Museum Musings

Manila, the Philippines

September 26 / October 24, 2010

Sunday is free-admission day at the National Museum of the Philippines. Despite the come-on, its halls are hollow with just a handful of visitors. It seems that the museum has become a mausoleum of our historical remains – static and dead. Yet its halls should be hallowed. The museum is the country’s beating chest of historical treasures. It is said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps this is why history does repeat itself in the Philippines. How many of us step into the museum to be reminded?

National Museum of the Philippines

For the few who do, the museum wastes no time in thrusting visitors straight to its red-blooded heart. The Spoliarium is the rightful opening salvo.  A gold medalist in a fine arts exhibition in Madrid in 1884, this masterpiece by Filipino painter Juan Luna fills the first hall with its sheer size and severity.

Spoliarium by Juan Luna

The title is Latin for the dungeon in an ancient Roman arena, literally a room of spoils, where the defeated combatants in gladiatorial games were dumped, stripped of their last shred of dignity. The 4m x 7m oil-on-canvas mural occupies an entire wall in the Hall of Masters, where viewers turn into voyeurs, seemingly watching the gory scene among the throng of Roman spectators as the lifeless bodies of gladiators are being hauled away for disposal, their human carcasses slathering the floor with blood.

The subject is curiously foreign. Filipino artist, Roman subject, Spanish exhibition do not quite add up. The rationale, I will later learn, is that entries had to conform to the ethnocentric guidelines of the Spanish art exhibition; perhaps there was a no-indios clause. The jurors apparently never imagined how the painting would be interpreted by Luna’s countrymen for generations to come!

I have seen the Spoliarium thrice, but each occasion renders me restless. While others stop at their tracks, I pace the hall, approaching it tentatively for a myopic look at its dense details and quickly retreating for an encompassing view. The mural’s exquisite delicacy and oppressive weight – the dynamism of lines and colors, the baleful play of light and shadows, the life-size tableau of blood-thirsty and blood-soaked figures – stir a psychomotor response. Then, my eyes invariably zero in on the odd-man-out on the right, dressed in green and turned the other way: a disheveled woman slumped in grief at a corner.

Grieving Motherland
The Mother’s Revenge by Jose Rizal: Pardon my fuzzy photos; only non-flash point-and-shoot photography is allowed in the museum.

If the Spoliarium is the heart, The Mother’s Revenge is the nerve. It is tiny, by contrast, but it occupies its own rightful glass-encased place in the middle of another hall. Dated 1894, it is a clay sculpture by Philippine National Hero and Renaissance man, Jose Rizal. It depicts a croc, a dog, and a puppy locked in a three-way jaw-powered death grip.

The sculpture is said to be inspired by a real-life incident witnessed by Rizal when he was in exile in Dapitan, a marshy town down south. A crocodile by the riverbank had snapped up one of his dog’s pups. But before the reptile could swallow his lunch, the mother lunged to the rescue, jabbing her canines on the attacker’s neck.

Hall of Masters, National Museum of the Philippines

The Spoliarium and The Mother’s Revenge, as products of their time, are commonly interpreted as allegories for the nefarious colonization of the Philippines by Spain and the Filipino struggle for independence, respectively. Plunder and murder are themes shared by these two works of art. Rizal himself would soon end up between the croc’s jaws, metaphorically speaking (Rizal was executed in 1896 by the Spaniards for supporting the Philippine Revolution).

But for better or for worse, the message of these artworks still resonates today, even more so because the oppressors are not foreign, but our own countrymen – our leaders who should have our best interests at heart. The oppressed are the manipulated masses, the silenced journalists, the doubly victimized OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) who seek greener pastures in foreign lands only to find graver abuse. Luna’s gladiators, mostly brawny slaves from northern Europe, could be any Filipino skilled worker or domestic helper serving their foreign masters with blood, sweat, and tears. The crocodiles in government and the military cannot be represented more literally than in Rizal’s sculpture!

Both the Spoliarium‘s grieving lady in green and the female dog in The Mother’s Revenge symbolize the Motherland, our collective dedication to the nurture of our people and culture. Here lies the dilemma. Are we the bereaved widow, grieving for our lost dignity in quiet resignation while helplessly turning a blind eye on our abusers? Or are we the bitch that bites back, making a last ditch effort to put an end to the plunder and murder of our people?

This museum building used to house the Philippine Senate. The country’s first president, Manuel L. Quezon, was sworn in on its front steps. The museum took over the building in 2003. It is my hope against hope that where politics has failed in protecting our people, art would succeed in provoking the present generation to arrest the vicious cycle of this history of oppression and suffering in our country.

President Manuel L. Quezon


As I write this post, my thoughts and prayers are with the three Filipinos executed in China yesterday, March 30, 2011, for drug trafficking. It is not my place to make any judgment on their innocence or intentional involvement. This post is just a jeremiad against the society that allowed fellow Filipinos to fall through the cracks.

68 thoughts on “Museum Musings”

  1. Hi there.Love this post as not many younger generation would want to be at the museum let alone spend time on their own history.Enjoyed your writing on this one and manage a little bit to know about your past.THANKS for sharing.

    1. Although I’m not part of the “younger generation” anymore, I’ve always been a museum junkie, even in my youth. I’m forever fascinated by old things and the ancient way of life. I don’t hold on to the past, but I look back more than most people do, I think.

    1. I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but I did notice that the steps are warped in the Museum of the Filipino People (the one beside this museum). Is that what you mean? Also, in this museum, there was one gaping hole on a corridor wall. I sure hope they reinforce the structural integrity of the building. We cannot afford to lose these historical treasures.

  2. Museums always hold a fascination for me as I allow myself to get transported into a time where I wasn’t alive. Past, however obscure and obsolete is quite vital to the present as it links to the future. The tall columns almost give a feeling of entering into some grand building which will sure encompass one’s thoughts and being.
    I liked your step by step personal guidance into this place. Your passion for history combined with the intimate thoughts make this piece an excellent post. Thanks Age for leading us into this place.
    Hope I will be able to travel to Manila sometime. Afterall we are quite close geographically 🙂 Some day . . .

    Joy always,

    1. Hi Sus! It’s my pleasure to guide you through the places that have made an impact on me. I’m glad you appreciate my posts in such a manner. It’s really how I intended them to be – a vicarious yet personal experience to my readers.

      I haven’t even scratched the surface in describing my experiences and epiphanies in this museum. I just focused on two of my favorite artworks. I like how you see the columns at the entrance. They do look like they’re flanking a portal through time.

      Would love to show you around when you get here, Sus. I think India and my country are kindred spirits. You wouldn’t feel too foreign here, I suppose.

      Cheerio dear!

    1. Do find time in your busy mountain-climbing sched to squeeze in an afternoon in the museum. It may not be physically exhilarating, but it will definitely be inspiring for your soul. 🙂

  3. Around a decade ago, there was a big mall constructed here and it was first of its kind. Initially, the entry was free for everyone. Actually, the economic gap amongst the population here is very wide, so people from all backgrounds started visiting the mall. More than half of them didn’t buy anything, not even food because it was really expensive, then. Looking at this the mall owners had put up a ‘filter’ i.e. only the people who carried a mobile phone along with them were allowed inside! That was when mobile phones were uncommon. That was mean on their part I tell you! But a free entry to a public place, generally, is not fruitful out here.

    The crocodile-dog story was interesting. It reminds me of the fact that if one “goes” for something by dropping one’s fears and inhibitions, that is when one truly lives!

    1. Thanks Nehha for providing this contrast. Yes, if it’s a mall and such, people would come flooding in. But it’s a wholly different story for a museum. Free admission does not translate to a rush of crowds. I dunno if it’s the same in India, but that’s how it goes in my neck of the woods.

      Your insight about the croc-bitch story nails it. We truly live when we channel the energies of our body, mind, and spirit into a concerted effort to achieve something.

  4. Okay AJ, I’m way too late to visit here for this post and especially looking at the date there 31st March you know exactly what it reminds me of….. Unfortunately, even though we’re kababayans, i haven’t really visited our National Museum and that sounds really pitiful of me. Glad that you have such an excellent post and now at least I’m transported into this place with your words…. Thanks for sharing…xo

  5. i want to share this post to inspire everyone how beautiful Philippine art is. Like Gay, it’s been a while since i went to the National Museum. I think i needed a refresher and boost to fuel my mind with great artistry.

    1. Thanks, Pinoy Boy. The museum pieces are worth your time. You’d realize how our national circumstances have not changed since the days of Rizal and Luna. Their art is still as relevant today as it had been during our struggle for independence.

  6. I’m not much of a fan of museums and art but reading this post made me feel guilty of not even trying to find the reasons and stories behind these murals. By the way you describe them, AJ, it makes me see them in a better light and makes me appreciate art. Nice post!

    1. Is the post such a guilt trip? 😀 A friend of mine, after reading the first paragraph, said, “Nakakatakot naman to fwend. Parang gusto ko nang pumunta sa museum ngayon din!” LOL!

  7. …wow… you are really outstanding when it comes to describing places like this… i bow to you… i’ve already been there but only for once….it’s way back 6 years ago…hehe… it’s funny, i remember when me and my friends were ’bout to leave i didn’t notice that they’re gone and i was already alone standing at that Spoliarium by Juan Luna… i was carried away by its deepness and realism… and it’s like i was kinda lost inside and didn’t know how to get out..[but swear i didn’t]… i didn’t panic..i just waited ’em to come back for me… and enjoyed the moment lookin’ at the other exhibits… hehe… iba talaga yung feeling kapag nakita mu yung isang bagay ng harapan at totoong totoo… Sana makabalik ulit ako.(:

    Take care.


    1. I imagine you’re genuflecting before me, Kelvin. Haha! I have the same reaction to the Spoliarium every single time. It demands longer inspection and introspection. There’s so much to take in!

  8. we used to have a class every week sa National museum pero is alng tumatak sa isip ko. yung paborito kong payong na nawala ko jan. hehe I wish to revisit it in the future. my classmates are working there.

    1. You were at the museum every week?! Geez, that would’ve been heaven to me! 🙂 You definitely should revisit, both the museum pieces and your classmates. Hehe

    1. Haha bumabagay ang comment link sa post eh. 🙂 Complementary posts. I hope you’re not anemic yet from nosebleed, hehe. Pero bow ako sa photos mo. Thanks Ivan!

    1. Music to my ears, Airra and Leira. I’m elated that, at least, this post inspires people to visit the museum.

  9. I was not aware that Sunday is Free entrance day at National Museum what time do they open? Thanks for this info. Now I can visit the National Museum na one of this days kasi libre =))

  10. I’ve never been to this place…been to Manila for so many times and yet when I am in Manila I got lost with so many important things to do. All I visited in Manila is the Manila Cathedral back in 2006. Gusto ko pa man mga Museums.

    1. Jinky, Itin, Cha, and Alex: Let’s take time to get familiar with the acclaimed artworks of homegrown artists. Some of these works have been exhibited and recognized awards abroad; it’s a shame that most Pinoys haven’t even seen them.

      1. Oo nga eh…my masters is “business” po kasi so everytime we go on trip museums are not prioritized but I’ve been to some of the countries old churches in Cebu, Bohol, Domaguete and even in Dapitan of which Jose Rizal was.

  11. quite a heavy reflection you have here! I guess, it’s about time (again) that we all be reminded (again) of our past … to focus on what we can do with our present through the lessons learned;… with hopes that we do not take for granted the effort, teachings and values our forefathers have tried to instill.

    1. Pardon the heaviness. I was just struck by the realization that things have not changed much since the time of Rizal and Luna. We are still an oppressed people and what’s worse is that our own countrymen are the oppressors.

  12. This is something I have to add in my travel list with my family. I already forgot the last time I stepped into a museum, I think I was still in my toddler years! It’s really good to know our history by going to these kind of places.

  13. deep insight you have here, AJ. i guess, we should first ask ourselves if we could change for the better up to our deeds, if each says, yes, then there is hope. Yahweh bless.

    1. @Tristan: At least you visited when you were young. I was already in my late 30s on my first visit to our National Museum.

      @Ralph: Good point. Holding on to that hope. 🙂

  14. where politics had failed in protecting our people, art would succeed in provoking the present generation… <<– Ang ganda ng pagkakasulat.

    It is a shame for people close to this museum if they won't bother paying a visit here and as you said, it was Sunday and the admission was free but the walls were hallow.

    I admit that I've never been here but with the words you have written, and yes it was lengthy to read but all were of worth, explains well the importance of these things seen inside the museum — make me feel guilty of not having any plans yet to visit.

    With the importance of these things in our history seen inside the museum, I believe there are more words needed to be shared to describe their value.

    As I read it, I appreciate how you were able to let your readers feel the importance of this museum in our society by simply describing them in few paragraphs knowing that we learn our history for 10 years from elementary to high school in order for us to appreciate and understand.

    I like the gist and I consider it as a good teaser to gain excitement in learning our history more. :)) Keep up the good work AJ!

    1. At first I was apprehensive about choosing this post for ComEx because of its length. I noticed that most entries are quite short and easy reading. But then, I hardly have short posts. So thanks for having the patience in reading through it. 😀

      I’m glad the post gave you a new appreciation of history and heritage. They should not only be memorized in school or evaluated in terms of artistic merit. They should spur realizations on where we are coming from and where we are going as a nation. It’s not just all about the past; it’s also understanding our present.

      Thanks for the feedback, Edmar!

  15. I have not been here although it is near the Museum of the FIlipino People (former FInance building) where I have been to. Maybe next time I am in town 🙂

  16. Maight I suggest you also visit the GSIS museum. It houses a wonderful collection of Alcuaz, Amorsolos, Manansalas, and my favorite, the Parisian Life by Luna. Wonderful blog post!

  17. I am not sure if I have been at the National Museum or not. Spolarium is indeed an obra maestra that every Filipino must see. I hope to visit the place one my next vacation to Philippines.

  18. It’s really sad to see that our museums are rarely visited nowadays. I was able to visit National Museum twice and like you, Juan Luna’s Spoliarium always fascinates me. Unlike you though, I have no deeper knowledge of the story behind the painting but there’s unexplainable feeling when you’re there, looking at every detail on the mural. I love painting, and Juan Luna’s technique and skills were unbelievable.

    1. Even without knowing the background of the Spoliarium, one can still have a visceral reaction. At least, you’re not in the majority who hasn’t seen it.

  19. Never been here but I’ll take my son when he’s at the right age. Being in front of the actual piece is way different from seeing it in the internet (as eBooks are) 🙂

  20. I love museums. In fact, I went to Tel-Aviv Museum of Art last Saturday. If you love or appreciate art, then there’s no other place to go but museums and art galleries. I think I should post my museum trip soon.

    1. I beg to differ. If museums and art galleries are the only places to see and appreciate art, then it’s a world I don’t wanna live in. There’s (and there should be) art around us. A world without art is a world without humanity. Anyway, looking forward to reading your Tel-Aviv Museum post!

    1. Make a beeline for the National Museum pronto! 🙂 I just featured 2 artworks in this post, but there’s a treasure trove waiting for your discovery. The museum building is not that well-maintained (which is a pity), but the collections therein are well worth a go-see.

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