My father and two brothers studied at the University of Santo Tomas (UST). They used to share memories that were alien to me, such as eating sandwiches from a magical vending machine, and perching on the brise soleil of the Engineering Building.
And then I asked them a question that left them stumped: Have you ever visited the UST museum?
One brother said no. My other brother mentioned, in an ominous tone, that it was “Weird and creepy, like someone’s buried there.” Like who? I asked. “Like Jesus Christ,” he said. Oh.
My late dad was the only one who got it right. “It’s like a Cabinet of Curiosities,” I remember him saying. “It’s like a European museum, with taxidermy and all sorts of artifacts.” He also wondered why most students back then hardly went there. But I finally got to visit UST’s Museum of Arts and Sciences many years later for a student exhibit.
The museum is located in the main building of UST, which is one of those places that is a historical artifact itself. Built in 1927 by Fr. Roque Ruano (a priest and an engineer—how convenient!), the main building is a renaissance-style-inspired, earthquake-proof structure. The classical statues perched on the roof are by Francesco Riccardo Monti, and the likenesses of Aristotle and St. Augustine are some of the favorite subjects of architecture students who burned their batok sketching outdoors.
Huge, creaking front doors open to an even grander interior with ecclesiastical touches, such as pilasters, ceiling rosettes, and stained-glass windows. It is cold and beautiful at the same time—mostly beautiful because of the murals by Antonio Garcia Llamas, which show the history of UST. These were restored just a few years ago.
A flight of stairs leads you to the museum, which is where the Cabinet of Curiosities reference really hits you. There is a central space for various school exhibits, and a mezzanine and various halls surround this. But no paintings and saintly statues here (that’s on the second floor)—all you will see are fossilized and preserved corals and plants, rare rocks and crystals, and taxidermy insects, birds, and mammals.
Yes, mammals. Like this stuffed tiger in the middle, which some students claim is the actual UST mascot tiger (poor thing).
The museum is divided into three halls to house their Natural History collection (the “Cabinet of Curiosities”), Oriental Arts (coins, medals, pottery), the Hall of Artists (with works of National Artists like Amorsolo and former UST professor Galo Ocampo), and the exquisite and slightly frightening Hall of Philippine Religious Statues. My friend Wilan Dayrit mentioned that there is an eerie, almost mystical feel about the two Papal chairs on display.
You couldn’t talk about the UST main building without mentioning its dark past as an internment camp for Americans and other expats during WWII. We were reminded of it when the security guard approached us while photographing the exhibit. “Ma’am, okay lang ba pag 6pm, pack up na po tayo?” he asked politely. He continued: “Basta ‘pag 8, pinapaalis na namin ang mga tao, tapos lock up na.” I asked him if he “saw” things inside the building at night.
“Minsan may nakikita kami sa CCTV,” he said, still smiling, as if he were talking about the most ordinary thing in the world. “Minsan marami po sila.” Now that is an added attraction!
The UST Museum of Arts and Sciences is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm at the UST campus, España, Manila. Admission is Php50. Though it is currently closed because of the general quarantine.