The U.S.T. Museum
Forbidding was the University of Santo Tomas in the past because it was
always dark and closed. To gain entrance, you had to break your knuckles
knocking continuously on its doors until someone let you in. More often
than not, no one came close to the door. If you were lucky to be let in, you
would be ushered into an eerie gallery filled with dusty artifacts, ill-lighted
knickknacks and animals stuffed in such a way they made you feel they'd
come to life any time and pounce on you. Few people had the courage or
patience to stay there more than fifteen minutes.
This horror-picture atmosphere however, has been changed by the present
museum director, Fr. Angel Aparicio, a nice Spanish Dominican who literally
brought a fresh wind into the museum by opening its doors and window,
giving it regular hours, and cleaning and rearranging the mass of artifacts to
form an orderly display.
When I visited the
museum months ago, I asked to see the "sacred crocodile"
said to be on display in the museum. According to legend, this was a large
crocodile with a strange mark on its belly, which the pre-Hispanic Filipinos,
who lived along the Pasig River, worshipped an appeased with human
sacrifices To convert the "heathen" Filipinos, the Dominicans had to prove
the Christian God was more powerful than their anitos and their "sacred
crocodile." So the dominicans destroyed the anitos -- and lightning did not
strike them dead; later, they killed the "sacred crocodile" and survived.
Fr. Aparicio listened to the crocodile story and even seemed to like it.
Being new to the Philippines, he didn't whether the tale was apocryphal
or not, but he promised to check it out. As he led us to the natural history
collection, he said that people who bathed in the Pasig up to the nineteenth
century had to do so in bamboo cages to be safe from the crocodiles which
lurked in the river. We were shown about half-a-dozen crocodiles of all
sizes, some so large their skin could be me made into entire sets of suitcases.
Since none of us could tell which was the "sacred crocodile," Fr. Aparicio
simply said, "Take your pick, your guess is as good as mine."
Aside from the crocodile, there was an assortment of other reptiles:
a tiger, dogs, cats, and even freak animals -- a cow with two head, another
with five legs, and so on. Fr. Aparicio had improvised and formed cases
for the numismatic collection of coins, medals and other objects which
pertain to the Royal an Pontifical University of Santo Tomas. As we
walked before the santos, icons, and other U.S.T. memorabilia, Fr.
Aparicio explained the formal ceremonies involved when professors
would vote whether to give a person a doctorate or not. The university
mace was put out, and professors cast their ballots on a large silver tray
also on display.
Fr. Aparicio is still looking for space where he can hang their paintings.
They have quite a large collection, the gems of which are a landscape and
a watercolor by Juan Luna, the latter on loan to one of the Dominican
offices. The U.S.T Museum also boasts of owning a bust of Juan Luna
done by the nineteenth-century Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure whose
works are seen in the annex to the Prado in Madrid devoted to Spanish
artists of the nineteenth century. The slightly damaged bust of Luna by
his friend and classmate was once in the collection of Alfonso Ongpin
before the war and eventually found its way to the U.S.T. It is a very
important piece not so much because it is probably the Benlliure in the
country, but because it is a good likeness of the young Luna.
A landmark in Philippine Art is Galo Ocampo's Brown Madonna,
which created a stir decades ago when the painter depicted the Virgin
Mary as a Filipina instead of the usual Caucasian we have been used to.
This painting is in need of slight restoration, but will one day be exhibited
to the museum.
So, through its energetic director, the U.S.T. Museum is now gaining
many visitors. Later on, with enough public interest, it can even get
more funding and more floor space to bring all of its treasures into public
Ocampo, Ambeth R., "Bonifacio's Bolo," Anvil Publishing, Inc., 1995