4 reasons to be excited about the National Museum of Natural History

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The National Museum of Natural History aims to get more Filipinos interested in studying and preserving the country's rich biodiversity. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — There has been a lot of buzz online about the National Museum of Natural History, especially when photos of its interiors circulated online prior to the opening date on May 18. The majestic Tree of Life structure, which houses the museum’s main elevator and includes a glass and aluminum dome resembling a forest canopy fully covering the courtyard, was enough to entice would-be museum-goers.

But what else is there to look forward to at the museum? We paid a visit to the National Museum to find out.

The museum’s architecture is both breathtaking and practical.

The neoclassical building belonged to a cluster of buildings in the Rizal Park area — the Legislative Building on Padre Burgos Ave., which is now the National Museum of Fine Arts, and the twin buildings in the Agrifina Circle housing the Department of Finance, now the National Museum of Anthropology, and the Department of Tourism. In 2013, the Department of Tourism turned over the building to the National Museum.

The DOT building was neoclassical in style, and the museum’s architects worked to preserve its basic design and structure in a process called adaptive reuse. The building was retrofitted to follow safety standards for museums, but certain elements, like the wrought iron work, were carefully retained.

A ramp system was created because the old office building’s hallways were too narrow to accommodate large volumes of people. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

An example of adaptive reuse can be found in the conversion of the Ayala Reception Hall, where the remains of Lolong, the world’s largest crocodile in captivity, hang from the ceiling. According to Ramon R. Del Rosario, Jr., chairman of the board of trustees of the National Museum, the hall used to be split in the middle. The architects discovered that part of the design of the windows would have been better appreciated if the floor in the middle was removed. The result is a wide, airy space where visitors can view Lolong’s bones and other similar relics with ease.

The Tree of Life structure contains a glass elevator that brings visitors up to the third floor galleries, while the fourth and fifth floor galleries remain closed to the public for the time being. Director Jeremy Barns advises visitors to start their viewing at the top and amble down through the ramps. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

The structure's dome, resembling a canopy with a banderitas-like pattern, allows natural light to enter the courtyard. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Many of the design elements were also carefully chosen to make the museum-going experience much easier. For example, a ramp system was created because the old office building’s hallways were too narrow to accommodate large volumes of people. The glass elevator inside the Tree of Life is meant to bring people to the upper floors so they can start their viewing at the top first then amble downwards through the ramps. And the structure’s dome allows for lots of natural light to come in during the day, while its banderitas-like design creates interesting shadows on the walls and courtyard floor.

The remains of Lolong, the world's largest crocodile in captivity, hang from the ceiling of the Ayala Reception Hall. The hall is an example of the adaptive reuse principle that was used throughout the former DOT building to keep the basic structure and design of the original building intact. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

The museum is more than just your grandma’s bodega.

The museum’s design should be enough to inform one that it’s not just your regular museum. As resident historian Fr. Rene Javellana, SJ says, museums have a reputation of being like your grandmother’s bodega. “You dump everything and then you forget all about it.”

A mock submarine which visitors can walk through is one of the interactive pieces at the Marine Realm gallery. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

A part of the museum actually recreates that idea — the temporary exhibit in the second floor houses a couple of “cabinets of curiosity” that hold various items and creatures. But the rest of the museum is indeed quite different. The third floor galleries house The Mangroves, Beaches, and Intertidal Zones and The Marine Realm, which mimic the look and feel of these places. Here you’ll find trees with monkeys hanging in them, life-sized whale and dolphin figures, and even a mock submarine. Meanwhile, some exhibits feature interactive areas where visitors can experience what it is like to be a scientist or an explorer.

The Scientific Illustration activity allows visitors to appreciate the use of technical illustrations in communicating structures and details of biological subjects by recreating the experience with light boxes and tracing paper. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

This interactive and experiential approach is meant to get more audiences interested in the natural history of the Philippines, which Fr. Javellana says has a rich biodiversity.

“May mga parte ng museum na dapat mong hawakan,” says Fr. Javellana. “And so, ang unang engagement for protecting the biodiversity [of the Philippines] is you fall in love with the land. [Kasi] kung ‘di mo minamahal ang isang bagay, hindi mo aalagaan.”

Petrified wood from various continents on display along the museum's corridors. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Some of the galleries showcase taxidermied animals of different species, while paintings of local flora decorate the walls. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

The museum aims to inspire young people to be interested in science and conservation.

The flora and fauna of our country defines us, says Maria Isabel Ongpin. “Culture is adaptation to environment. What we are is a product of our environment.”

This makes it all the more important to be involved in the protection and conservation of our country’s rich biodiversity.

A replica of Lolong awaits visitors in the main area. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

The role of the museum, says assistant director Dr. Ana P. Labrador, is to make people curious. The goal is “to create a localized interest in natural history so that people would also go there and feel that they have to protect our environment.”

Director Jeremy Barns says that the Museum of Natural History is also the first to have dedicated classrooms. The museum hopes to bring in school groups to sit in on lectures by leading scientists. “Getting to know science firsthand, what it's like in the forest, diving underwater, and being out in the field and analyzing all kinds of species, even discovering new species … that's something that we will roll out,” says Barns.

A designated screening area teaches viewers about our country's natural treasures. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

But one of the problems of science education is its complicated language. To avoid kids from getting lost in the jargon, they keep the text in the exhibitions as digestible and understandable as possible.

To avoid simply dumping information on young kids and losing their interest, the museum’s focus is on telling stories instead.

“It's not enough for us to put up exhibitions. It's really how we are able to convey the ideas behind the exhibitions, so stories,” says Labrador. “It's really our advocacy, the environment, to really push forward in terms of to conserve what we have and to raise awareness that young kids can have a role in that, and grow up to be very conscious Filipinos.”

The interactive and experiential approach to the exhibitions is meant to get more audiences interested in the natural history of the Philippines, which Fr. Javellana says has a rich biodiversity. Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

The museum is open to everyone.

Entrance to the museum is completely free, making it accessible to everyone, from school kids to street children.

“These are the people you want to reach,” says Fr. Javellana. “You want to tell them, 'Be proud of this country, be proud of the nature of this country.'”