MANILA WAS once beautiful, filled with gracious buildings, parks, and wide boulevards. But then came the devastation of World War II, followed by uncontrolled urbanization and population growth, and Manila’s landscapes dramatically changed. Manila, as we now know it, is a gritty city and with changing perceptions on heritage and identity. The question begs to ask: What is Manila to you?

With the goal of examining and framing the memory of the city amidst a changing culture, urban life, and identities, the Metropolitan Museum of Manila (Met) presents its latest exhibition, Manila: Hidden in Plain Sight.

“The exhibit examines the memory of the city and the structures that shape the city’s perception of heritage and social identity,” said Tina Colayco, Met president, during the exhibit’s opening on July 27.

The exhibition also seeks to have a dialogue of Manila’s past and present.

On view at the Met until Aug. 26, the show is set to travel to three schools in Manila — the Manila High School, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, and Universidad de Manila — in September and October. The goal, according to Ms. Colayco, is to serve as a platform for dialogue and discussions among students on, for instance, the advantages and disadvantages of living in Manila.

The exhibit is a conversation between the present and the past done through the juxtaposition of art created in the past and in contemporary times. Thanks to the collection of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), there are paintings that depict the heyday of Manila. The selected artworks include a 1920 painting called Intramuros Gate by Isidro Ancheta, which encapsulates Manila as a passage and a melting pot for communities and people coming from different provinces, and with different lifestyles and classes. There is also the 1922 painting called Jones Bridge by Victor Diores, which shows the old Jones Bridge that spans the Pasig River and connect Ermita and Binondo.

That was Manila in the past. To show what Manila has become, the exhibit juxtaposes the BSP works with pieces — print, collage, photography, installation, and videography — by eight contemporary artists. Tad Ermitaño’s Gillage: History, Modernity, Conjecture, for instance, is a video-installation depicting the urban settlers’ daily life through the makeshift houses in Manila’s streets and the improvised trolleys powered by foot along Pandacan Bridge. It shows how people adapt their lives according to habits, habitations, and the structures of Manila’s streets.

The other participants are Dina Gadia, Leeroy New, Issay Rodriguez, Denise Weldon, MM Yu, and Manix Abrera, whose works highlight Manila’s faces and phases: the crude dwellings of the street urchins, the city’s constant struggles in keeping its heritage buildings, problems in transportation, and the perpetual resurrection of the Pasig River, which was declared in the 1990s as a dead body of water.

Abrera, a comic artist, finds the humor in the tiring life of residents in the concrete jungle that is Manila. His comic strip dwells on the different meanings of “stress” in the corporate world.

According to the exhibition curator, Mercedes Tolentino, the show does not make a stand, but it calls for the audience to develop their own perceptions on what Manila is and what it makes them feel. “The goal is to heighten one’s critical understanding of the city,” she said. — Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman