Finally, a home for the National Museum in Cebu

By: Jobers Reynes Bersales July 15,2019 - 06:07 AM

With the stroke of a pen last July 1, President Rodrigo Duterte finally gave the National Museum (NM) a permanent home in Cebu, thanks to the new NM Board Chair Luli Arroyo-Bernas who had shepherded the request and, according to the news yesterday, was supported by Michael Dino, the Presidential Assistant for the Visayas.

For nearly three decades, the NM had a branch museum at Fort San Pedro and then two galleries at Museo Sugbo until it decided to pack up in 2014 while quietly campaigning for a building worthy of its vast collection of artifacts and objects of and about Cebu.  I know for a fact that NM director Jeremy Barns has for over six years been quietly and persistently trying to find a home for NM here. And no one is happier than him that the Malacañang sa Sugbo, formerly the Cebu Customs House, will finally become the NM branch in Cebu. 

This development also augurs well for Cebu’s cultural scene. But I will dare to say that the spaces there might not suffice, especially if NM is to showcase the long maritime history of Cebu and its place in the archipelago as a precolonial trading port that brought Chinese, Thai and other foreign traders here. I would therefore suggest that Barns’ earlier efforts to get Fort San Pedro to be loaned to NM be continued and, if successful, to form a kind of museum complex connecting it to the Customs House.

I also urge the new city government, led by Mayor Edgardo Labella, to consider the potential windfall for Cebu if the fort is loaned to NM. It is, after all, the city that will reap the benefits from the tourists as well as locals who will learn so much from the exhibitions that NM will be putting up—as it has done so in Manila—and for free at that.

Getting the Customs House is in itself a resounding vote of confidence for what NM has done especially with its latest gem, the Museum of Natural History. Adding the fort under its wing will only redound to the betterment of this historic facility that has of late been turned into something like a botanical garden. No offense to my good friend, Dr. Ado Macaraya, who has painstakingly planted so many indigenous species inside the fort, but I feel the fort deserves a museum, one that is aligned with its role as a defensive structure. 

With its long mercantile history—eventually giving rise to the modern ship-owning families like the Aboitizes, Escaños, Gothongs, Gos, Chiongbians, Cokaliongs, Lims and Sys, to name a few—Cebu deserves a museum that is rightfully located at where foreign traders used to pay their dues, the Cebu Customs House, built in 1910. If the fort is added to it, then perhaps the NM can put up a kind of covered walkway, as it were, following heritage principles and akin to that of the footbridge connecting the former Singapore Supreme Court with that of the old Singapore City Hall, both of which were unveiled as the National Gallery of Singapore in 2015.  I leave to architects and heritage experts whether this same situation can be done between Fort San Pedro and the Customs House, given their proximity to each other. 

But what I am trying to point out with my seemingly runaway idea is that it would be most advantageous if the NM hosts the exhibitions for both structures that are related to each other historically: for maritime trade to succeed, here represented by the Customs House, adequate defense is always a must, here represented by Fort San Pedro.

Before I end, let me mention our talk with NM director Jeremy Barns in Bangkok three weeks back when I told him that with an NM branch in Cebu, maybe no one would go to other museums in Cebu anymore. He assured me that NM does not intend to compete but will complement the existing museums. Given the track record of NM with its current-state exhibitions, I believe an NM branch will help raise the bar for museums in Cebu. 

Let us therefore welcome with open arms the return on the National Museum to Cebu. 

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