The hall housing Juan Luna’s massive masterpiece, Spoliarium, at the National Museum of Fine Arts has been eerily quiet for months. In pre-pandemic times, the space would usually be filled with throngs waiting for their turn to gape at the iconic painting or to have their picture taken before it.
But now the crowds are gone.
It’s a scene replicated at the nearby National Museum of Natural History which, just over a year ago, had breached the million-visitor mark. There is only silence in its galleries, once teeming with schoolchildren eager to see such highlights as Lolong the crocodile (both its skeleton hanging formidably from the ceiling and its stuffed version showing its full form of 20 feet and 3 inches).
The long lines that used to form at the museum’s entrance down to its grand staircase outdoors are no more. The halls are empty, save for the occasional museum personnel and cleaning crew.
“When I do my rounds, even after seven months, I still get jolted by not seeing visitors,” said Ana P. Labrador, the National Museum of the Philippines’ deputy director-general for museums. “It was delightful witnessing their interaction with our displays, going beyond selfies and looking at the exhibitions closely.”
But while the National Museum has been shuttered by the government-imposed quarantine since March, Labrador said work has continued although adjusted according to current limitations.
Under the new normal, the museum has been developing virtual tours of new and permanent exhibitions as well as online resources such as its #MuseumFromHome series.
Under the new normal, it has been developing virtual tours of new and permanent exhibitions as well as online resources such as its #MuseumFromHome series.
The museum is launching a number of 360-degree panoramic virtual tours in time for the National Museum’s 119th anniversary today, Oct. 29, and capping the celebration of Museums and Galleries Month.
One virtual tour shows the Spoliarium Hall where one can see Luna’s painting along with works by his contemporaries: The Assassination of Governor Bustamante by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo and Monument to Arthur Walsh Fergusson by Mariano Benlliure.
A viewer can zoom in on the artworks, click on “hot spots” to read information about the featured items, zoom out and go around the room, or opt for an auto-rotation mode while hearing the Visayan love song Usahay sung by the University of the Philippines Manila Chorale in the background.
Similar tours have been done on the Hibla ng Lahing Pilipino exhibition at the National Museum of Anthropology, where one can see samples of Philippine textiles and a variety of looms, and on the History of Naturalists in the Philippines section at the National Museum of Natural History.
Labrador said such virtual tours, shot by photographer Fung Yu and supported by the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, will allow public access to select exhibitions while the museum is still shut. These materials may also be used for the Department of Education’s blended learning program, she added.
Two new exhibitions at the National Museum of Fine Arts will also premiere virtually. Larawan at Litrato: Foto-óleo and Picture Portraits in the Philippines (1891-1953) focuses on the art form of applying oil paint directly on black and white photographs, rendering color and making the images more visually appealing.
The Philippine Center New York Collection of 1974: A Homecoming Exhibition consists of 115 artworks by Filipino artists including National Artists Arturo Luz, Ang Kiukok, Bencab and Alcuaz, representing art movements such as late impressionism, neo-realism, cubism and conceptual art.
Though both exhibitions had long been in the planning, preparations stretched longer than usual due to challenges posed by the pandemic. Restricted transportation during ECQ (enhanced community quarantine), for instance, delayed the delivery of some of the photographs being loaned to the museum. Portraits were coming not just from Metro Manila but from Marinduque, Iloilo, Aklan, Capiz, Negros Occidental, Bohol, and Ilocos Sur.
The process was also hampered by the limited number of personnel who could report to work to help set up the exhibition at the early stage.
It’s a scene replicated at the nearby National Museum of Natural History which, just over a year ago, had breached the million-visitor mark. There is only silence in its galleries now.
Closed hardware stores meant the museum could not procure needed supplies, necessitating improvisation such as salvaging old wood from previous exhibitions for use as panels and plinths.
Things were even more complicated with the artworks that came from New York as these could not be immediately released after arrival in Manila.
The museum had also instituted a protocol for treating items being brought in, with the artworks having to go on quarantine before being deemed safe to work with. Apart from doing a detailed condition report for each piece, 50 of the works had to undergo conservation, further lengthening the process.
Despite the difficulties, however, Labrador said mounting both exhibitions is in keeping with the museum’s mission. “With Foto-óleo, NMP is bridging the gap in Philippine art history, marking the transition from painting to color photography. With the Philippine Center New York collection, works by Filipino masters are coming home after 45 years. We still feel these are worthwhile projects even if we will have to make do with a virtual launch and tour initially until we are allowed to open with limited visitors.”
Creating content for its social media platforms has similarly been a vital way to reach out to museum audiences, she noted. For its #MuseumFromHome series, the National Museum draws from its team of experts nationwide to shine a light on museum work and collections through comprehensive posts on its Facebook page that use hashtags such as #maritimemonday, #wildlifewednesday and #fossilfriday.
Labrador also underscored the essential role of the security staff and maintenance teams, describing them as the museum’s frontline heroes.
“The security staff makes sure to alert authorities of threats of theft, fire or flood. Our maintenance team, on the other hand, makes certain that every nook and cranny of the buildings is disinfected and specimens and artifacts are free from dust and pests. This greatly supports our mission to protect and preserve the country's cultural and natural heritage.”
Although there is no clear indication yet as to when the National Museum—with its four flagship institutions in Metro Manila and 16 regional counterparts—can open again, Labrador said they are already preparing for that eventuality
. Precautionary measures are being planned including online registration to limit visitor numbers. Decals have been placed on the floor to aid in social distancing.
“We’ll be ready,” she assured.
In the meantime, the National Museum will just have to be experienced virtually.