University museums

University museums focus on communities
By Dannie Alvarez


Museums in the Philippines have been in hyper mode lately. Local governments have been setting up museums to comply with the national order to enrich their communities through heritage centers. The same energy is felt among private companies and persons as they start showcasing their collections to the public. This energy is equally felt in the university museum sector.

One of the oldest museums in the Philippines is the University of Santo Tomas Museum of Arts and Science in Manila. Established in 1871, its initial collection was made up of specimens for study and research. The early museum displays could perhaps be described as “cabinets of curiosity.”  But recently, the museum has undergone a major facelift following a new exhibition concept. The various collections, from art to natural science specimens, have been set up as a permanent exhibit in more orderly and attractively organized visible storage, thus increasing their usefulness to students, teachers and researchers.

In the Visayas, the University of San Carlos Museum in Cebu is the earliest school museum. Its collections come from specific research initiatives by faculty members with programs geared towards a bigger public.

In Mindanao, two university museums, both located in Cagayan de Oro City, are worth citing: the Xavier University Museum, founded by Fr. Francisco Demetrio SJ and aptly described as a folkloric museum, and the Museo of Three Cultures of Capitol University. These museums showcase their rich collections in handsome, permanent galleries.

In Luzon, the Museo de la Salle of De La Salle University in its Cavite campus is a grand lifestyle museum, reliving a specific time in Philippine history. This museum anchors its programs and exhibits on a collection donated by the Panlilio family. Regular educational programs punctuate the exhibits. This museum leads the ranks of many museums in Southern Luzon, majority of which are shrines under the National Historical Commission in the provinces of Cavite, Batangas, Quezon and Rizal.

University museums in Metro Manila

The Vargas Museum at the Diliman, Quezon City campus of the University of the Philippines is the repository of the personal collection donated to the university by Jorge B. Vargas, who was the Executive Secretary of President Manuel Quezon. The collection consists of books and periodicals, archival materials, personal paraphernalia, numismatics and a vast number of art objects. This personal collection is synchronized with regular changing art exhibits.

The art exhibits, the museum’s centerpiece presentations, consistently present contemporary art, coupled with regular scholarly talks that try to address the needs of UP art studies and fine arts students. Dialogues between contemporary art and the historical materials and objects in the varied collections are often organized in the form of exhibitions and lecture programs. By doing so, the exhibits are programmed to take in a wider audience—both local artists and their collectors as well as the museum-going public.

Also in Quezon City, the new space of the Ateneo Art Gallery is going to be formally inaugurated soon. While operating independently from the other units in the university, the gallery has recently created, through the vision of university president, Fr. Ramon Villarin, SJ, an umbrella unit named Arete. The name, from the Greek word implying excellence, brings theater, fine arts, design and the art gallery in one meaningful cluster.

While the principal cluster centers on art and creative activities, it intends to cross over to the university’s science units to show the common denominator between scientific and creative thinking. The Ateneo Art Gallery has carved its own niche as it complements its regular changing visual art exhibitions with the Ateneo Art Awards, a program that rewards contemporary visual artists with recognition and art residencies in partner universities abroad. Recently, the awards expanded to include the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Art Criticism Award and to partner with a national broadsheet, Philippine Star, as the outlet for winners to showcase their art criticism skills.

Clearly, these programs have widened Ateneo Art Gallery’s public both in and out of their university campus, locally and internationally as well.

A new museum in Northern Luzon

Museo Kordilyera is a regional ethnographic museum located at the UP Baguio campus. Established through the efforts of incumbent chancellor Raymundo D. Rovillos and the previous heads of the university, the museum finally opened in 2017 with three inaugural exhibits on traditional tattooing traditions, the ethnographic research process, and ethnographic photography. The museum is designed to showcase, preserve and enrich the culture of the various ethnolinguistic groups in the Cordillera—the  Bontok, Ibaloy, Ifugao, Kalinga, Kankanay-ey, and Tinguian—as well as the culture of other smaller groups in Northern Luzon.

The museum serves as a center of discourse and dialogue, a venue for the interaction of local communities with the wider world through regular and special exhibitions, lectures and fora, presentations, and performances. It is also designed as a way by which the faculty and students of the university can share their research output with academics and researchers elsewhere. This museum runs a shop where its publications and those of the Cordillera Studies Center are sold.

The momentum of changes within the museum system in universities is being felt. More specific narratives, more focused collections, and expanded community reach are the welcome bywords in many university museums as they revisit their mission and visions statements. For those planning to set up or improve their existing university museum, their main concern is creating a clear roadmap that will make the place both a formal and non-formal educational resource and a magnet for a bigger, more responsive, engaged audience within and outside the campus.

With so much research materials generated by the university community, the museums can serve as a platform in community building, enhancing the local peace process, revitalizing communities, and diminishing the divisive boundaries of the traditional and the contemporary.

The road signs are clear. There is a new dynamism that can be seen as museums go beyond the usual stress on social science and the humanities, to include in its evolving landscape an increasing interest in the natural sciences and technology. This we see in the development of the improved Rice Museum, the Sea World Museum, and the upcoming ASEAN Natural Science Museum.


Dannie Alvarez is head of the National Committee on Museums and member of the Subcomission on Cultural Heritage of the NCCA. He is also the administrator of the Yuchengco Museum and active in the Alliance of Greater Manila Area Museums (AGMAM). (

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