Books & Art

10 Reasons to Visit The National Museum Now

This museum, quite literally, is the repository of the country’s art, history, and culture, and there’s always something new to see. Rediscover it by planning a trip this week.
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Since its initial restoration in 2003, the National Museum of Fine Arts has gone from a sleepy, slightly forbidding institution to a bustling museum of the people, with long lines forming outside its colonnaded steps on weekends and holidays.

The fact that the admission fee was waived for good last year is the main reason for the record number of visitors, but another reason is the continuous improvement of the museum as a whole. There is always a surprise whenever you return—a new exhibit or retrospective, an as-yet-unseen-to-the-public sculpture, suddenly unveiled, newly opened galleries filled with properly curated and themed works—each one a visual delight, and a history lesson for visitors as well.

A few tips: Go on a weekday morning (except on Mondays, when it is closed) to avoid the weekend crowds taking selfies while standing dangerously close to the Tampinco sculptures. Visit the Spoliarium Hall first, and then go up to the fourth floor via elevator to view the Mañosa exhibit, and then work your way down at a leisurely pace. Don’t miss any of the galleries! Each one is even more interesting than the last. But do take the time to see these highlights.

1 | The awe-inspiring Spoliarium Hall

Juan Luna’s massive painting Spoliarium, an allegorical work signifying Spanish colonization, is the centerpiece and arguably the most famous work of art in the National Museum. The central hall of the former Legislative Building houses the enormous 4m x 7m painting. Also sharing space in the same hall is the graphic and vivid Assassination of Governor Bustamante painting by Felix Resureccion Hidalgo and the equally impressive Beaux Artes-era monument of Arthur Walsh Fergusson, the first executive secretary of the Philippines.


Juan Luna's Spoliarium

2 | The pink gallery of Los Dos Pintores (Luna and Hidalgo)

Nineteenth-century Philippines’ most celebrated artists—Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo—are exhibited on the second floor of the Andres and Grace Luna de San Pedro Hall. The bright, cyclamen-pink-painted walls of this gallery highlight the rich tonal values of the two masters’ paintings, making guests feel like they are in a European gallery. Here, you can view the two artists’ intimate studies (such as Luna’s ruins of Pompeii) and grand works (Hidalgo’s La Barca de Aqueronte) that give us a taste of their European mastery and a hint of their private lives.

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3 | The famous “cursed” Luna painting

In the corner of the same gallery hangs a Juan Luna portrait of a reclining lady in diaphanous bedclothes. The painting formerly had the title Paz Pardo de Tavera, but it is now called Portrait of a Lady. It is common knowledge that Pardo de Tavera was Luna’s wife, whom he murdered in a crime of passion in 1892. Though the National Museum guides do not expound on it, there is an urban legend that all previous owners of this specific painting had experienced bad luck. The last owner of the painting was former First Lady Imelda Marcos, and we all know what happened to her. 

4 | Alcuaz’s aggressive portraits of noted (and occasionally notorious) personalities

National Artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz was known for his non-figurative paintings with hints of cubism. But his portraiture was quite notable as well, and not just for the sensual nudes. The third-floor hallway of the museum glows with the brilliant colors of Alcuaz’s portraits of society people, fellow artists, and famous personalities. There is bravura to his strokes that lend a certain sinister veil to the more controversial subjects, such as Juan Ponce Enrile and Ferdinand Marcos’s right-hand man, Colonel Fabian Ver.

5 | Amorsolo’s oil portraits juxtaposed against his sitters’ clothes

Fernando Amorsolo, the country’s first National Artist, is known for his bucolic, pastoral scenes, but his portraits show his excellent skill in figurative painting. Amorsolo has been commissioned to paint almost every known President of the Philippines in his lifetime, and the best can be seen on the second floor 20th Century Portrait Gallery of the museum. President Manuel Roxas’s and Dr. Felicidad Cruz’s actual clothes at their sittings are paired with their portraits, giving visitors an intimate peek at how fashion and art is very much a part of image-making, even in the past. 


6 | The Filipino creations of Mañosa

Francisco “Bobby” Mañosa is best known as the architect who champions Filipino design. This is explored in the museum’s latest exhibit “Mañosa: Beyond Architecture.” Curated by professor Gerard Lico, the exhibit does go beyond Mañosa’s famed tropical houses, and into the creations that helped shape modern Filipino identities such as the Coconut Palace, EDSA Shrine, and the LRT Terminals. “We wanted to celebrate my dad’s life as an artist, a musician and as a designer,” says his daughter Bambi Mañosa. The architect’s playful side can be seen in the exhibit of the wooden toys that he had designed, videos of him playing in a jazz band, and rare photos of his interiors for the Playboy Club of Manila.

7 | The Agustin Goy exhibit

Visit the third-floor gallery for the exhibit “Agustin Goy: Sixty Years in Art.” The exhibit, which was curated by National Museum’s Ana Labrador, and set up with the help of Goy’s daughter, the artist Abi Goy, focuses on the 81-year-old classicist painter’s subjects: still life, landscapes, and figures. “Don’t call it a retrospective, kasibuhay pa ako,” says Goy candidly. When asked if his favorite works are the portraits of famous personalities, Goy says otherwise. “My favorite works are the ones I have a deep, allegorical connection to… like that of the horse with a karitela; that was our horse during the Japanese occupation…I can still see its colors.” The exhibit runs until March 19, 2017.


8 | The sculpture halls

Showcased on the second-floor hallways for all to see and appreciate are the sculptures of 20th-century masters Isabelo Tampinco and his sons, Anastacio Caedo, and Guillermo Tolentino (while looking at them closely—though not advised—you can see how lifelike the pieces are). Even though these sculptures are done in classical and romantic styles, you can see many Filipino motifs and subjects such as farmers, local plants, and animals in most of them.

9 | The delicate botanical drawings of Juan de Cuellar

You’re probably displayed delicate botanical print reproductions at home but now is the chance to marvel at the real deal in the exhibit “A Royal Botanist In the Philippines: Juan de Cuellar” on the second-floor hallway. In the 1700s, Spanish botanist Juan de Cuellar commissioned Filipino artists to illustrate plants he collected from Luzon. The illustrations have a naïve quality to them, and show how Filipino fruits and vegetables like the ampalaya and pomelo looked like 200 years ago without the aid of GMOs.


10 | The magnificent Old Senate Session Hall

The building where the National Museum is housed in a historical artifact in itself, as it was designed in 1918 by Ralph Harrington Doane, and then completed by architect Juan Arellano in 1926. Don’t miss the grand Old Senate Session Hall on the third floor, which was restored to its pre-war glory in 2012 using old photographs. The colonnaded, heavily ornamented hall is not used as a gallery, but rather as a function hall for important cultural events.


This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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