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January 12, 2012

J. SEDFREY S. SANTIAGO

THE National Museum (NM) marked its 110th anniversary with a coup—adding National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco’s painting entitled “The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines” to its collection.

According to an NM note, the large-scale painting, composed of four panels (“sometimes referred to as quadtych”), tells a story—“the tradition of healing practices from the pre-colonial period to what may have been defined as modern.” The masterpiece though is not owned by the NM since it was handed over by the UP-PGH, its owner, only on a long-term loan basis. Prior to its turn-over, the painting, says NM conservator Roberto Balarbar, was in a pathetic state; “severely deteriorated and damaged” as shown by alterations. The restoration work, which was supported by the US State Department, took 15 months.

Subsequently brought back to its glory, Botong’s masterpiece was appropriately declared a national cultural treasure by a panel of art experts that included Prof. Santiago Pilar of University of the Philippines. It now hangs in a dedicated gallery in the National Museum, which was refurbished under the auspices of the Museum Foundation of the Philippines. Taking the place of the original in the lobby of the UP-PGH where the painting formerly hung and deteriorated is a set of reproductions donated by photographer-entrepreneur Benigno Toda 3rd.

The NM-UP-PGH agreement thus provides a model on how important art works and other cultural treasures can be conserved at the least costs, with the support of stakeholders. Dr. Ana Labrador, NM technical consultant, revealed that there are other public institutions which have significant art collections. But they are in danger of degradation not only because of the institutions’ lack of expertise in the care of art works, but also due to limited budget which are earmarked mainly for their operating expenses. Which are these institutions? Dr. Labrador declined to specify as this might jeopardize projected negotiations.

But the bigger challenge for the museum is not really to beef up its collection but how to lure the public to view Botong’s masterpiece and other gems in its hallowed halls. Two hundred thousand visitors to the museum annually is a dismal number, to be diplomatic about it. There is a real need to market intensively the National Museum to the people. Unfortunately, there is also a real problem regarding the museum’s accessibility. The museum management’s proposal for the construction of an LRT station behind the museum is a creative solution to the issue, and should therefore be seriously considered by Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Mar Roxas and Light Rail Transit Authority Administrator Rafael Rodriguez.

Enabling the commuting public to directly access and enjoy the museum is perhaps a good idea just like providing people easy access from LRT stations to shopping malls and love hotels (or motels as we fondly call them).

And the NM station can be an exhibition space just like the Louvre station of the Metro in Paris. If the “ordinary people” are too busy in the critical race to earn their keep and fend for their family, perhaps even a momentary glimpse from the train car of their forebears and their magnificent feats like the Banaue Rice Terraces may kindle in them a sense of pride and glory. And this could perhaps inspire them to do better and aspire for the finer things in life.

Does this sound too unrealistic? Maybe not because there are many poor Filipinos who have gone beyond their depravation because they dared to dream, and were inspired to act and make their dreams come true. And a good number among them have become patrons of the arts and culture.

And speaking of the DOTC, wouldn’t it be a good idea too, to put up “pocket museums” in our international airports with the curatorial assistance of the NM staff even if only replicas will be used? This will give initial good impression on arriving tourists, and possibly whet their appetite to see more of the countryside where the real and unspoiled beauty is.

These “pocket museums” are not meant to be cost-centered white elephants, but will also serve as display windows for one-stop shops in the airport that sell the arts and crafts of indigenous Filipinos as proposed by lawyer and cultural entrepreneurship-advocate Tanya Lat.

As new Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez said, all that the Philippine needs is a good marketing plan. And culture and the arts are always a part and parcel of a good tourism marketing plan.

The views and opinion expressed in this article solely belong to the author, a lawyer of the LAHI program of NCCA & ASKI Foundation.

Published in The Manila Times: http://www.manilatimes.net/index.php/life-and-times/14520-making-botongs-masterpieces-accessible