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Ayala Museum: Learning From the Filipino Past to Inform Our Future
by: Cody Cepeda
Along Makati Avenue, at the corner of Dela Rosa Street, the Ayala Museum warrants a second look. Its imposing and seemingly impassive all-concrete-and-glass carapace renders the institution striking, even when smackdab in the city of high-rises, skyscrapers, and swanky malls.
When the COVID-19 pandemic happened, the arts and cultural sector was one of the worst-hit — and museums paid the price. The once-frequented institutions, from major museums to the smallest independent galleries, had shut their doors, their halls left dark and absent of their goers as the infectious disease had us on house arrest.
Ayala Museum, at the onset of the health crisis in 2020, had already been closed due to renovations that began the year prior. For two years it had been absent from the scene, so its reopening to the public last December 2021 could not have come at a better time. Save for a temporary closure in early 2022 due to the peak of the Omicron wave, the museum has since been welcoming patrons young and old back in its premises, with refreshed and new exhibitions on offer, and a revamped lobby to boot.
A ‘Phygital’ Museum
Museum Director Mariles Gustilo had told The Beat Asia that the renovation spelled a new phase for the museum: "phygital."
From the use of the physical as defined by the exhibitions and retail spaces, there is also the digital aspect that includes the state-of-the-art Digital Gallery, and a new website and mobile application to redefine the entire museum experience.
The Digital Gallery, for one, is made available to the public for the first time ever and it's antithetical to the museum experience we are familiar with. It does away with the "intimidating 'Do Not Touch' policy," with guests encouraged to freely "touch" the objects in the museum's collections via the Digital Gallery's eight panels for "a more intimate conversation and up-close learning experience..."
Gustilo added they worked with New York-based Local Projects on the Digital Gallery's design experience, while Australia-based Piction developed the data asset management system or "the heart not only of the digital wall but the entire omnichannel experience." On the other hand, Helsinki-based Multitaction and Manila-based EVI provided the hardware for the Digital Gallery.
Meanwhile, those who may not be able to troop to the museum to experience its Digital Gallery need not live vicariously through the social media posts of museumgoers. The public can now access virtual versions of the museum's onsite exhibits and standalone virtual exhibits on its website from home. These include current and permanent exhibits like "Intertwined: Transpacific, Transcultural Philippines," "Landscape into Painting: Fernando Zobel Serie Blanca," "Virtual Diorama Tour" (until June 27, 2022), "A Long Road To Dignity" by the Filipinas Heritage Library, and "Project Alima."
"The ambition is for people to have such an engaging experience online that they want to come to the museum. And, once they visit, they love the connections they make and what they see so much that they want to keep connected with us after they leave," Gustilo said. "Thus, sparking and feeding a continuous and deepening process of appreciation."
The Filipinas Heritage Library
The Filipinas Heritage Library (FHL) on the sixth floor of the Ayala Museum was likewise overhauled to complement the museum's aim to "carve out new spaces of gathering."
John Labella, Ph.D., Library Senior Manager, told The Beat Asia that visitors can expect a refreshed look at the library, which was redesigned by Studio Ong.
"[T]he library recalls the museum lobby’s warm atmosphere. Its high ceiling, wood slats as accents, and color motifs reproduce the museum’s overall sleekness and warmth at the scale of a reading room," Labella said. "The new furniture pieces, many donated by the designer Vito Selma, are a streamlined take on Filipiniana furniture—hip and minimalist, alluding to the natural materials used in traditional Philippine crafts."
The library also features an enormous case of smoky glass called "the jewel box." As per Labella, the jewel box, the FHL’s centerpiece, holds the Roderick Hall Collection on World War II Philippines.
"Though visitors are not allowed to enter this glass case, they may view the shelves and its treasures through the transparent panels of the jewel box," he said. "They may also read the books upon request."
Labella added old and new guests of the library will notice "a sharper thematic focus in the way we look at Philippine history."
"FHL is interested to tell stories about how Filipino nationhood gained momentum across the previous century, from the late 19th century to the end of the cold war in the 1990s. Our library’s materials cover this entire period, what history geeks call 'Philippine modernity,'" he said.
"But our programming picks up objects from this timespan while being aware of the significant break that is World War II,” he added. “That historical rupture which our core collection represents serves as a kind of hinge in our work of memory keeping."
An exhibit worth checking out is the latest onsite installation by the FHL, called “Liberation: War & Hope.” Having opened to the public just last May 27, it centers on the nation's trajectory towards sovereignty and hope following centuries of oppression. From photos and quotidian objects to documents and printed materials, the exhibit engages the viewer to rethink, relearn, reconfigure, and remember those who had lived before, during, and after the Second World War.
The exhibit is on show until Sept. 25, 2022, and may be accessed for free through the 2/F Greenbelt elevated walkway entrance.
Sites of Remembrance
Libraries and museums, indeed, are engaged in the act of memory keeping. While museums house works that some would consider merely artfully aesthetic, they also play an important role in chronicling the prehistorical and historical pasts through a painstaking process of researching, archiving, curating, and exhibiting that’s grounded on sound scholarship. And living in the middle of, arguably, what some would call the era of post-truth, museums and libraries do wield the power to stand as critical spaces for education, discourse, and recollection.
One of the highlights of Ayala Museum is its permanent exhibition, "The Diorama Experience of Philippine History," on the second floor. The experience is almost trance-like, and guests should allot an ample amount of time (and wear comfy shoes) to take in the 60 dioramas that comprehensively plot the history of the Philippines in a maze-like setup. There’s the discovery of the fossilized remains of the Homo sapiens sapiens in the Palawan Tabon Caves (Diorama 02) and the Introduction of Islam in Mindanao (Diorama 08), for example, the Dagohoy Revolt against the Spaniards from 1744 to 1827 (Diorama 21), the Katipunan Initiation Rites in 1892 following Jose Rizal's arrest (Diorama 33), and the Recognition of Philippine Independence by the United States (Diorama 60) as the last.
Not to be missed from the Diorama Exhibition, of course, is the President's Wall at the end, which bears life-sized images of the previous Philippine Presidents along with their heights so visitors can measure themselves against the heads of state.
It's an interactive installation that at once feels benign and weighty, perhaps because the thought process can go from the banal “I’m the same height as President Magsaysay” to “What kind of person was he and what legacy did he leave the Philippines?” in an instant. And it goes the same for each president. It’s an amusing experience at face value, one that isn’t in your face at all, but subtly shifts the focus from the ostensibly frivolous to something more serious, like a conversation opener that naturally moves on to a deeper discussion.
Last May 9, election day, the museum posted a photo of the President's Wall on social media and urged the public to vote for the betterment of the country. In the same month, Congress proclaimed the next president of the Philippines — former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong" Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late dictator. He would perhaps one day figure in this wall, as well.
Just what kind of “legacy” Mr. Marcos Jr. would leave the country is up in the air. But if the real goal of the President’s Wall is to get the conversation started and the necessary questions kindled, then may it leave many more museumgoers ever discerning, critical, and hungry for the truth.
- Ayala Museum is open from Wednesday to Sunday, from 10 AM to 5:30 PM.
- Visitors are required to book in advance before making their visit to the museum. The soft opening rate is priced at P350.
- Only fully vaccinated individuals, regardless of age, are allowed to enter the museum. Proof of identification and vaccination is required.
For more information about Ayala Museum's visitor guidelines and current and permanent exhibitions, visit their website.
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