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Window to the past: The saga of the Museo Iloilo


Architect Sergio Penasales is an angry man these days. That’s because his “baby”, the 47-year old Museo Iloilo, is scheduled to be demolished and give way to more infrastructure development on the Iloilo Capitol grounds. His anger isn’t because he was the architect who designed the 500-sqm. building and supervised its construction in 1971. He can’t stand seeing an institution that served as the soul of Iloilo torn down just to make way for “development”.

In the almost five decades of its existence, the Museo Iloilo has drawn hundreds of thousands of young Ilonggos to enter its doors and gain a deep understanding of Iloilo’s rich history and cultural heritage. It gave Ilonggos a sense of identity, a soul that has its foundation the bravery of our forefathers, making them proud of their heritage. No other institution has provided that kind of service to a people.

“It’s not just a building,” Penasales told this writer in a chance meeting at the Prestige Lounge of SM City Iloilo last Sunday. “It’s an institution that helped shape who were are as Ilonggos.” But his protestations seem to have fallen on deaf ears. With the opening of the Regional Museum in the restored Iloilo Provincial Jail building, TIEZA, which has been given control over the Museo Iloilo, may no longer use it for its original purpose. It’s not clear if the building will remain standing, or be demolished to make way for new structures.

Penasales vividly remembers how the Museo Iloilo came about. In 1969, Gregorio Araneta II, commissioner of the Bureau of Travel and Tourist Industry (BTTI), broached the idea of building a local museum in his home province. He had a budget of P100,000 for the project. The Province of Iloilo, through the late Governor Conrado J. Norada, donated a 2,000-sqm. lot on the west side of the provincial grounds as site for the museum. Araneta had hoped both the Province and City could chip in funds to pursue the project. But these LGUs had no money. The Capitol promised to haul 350 truckloads of earth soil as back filling instead.

The National Museum had a prepared design for the project. However, when this was put to a bidding, the bids were several times above the budget that Araneta had set aside. Penasales, then in his 30s, was recruited into the project and asked to present a design in one week’s time. Penasales worked long into the night to finish his design. The night before his deadline, he fell sick. But that didn’t stop him from meeting Araneta the next morning to show him the design which is now what we see is the present Museo Iloilo.

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After getting the go-signal to proceed with the project, Penasales encountered a new challenge: how to execute his facade which shows the centuries-old churches in the province. “I had no experience with this technique,” he said. He asked another architect for advice. He decided to experiment. He drew the silhouettes of the churches on plywood sheets and had them etched, layer over layer to serve as form when the concrete was poured. The drawings of the churches were to be cast into the wall, not carved out of the concrete.

A stroke of luck accompanied the construction of the Museo. Just as it was about to be finished, fishermen discovered the sunken remains of a British merchant ship off the beaches of the Arevalo district. Among its contents were rare china — plates, bowls, etc. The fishermen had initially kept their find a secret. They dove under water to the sunken vessel instead of fishing out in the sea to recover a few artifacts at a time and sell them to collectors. But somebody tipped them off to the police, and the area was quickly cordoned off. The National Museum was alerted, and Navy frogmen (as they were known then) took over the recovery of the artifacts. This started the collection of artifacts and historical items at the Museo Iloilo.

Next came the debate on the name of the museum. There were people who insisted that the place be called, “Museo de Iloilo.” Penasales argued that it was better to just stick to “Museo Iloilo.” Penasales prevailed in this debate.

With this turn-over of the Museo to the TIEZA, Penasales is upset that the more than four decades of culture and history that was showcased here would be lost forever. The new regional museum at the old site of the Iloilo Provincial Jail has just opened, and there were talks about demolishing the Museo to give way for the development of the Capitol grounds. He feels this would be a great disrespect for the institution that became the source of Ilonggo pride.

 

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About Manuel "Boy" Mejorada
Manuel "Boy" Mejorada is a journalist and social media activist. A former Iloilo provincial administrator, he is now waging a crusade against corruption and narco-politics.

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