[Ilonggo Notes] Why Iloilo should be the museum capital of the Philippines

“Pang-museum” (belongs to a museum) – the expression refers to something old, precious, rare, to be put away for others to enjoy, perhaps to collect dust. There could be many of these museum pieces in Iloilo; over the past five years, several have opened in the city, each a short jeepney ride away.

Iloilo City should be crowned the country’s “museum capital” – in addition to its other titles, “the most noble and loyal city” (1890s); “Queen City of the South” (from the 1880s to the 1940s), “Bike Capital of the Philippines” (from 2017); and arguably, the “Food Capital” in a failed bid to be recognized as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2021.

Here is a list of Iloilo City’s favorite museums, each with their own unique attractions:

Iloilo Museum
Photo by Vic Salas

This trapezoidal modernist-style building was the first government-built museum in the country. When it opened in 1971, the National Museum did not have its own building. The efforts were led by former tourism secretary Gregorio Araneta, who has roots in the Molo district. It turned 50 a year ago and it is an enchanting place to visit. The main attractions are oriental pottery from the pre-Spanish era, Oton’s golden death mask and secondary funerary coffins, religious statuary, rare pina fabrics, war memorabilia and relics of a sunken British steamship. It also hosts exhibitions by local artists. The facade features bas-relief carvings of Iloilo’s famous churches. It is located right next to the provincial capital. Admission fees are between P20 and P50.

The National Museum of the Western Visayas
Photo by Vic Salas

Next to it is The National Museum of the Western Visayas. Built as a prison in 1911, the provincial government donated it to the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP) in 2016, which renovated it. Officially opened in December 2019, the most prominent features are the four corner guard towers and the skylight dome reminiscent of the British Museum. It gives a rush of natural light and a feeling of openness. Two permanent galleries are open, about a third of the whole building. The Gallery of Paleontology and Geology traces the volcanic origins of the region. Petrified wood, various fossils and the jawbone of extinct elephants and stegodonts are on display. The other gallery presents the textiles, looms and native weavings of the provinces of Panay. Both galleries have videos worth watching. The building sits in a beautifully designed park, where on one side we see several heritage houses and on the other the Esplanade 8.

The Philippine Museum of Economic History
Photo by Vic Salas

The Philippine Museum of Economic History opened in 2019 and is housed in a large former bahay na batoin style, a few meters from the town hall. It was built in the early 1900s as the offices of Ynchausti & Co. (YCO), the “first Philippine multinational”, which also had offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco and Manila . After the company left the country in the 1930s following the Spanish Civil War, Elizalde and Co. purchased the property and in the 1980s it became COA’s regional office. It was donated to the NHI in 2016 and turned into a museum that showcases Iloilo’s economic rise in the 1850s following the opening of the port to world trade, the rise and fall of the textile industry and the sugar boom. It contains fascinating panels about the Basques of Castile (hence ‘Kastila’) who are now household names, such as Ayala and Zubiri. It focuses on the major industries: sugar, tobacco, weaving, blacksmithing, ornamentation, boating, abaca, rice and coconut. One of the exhibits shows the different occupations held by the natives in Spanish times and their rates of pay. Iloilo’s vintage photos are the best you can get. Although exhibits are rare, the preservation is superb; there is certainly room for more information and artifacts, and you walk around the building admiring the stairs, floors and the calado stylish carvings on the ceilings. Machuca tiles are used on the ground floor and in the verandas. There is an airy courtyard partly shaded by huge banyan trees. Free entry.

UP Visayas Main Building

Opened in 2021 is the main UP Visayas building. Originally built in 1937 to be the town hall of Iloilo City, it had just opened when World War II broke out and was used as a Japanese garrison. The city donated the building to the state university after World War II, to house UP Iloilo. For more than 70 years, it housed classrooms and offices. Now there are two permanent galleries featuring works by prominent local artist Edward Defensor and ceramist Nelfa Querubin. It has an astonishingly high-roofed central area, marble pillars with Corinthian motifs, deco-style grilles and fountains, with two quadrilaterals. The building was designed by national artist Juan Arellano. Francisco Monti, also known for his work on the Metropolitan Theater and the Rizal Memorial Stadium, made the bronze sculptures. A mezzanine gallery hosts the “Leading Lights” exhibition, with works by national masters such as Ang Kiukok, Baldemor, Malang, Jose Joya and others. These works were donated by former chancellor Dionisia Rola to the university. Admission fee.

Photo by Vic Salas
Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art

Two of the newest additions to the museum scene are at Iloilo Business Park. The Emperador building has the Iloilo MOCA (Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Brandy Museum. MOCA has three floors, with spacious and bright galleries that showcase the works of modern Filipinos like Arturo Luz, Ofelia Gelvezon Tequi, and Julie Lluch Dalena; MOCA houses the collection of retired international banker Edwin Valencia. There are whimsical and provocative paintings, mixed media and sculptures. Emerging artists from Southeast Asia also have works on display. On the top floor you have original works by Joan Miro, a series of signed lithographs by Dali and pencil etchings by Picasso. Currently open from Friday to Sunday, entrance fees vary from 50 to 100 pesos for the upper galleries, while the Hulot gallery on the ground floor is free for visitors.

Brandy Museum
Photo by Vic Salas

In the same building is the newly opened Brandy Museum (2022). This is a world class exhibit that tells the story of the concoction and its origin from Jerez and the sherry producing regions of Spain. It eventually became a globally dominant brand (Pedro Domecq, Fundador, Emperador). The museum weaves an interesting story of how the drink was first discovered by the Moors, the preparation (think soil types for growing grapes, studded shoes for sloshing and grinding, barrels of oak for storage, distillation equipment, vintage bottles). There are photos and signatures of presidents, movie stars, royals and other celebrities visiting their factories. According to their blurb, Iloilo was chosen as the site of the museum because the Spanish regent bestowed the title of “most noble and loyal city”. Undeniably, Emperador is now a Filipino company and brand. The tour leads to the showroom and a bar where one can try their liqueur-mixed coffee drinks. Admission to the museum is free.

Camina Balay Na Bato

Two other places that don’t carry the “museum” label but are worth mentioning are the heritage houses that show how the privileged upper-class Ilonggos lived centuries ago. In Arevalo is the Spanish-era Camiña Balay Na Bato, with its Silong, Almacencorner staircase, saloon mayor, oratorio“ebony and ivory” parquet floors, carved pillars, capiz windows, and ventanilles. It was built in 1865 and passed down through several generations of the Avancena-Melocoton-Camiña families, and has been extended and remodeled in the style of the time. For the entry price (P50/220) you can also have a native chocolate batido with biscocho, or a bowl of Pancit Molo. They also serve authentic Ilonggo dishes.

Casa Mariquit
Photo by Vic Salas

The other house is Casa Mariquit, named after Mariquit Javellana, who married politician and businessman-industrialist, Fernando Lopez. The house was inherited by a great-grandchild and contains many family heirlooms – photos with presidents, world leaders and popes, gifts from dignitaries, books, desks, seals and the hammer of the former three-term vice president and president of the Senate. One can walk through the sala, dining room, bedrooms, office, kitchen and verandas. Period furnishings and furnishings are on display, though they appear understated and unostentatious. Said to be over 200 years old, the basement has a vault where money and valuables were stored, such as day Mariquit’s ancestors were well-known bankers and money lenders. The house, although well preserved, is a bit dark, surrounded on one side by huge ficus trees, which fuels rumors of sightings of supernatural beings. Better signage for displays would also be helpful. Entrance fee P50.

Philippine Maritime Museum

And as if that weren’t enough, the Maritime Museum of the Philippines will soon occupy the ground floor of the iconic, century-old Aduana (Customs House). Most appropriate as Guimaras and Oton were known for their shipbuilding skills; The Spanish galleons will be repaired at Oton on the 17thand century en route to the Moluccas and Mexico. Many Filipino sailors are Ilonggo, and the country’s only maritime university is in Iloilo City.

And just across Jaro Square, the former Jaro Municipal Hall and Police Station was donated to the NMP in 2016. Architect Juan Arellano designed the structure in 1934. One of the best-preserved art deco buildings of the country, it is also part of the Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Tourist Area (Republic Act 10555). What it will eventually house has not yet been announced, but this Ilonggo is already eagerly awaiting its opening. – Rappler.com

Vic Salas is a trained physician and public health specialist, now retired from international consultancy work. He is back in Iloilo City, where he spent his first quarter century.

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