - and none of them the more popular blue & white Chinese porcelain that you find in rich people's display cases. These were just as beautiful, and indicated that an artistic sensibility was at work beyond mere functionality.

One of the interesting displays was a midden - a cross-section of shells that showed how the diet of our ancestors was based on shellfish easily gathered from the sea or river. Given the fact that the ancient Philippine barangays were, by necessity, riparian or coastal in nature, this is no big surprise.

One of the ways we learn about the past is by studying funeral rites. Our ancestors believed strongly in the afterlife and venerated their departed family members. There was a belief that the afterlife could only be reached by boat, thus necessitating a post-life journey across the trackless sea.

I was delighted to see several peculiar burial jars with faces for lids. What made them truly outstanding was the fact that they had outstretched arms - not molded into an embrace as commonly seen, but extended beyond the body of the jar Nikki's theory is that the arms were used to hold offerings like flowers). The head was studded with holes for the living to entwine the hair of the dead in. There were see rows and rows of jar heads, sorted by style and expression, not a single vacuous look anywhere.

Apparently, a practice from the old days was to bury the dead with much honor, wait for a few years, exhume the remains and then place them in the secondary burial place (the jars) with much celebration.

We left the realm of the dead and watched centuries fly by, all the way to the time of the Spaniards. I was delighted to find a huge globe that showed, in twinkling lights, the route of the Galleon Trade. The light show starts at Macao, then the Philippines, then 5 months by sea to Mexico, then across the land to the opposite side, ending with a 7 week voyage across the Atlantic to Spain. Already, the rumblings of a number of Hinirang stories were echoing through my head. When I looked at Jason, he was similarly disposed.

In the Anthropology Department, we took a whirlwind tour of a number of different ethic groups, sorted by where they lived - not in terms of geographic location, but in rather in terms of geologic features. It was there that we made several fascinating discoveries such as the Ambahan (a poetic form of seven syllables writ on bamboo), the Borak (a sphinx-like creature from the Maranao in Mindanao - human head, animal body and wings), and Sarimanok-headed vessels the shape of a stealth fighter.

Weapons, musical instruments (including an expensive virtual instrument-player which we had a field day with) and daily work implements were in abundance, as well as clothing (nothing beat the dazzling cloth-of-gold from the South), headwear and anitos, the family idols.

We whizzed past things and found ourselves in an exhibit hall that looked like the hold of a ship, and naturally all the things on display were in wooden cases - huge jars (that held smaller pieces), delicate blue & whites (one of them with a rare winged elephant) and other pieces too many to see at once.

Another room held the San Diego exhibit. The San Diego, a galleon, was sunk by three Dutch vessels off the coast of Fortune Island centuries ago. In recent years, a combined force of French and Filipino divers managed to reclaim it from its watery grave. The result - a cornucopia of finds, including cannons (and cannonballs), a real astrolabe and other priceless artifacts. Its captain survived against his will (he wanted to go down with his ship but was saved by a zealous Filipino crewman) and wrote about his experience. Later, our National Hero, Jose Rizal, found the Spanish manuscript and published it with annotations, careful to balance the Spaniard's near-contempt for the Filipinos with his own nationalistic perspective.

Across the garden was another hall filled with bowls and jars and jewelry, centuries-old. But as Silva said, "When you've seen one blue & white, you've seen them all."

Finally, we got to an art gallery where giant canvasses of the old Filipino Masters and National Artists were on display. Silva was careful to point out that some painters, influenced by the propaganda of historians, created art that implied that Philippine history began when the Spanish arrived to save us from our heathen ways. Thankfully, a Filipino-centered consciousness evolved that made subsequent artists question the near-dogma of Castillan dominance and create work that reflected their newly-found sensibilities.

We ended our tour of the museum where we began, at the central garden, and bade Silva thanks and farewell before hitting the museum shop. Nikki found more samples of old poetry and got me a replica of a map circa the Spanish Period.

I was saddened by the necessary brevity of our visit and swore to return very soon - Nikki and Jason were of the same mind. We plan to bring our creative group over and spend the day, looking at frozen time behind glass and making stories that revive both the splendor and agony of what was, and create a history that never was (then again, the thought of having Flim over brings images of bulls and china shops).

Over 2000 people visit the National Museum everyday (P100 adults/P30 students on weekdays; everyone free on weekends).

Are you one of them?

one for the tummy

By the time we finished, we were starving and elected to eat at Binondo. The highlight of our Chinese-food pigout was oysters toasted in XO sauce - amid mounds of other great stuff like hot & sour soup (I opted not to get the notorious Soup #5), steamed broccoli, Yang Chow and fish rice, spicy shrimp, stylized spareribs, pancit and others. To wash it down, I was delighted to find that the restaurant had Vanilla Coke - fantastic!

This was our last meal with our beloved office manager and chief designer who are both off into the wild world. Sniff. We'll miss you, Ajie and Jolet.

one for the wallet

After that very heavy meal, most of us were in the mood for something else, so, led by Joseph, we made our way to Quiapo. Specifically, the place where the pirate DVDs are found at jaw-droppingly low prices (P65 or around US$1.25). I threw away my qualms and went amok, buying copies of Spirited Away, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Four Feathers, The Shipping News, Hero and several others, including the classic Clash of the Titans (all to be written about, I assure you). Bulletproof Monk, due for American release in May, is oddly available as a DVD with features.

one for the body

To complete the day, I took Nikki, Cams and Jason to my barbershop where the ladies had facials and we gentlemen had a haircut (Jason) or a shave (me).

And so exhausted, my wife and I got home to a playful little girl whom we missed terribly.

We opted out of the usual Friday night out and collapsed in bed, all the richer for a day spent well.


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