I love museums. While I was a student, I would just chill in a different gallery of the Louvre every Friday (student discount day!), scoured every display at the various Smithsonians, explored the Isabella Stewart Gardener instead of watch a Red Sox game. I am currently the proud owner of a Netherlands museum card. Aside from the blessed existence of the Ayala Museum in Makati, Manila is not exactly a museum-lover’s heaven. But there is one little oasis of art, culture and history that is as interesting as it is impeccably maintained to first-class standards: Malacañan Palace. Who knew?
(Malacañan is the Palace, and Malacañang is the complex)
The Old Executive Building in the grounds of Malacañang is a beautiful manor built in 1920, during the American era. The first president to sit there was Manuel Quezon, whose grandson, current Press Undersecretary Manolo Quezon, established the Malacañang Museum in these hallowed halls in 2001.
Also known as Kalayaan Hall, the stately manor by the river is fronted by a rotunda of beautiful old trees (I think they are acacias). It’s tucked away from the chaotic metropolis and stepping past the gates is like walking into a different world altogether, in an era of glory years past. (It probably helped that it just rained so it wasn’t very hot.)
Past the foyer is a lawn looking out to the river, and from here you see Bahay Pangarap, which is where the current president lives. You can tee-off from this garden, hit the ball across the river and onto the golf course next to the president’s modest home. The lawn by the river is not manicured; instead it runs in a state of orderly wildness that made me think of some Crisostomo Ibarra-ish figure in a white suit and cane, circa before Sisa goes crazy and life turns to… fill in the blanks here.
Speaking of Ibarra, a facsimile of the original manuscript of the Noli is available (and readable!) in Rizal’s handwriting and with his edits and side notes. It’s on the second floor of the Palace, in what was then the in/famous Maharlika Hall. The Hall is a collection of books, art and memorabilia including display cases containing the personal effects of every single president we’ve had from Aguinaldo to Aquino III. You can see how short they were too (they have pieces of clothing there). From Magsaysay’s display case, you could certainly tell he was a people-president.
The historical artifacts on display at the Malacañang Museum show you the story of our country. You can even see from the books, letters and transcripts how the our lingua franca has evolved — from Spanish, to English and then to Tagalog. Many of these items, especially the art, we owe to the Marcoses, although there is one staircase that featured art that was slightly narcissistic… you can guess who commissioned them. No, Imelda’s shoe collection is not housed here.
Also in Maharlika Hall is the balcony from which Marcos and Imelda waved goodbye to their supporters before being choppered off to Hawaii during the People Power Revolution. There are a lot of memorabilia from that revolution, and from the War for Independence as well. Pages and books from the resistance, from Mabini, Rizal, La Independencia, La Solidaridad… you can find here. Our tour guide tells us they have the original manuscript of the national treasures that are the Noli and the Fili, but are kept in special rooms to preserve the delicate, valuable pages.
The rooms and offices of Kalayaan Hall were as just as much a joy as the long hall of little items that make up our country’s history. The Quezon Room looks very American and Oval Office-esque (minus the ovalness). In the Marcos Room are the desk and chair on which the dictator sat to declare Martial Law. The Roxas Room reminded me of one of the sitting/receiving rooms in a European palace. The Quirino Room was my personal favorite. A large table cut from a single narra sits in the middle of this meeting room. With the decor of clean, pearl hues in the majestic interior, all eyes are on the dark, strong narra. The museum is giving this table away for free to anyone who can carry it on their own.
Marcos was the last president to hold office in Kalayaan Hall/Old Executive Building (not to be mistaken with the actual Malacañan Palace, which was a Spanish-era building next to Kalayaan Hall).
To visit Malacañang Museum, you’ll need to write a letter to the Director of the Malacañang Museum (you can send it to the current Press Office). You might need to include all the names of the visitors (background check). Visitors usually come in groups, including the cute little kids who were there while we went around 🙂