The world of organisms: the new National Museum of Natural History
By Alma Cruz Miclat
When people think of museums of natural history, they usually imagine displays of fossils of various dinosaurs. The National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) of the Philippines is unique in that, instead of dinosaurs, visitors will find here an abundant display of giant marine fossils.
Two hundred million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the Philippine archipelago was still under the sea. Its unique ecosystem is reflected in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History—the repository of the country’s botanical, zoological and geological collections and other priceless artifacts.
Recently renovated, the building that houses the NMNH was built during the American period and rebuilt as government offices after World War II. The new NMNH opened in May 2018. Together with the Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of Anthropology, it completes the Philippines’ ternary National Museum complex.
The neo-classic edifice of the NMNH, located along the Teodoro Valencia (formerly Agrifina) Circle in Rizal Park, has 12 galleries on its six floors.
As one enters the building, one cannot but marvel at the central atrium featuring an imposing Tree of Life—a modernistic DNA double helix structure dominating the courtyard at the ground floor that spans up to a majestic glass and aluminum dome, a virtual crown at the top floor. Designed by Dominic Galicia, it is easily the favorite spot for selfies and group photos. It houses an elevator at the center, too.
Embracing the tree at the courtyard level are giant banners featuring three animals endemic to the country: the haribon (Philippine eagle), the mawumag (tarsier) and the tamaraw (buffalo).
In Gallery 1 on the fifth floor, the major attraction is definitely Lolong, a giant crocodile whose body is more than 6 meters long. When caught in a tributary of the Agusan marsh in Mindanao on September 3, 2011, Lolong weighed 1,075 kilos. Estimated to be at least 50 years old, it was the largest crocodile in the world ever caught in the wild. The Guinness Book of World Records had it as the largest of its kind, an Indo-Pacific saltwater crocodile (crocodylus porosus) in captivity.
It got its name from the nickname of its captor, veteran crocodile hunter Ernesto Coñate who died as he captured the giant. Brought to a sanctuary in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur, Lolong died on February 10, 2013. Its skeleton, arranged in mock attack, hangs at the Ayala function hall on the second floor. Around Lolong are glass cases displaying the fossilized bones and tooth of Rhinoceros philippinensis, scientifically dated to be 709,000 years old.
FROM TOP TO BOTTOM
It is best to view the NMNH displays from the fifth floor down, the better to appreciate the exhibits on the natural wonders of the Philippines such as Callao Cave, Chocolate Hills, Mayon Volcano, Mt. Pinatubo, Mt. Apo and Ma. Cristina Falls. Featured here are the country’s biodiversity, natural wealth and resources, mineral and energy resources, as well as flora and fauna fossils, petrified wood and ancient forest models.
Interesting is the space assigned to the Ring of Fire—the area around the Pacific with a belt of active volcanoes and earthquake-prone areas extending around 40,000 kilometers from the Philippines to Japan, extending to parts of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia, going all the way down to the western coasts of North and South America, round to New Zealand and Indonesia.
SOUND OF MUSIC
On the fourth floor, one finds a special room for the “Symphony of Nature,” where one could hear the sounds created by animals at specific times of day, or the symphony of rushing river, rustling leaves, and chirping or whistling birds. Here, one learns that the Luzon hornbill, the Philippine rufous hornbill and the Philippine fairy bluebird are most active at dawn and dusk—the natural alarm clocks of the forests. Cicadas can be heard at noon and before the sun goes down. Male frogs serenade their mate at dusk, while owls, frogmouths and nightjar make their sounds deep in the night.
Also featured on this floor are lowland evergreen rainforests, ultramafic and limestones karst forests, and freshwater wetland. Species thought to be extinct had been rediscovered by fieldworkers in the remaining limestone karst forest patches on the islands of Negros and Cebu. Think of Philippine bare-backed fruit bat, Cebu flower-pecker, black shama and Cebu hawk owl, you’ll find specimens there. Also featured are three new begonia species discovered within the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.
A diorama representing a night scene in a freshwater wetland features some nocturnal animals found in this habitat. There are at least 314 inland wetlands and 2,487 river systems all over the country. They have been identified by the Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR)-Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB).
OUR PHILIPPINE SEAS
Researchers at the National Museum have been collecting marine specimens since its establishment in 1901. One of the most successful productive oceanographic expeditions of all time was the Philippine Expedition conducted aboard the Albatross from 1907 to 1910. Researchers ventured to field sites all over the archipelago from Cagayan to the Sulu Sea to discover and document marine organisms. Find them featured on the third floor—the marine realm, mangroves, beaches and intertidal zones.
Other exhibits here are the science of scuba, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and the abyss. If one imagines the abyss only in its figurative depth of darkness, here in the Natural History Museum, one encounters its scientific meaning, as the deep-sea layer of the ocean around 4,000 to 6,000 meters below the surface—a fascinating realm where creatures wait, not hunt, for their prey!
Here at the museum, underwater life forms may be gleaned through portholes of a replica of a submarine, creatures from the shallow coral reefs to the open ocean more than 20 stories deep.
For many visitors, a tour of the NMNH is virtually a visit to UNESCO world heritage sites like the Puerto Princesa subterranean river, the Tubbataha Reefs, the wildlife sanctuary of Mt. Hamiguitan Range and 240 protected areas.
One could view or experience the exhibits, videos, guides, diagrams, illustrations and interactive set-ups free of charge—a carte blanche invitation to know more about the world of organisms.