Text and photos by Michelle Anne P. Soliman

At the Taft Avenue end of Manila’s Rizal Park one sees the neoclassical building, originally designed by architect Antonio Toledo in the 1930s, now sporting a modern glass dome. Atop the eight pillars of the main entrance is spelled out the building’s new name: the National Museum of Natural History. The third building of the National Museum Complex in Manila, it officially opens its doors to the public today, just in time to mark the celebration of International Museum Day.
“We always try to do something significant and high profile in solidarity with museums around the world,” said National Museum director Jeremy R. Barns, noting that it will be a limited opening since some galleries are still being readied for view. “We just do not want people to wait any longer to get a taste of what we are doing here and to see all of the interesting specimens and exhibits that are ready.”
The completion of the National Museum Complex was enabled with the enactment of Republic Act 8492, also known as the “National Museum Act of 1998” by former President Fidel V. Ramos. As stated in Sec. 4, the law provides the “permanent and exclusive site” of the institutions to be: the National Museum of Fine Arts (the former Executive House building) which houses the paintings and sculptures of Filipino visual artists and national artists; the National Museum of Anthropology (the former Department of Finance building) which houses archeological and ethnological artifacts; and the National Museum of Natural History (the former Department of Tourism building) which houses the flora and fauna collections. With the appropriation of the buildings, Sec. 6 of the said law provides objectives that the museum be an “educational institution,” a “scientific institution,” and a “cultural center.”
Mr. Barns told BusinessWorld that the Department of Tourism (DoT) turned over the building to the National Museum just in 2013, completing the law enacted in 1998.
While the National Museums of Fine Arts and Anthropology have Juan Luna’s Spoliarium and Fragment 22 of the Berlin Wall as their respective centerpiece exhibits, the Natural History museum has the preserved remains of Lolong, one of the largest crocodiles ever measured (6.17 meters). At a press conference on May 10, Mr. Barns said that the replica of the saltwater crocodile which is currently displayed at the museum will be turned over to the Department of Natural Resources (DENR) on May 22 which is the International Day for Biological Diversity. Meanwhile, the crocodile’s mounted skeleton is displayed at the museum’s Ayala Hall while the original preserved body will go on view at a later date.
Meanwhile, the museum’s central plaza has on display the tooth and bones of a rhinoceros philippinensis which were found at an archeological dig at Rizal, Kalinga and dated to be 709,000 years old. Showing signs of butchering, the remains pushed back the date of known human habitation of the archipelago by a considerable degree — earlier the date was set at 67,000 years ago, based on human remains found in Cagayan’s Callao Cave.
“We are very fortunate in that due to the richness of our natural resources, the Philippines is considered by many experts to be one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. All features of Philippine natural history, from our mountains to our reefs, will be highlighted in the 12 galleries in the National Museum of Natural History,” National Museum chairman Ramon R. Del Rosario, Jr. told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.
The museum has interactive displays per gallery.
“After a visit to the National Museum of Natural History, guests should take away an enhanced appreciation of our rich biodiversity. Through this world class museum, [we] hope that all Filipinos can take enhanced pride in the beauty of the Philippines and in being Filipino,” Mr. Del Rosario, Jr. added.
In 2013, the National Museum Board of Trustees initiated a competition among five architects to propose a design for the building’s restoration. The project was awarded to the collaborative team of Dominic Galicia Architects and Periquet Galicia, Inc.
As Antonio Toledo’s building is one of the rare examples of a large-scale architectural remnant from the American Colonial period, the restoration’s principal designers decided to keep authentic elements from the original Neoclassical design including the exterior facades, the marbled entrance hall, and the staircases and iron grilles.
“As designers, we first learn what we can about the architectural shell — its character and style, its context, its placement on its site and how its original designer had resolved the particular issues it had presented. Then, we choose how to respond, which could be in a number of ways,” said Periquet Galicia, Inc. principal designer Tina Periquet in an e-mail to BusinessWorld.
She said that their team decided on a design concept that preserved the previous neoclassical design and that the original structure be “whole and unified.”
“The collaboration covered most elements of the interior spaces — space plans, spatial contouring, detailing, lighting, material and finish specification, and integration of ducts and engineering systems into the ceiling and wall treatments.” Ms. Periquet said. “As the project was essentially an adaptive reuse of the interiors of an existing building, the interior design was an integral part of the project from the start. The timeline for interior design thus began and ended with the architectural design and construction. The project took about four and a half years to achieve substantial completion.”
Adding an element of the modern to the classic building is the atrium’s dome which is held up by a structure that is called the “Tree of Life.”
“One of the important elements that really stood out to us in the Galicia/Periquet proposal was the concept of the Tree of Life as the centerpiece the museum,” said Mr. Del Rosario about choosing the winning concept. “The double helix and the symbolic importance of the tree were unique.”
The conceptualization of the Tree of Life was also a collaborative effort of both teams. The structural engineering of the Tree of Life was provided by Nippon Steel, a Japanese steelmaking and fabrication company.
The elevator housed at the trunk of the Tree is the main access to the various floors of the museum. “The center of the Tree of Life marks the exact center of the entire museum. Aside from carrying the dome, the trunk of the Tree of Life houses the glass elevator that takes the visitor from ground floor to the 5th Floor, where the exhibits begin. There are other ways to travel throughout the museum, but the Tree of Life elevator is the ceremonial processional way to do so,” said Dominic Galicia, principal architect of Dominic Galicia Architects, about the Tree’s function.
Among the other areas in the museum are: the Hyundai Hall, which is the museum’s formal entrance hall; the Ayala Hall, which occupies the second and third floor spaces above the ground floor and which is meant for special functions; and the ramp structure behind the Tree of Life called the Green Wall which displays local species of tropical plants in a pictorial collage.
Mr. Barns hopes that visitors come to appreciate the efforts of the National Museum in promoting the wealth of Filipino biodiversity and history. “We need focus on the National Museum [complex] and its potential. We’ve been really working hard to turn the perception around that it’s not worth visiting, or it’s boring, or not appealing, and really make it into a dynamic institution that people find fascinating; and visitors from all over the world want to come and see,” he said, stressing the institution’s value as a source of national pride, for education, science and research, and art appreciation.
“We will continue to keep working at making this a world class natural history museum that can rank with the great natural history museums around the world. We [are] excited to do our part to promote science, environmental causes, and responsible stewardship of our islands and waters,” Mr. Barns said.
The National Museum of Natural History is located at T.M. Kalaw St., Rizal Park, Manila. Admission is free.