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Mentoring the mentors

November 03, 2008 04:04:00
Ricci F. Barrios
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines--Museums are lifeless without young blood. But to get to the young, museums must first interest those who shape the youth—their parents and teachers.

Thus it was that one cloudy afternoon, 20 public school teachers visited the National Musem for a three-hour lecture tour of its art treasures conducted by John L. Silva, the museum’s senior consultant.

Silva began his arts appreciation lecture tour for public school teachers five years ago, first with a Ford Foundation grant, then with subsequent grants from corporations and private individuals.

“One teacher called it the ‘I Love Museum Program’ and the name has stuck,” said Silva. “I do the program in the National Museum, but also do it throughout the country in conjunction with Synergeia.”

Synergeia Foundation is a coalition of individuals, institutions and organizations working together to improve the quality of basic education [www.synergeia.org.ph].

Also on hand was Norie S. Garcia, executive director of Hands On Manila [www.handsonmanila.org.ph], which sponsored the teachers’ museum tour under its “Galing Mo Kid Project.”

Among the 20 public school teachers were Dr. Alyn G. Mendoza, principal of the Plainview Elementary School, and Emma G. Arrubio, principal of Nueve de Febrero Elementary School. Both schools are among the top-ranking in Mandaluyong City. Nueve de Febrero, with 4,000 students, also has the biggest pupil population in the area.

“I would like to see how arts appreciation can be used to make students appreciate Philippine history more, and how we can integrate arts with other subjects,” said Mendoza. “If students see artworks up close, perhaps they’ll appreciate them more.”

“Field trips such as this enrich the students’ learning in a way that books can’t,” said Arrubio. “I think we can connect arts appreciation to other subjects.”

Banishing boredom

But first, Silva pointed out, teachers must deal with boredom in the classroom.

“By the second grade, the dropout rate is 50 percent not just because of poverty but also because the students are bored,” said Silva. “That’s why teachers should learn how to get the children excited about learning. Going on field trips is one tool to achieve this goal.”

The Department of Education has recognized the value of field trips in “supplementing classroom instruction.”

Silva observed the growing trend of creating science museums and holding educational exhibitions in the larger malls.

“School field trips should be encouraged to those specific places,” he said. “It is not the mall that is anathema; it is their deficient educational value that is in question.”

Arts for the creative

What has been found, among others, to nurture creativity and intelligence is arts appreciation. According to Silva’s presentation before the actual tour—arts-educated children have better school attendance; are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, three times more likely to be elected to school office and four times more likely to win awards for writing essays or poems; do better in math because arts education strengthens problem solving and critical thinking skills.

To develop aesthetic sensibility, Silva advised his audience to turn off the television; explore your city, province, country and the world; look at the details in your life; develop a love for the arts; and be a citizen.

After the orientation, Silva led the group to the former Legislative Building, now the National Gallery of Art, where seven galleries take the audience through 200 years of Filipino arts. In one hushed chamber, the group let out a collective gasp of awe as they viewed the gigantic and original rendering of “The Spoliarium” by Juan Luna.

Creating a nation

“We venerate something without understanding, like ‘The Spoliarium,’ which created a nation. That may sound an audacious claim, but it is true,” Silva said.

The Spoliarium, a part of the Roman Coliseum, was where the bodies of dead and dying gladiators were laid. Juan Luna did not know this when he visited the coliseum. In that desolate spot, Luna saw in his mind the anguish and the despair of a people shackled and oppressed. Inspired by this patriotic stirring, he produced “The Spoliarium,” which won the gold medal in the 1884 Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts. The dead and dying gladiators symbolized the Indios [Filipinos], and the Romans who dragged them were the Spanish colonizers. In the background, a girl with her back turned on the unfolding tragedy represented Filipinas [the Philippines].

In that same exposition, the silver medal was won by another Filipino artist and Luna’s friend, Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo, for his painting “Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho” [The Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace]. It showed a group of boorish-looking males mocking semi-naked female slaves, one of whom is seated in the foreground, head bowed in misery.

The small band of Filipino expatriates and members of the Philippine reform movement in Madrid were jubilant and held a victory party. During the celebration, the medical student Jose Rizal toasted Luna’s and Hidalgo’s achievements as evidence that Filipinos were the equals of the best Spanish artists. And then Rizal eloquently posed the questions: If the Filipinos are as good as the Spaniards, why don’t we have equal political rights? Why aren’t we free?

The Spanish journalists who were present quoted Rizal’s words in their newspaper reports. The news eventually reached the Philippines. As a result, the Spanish authorities persecuted Rizal’s family. It was then that Rizal transformed into a political activist.

In 1886, “The Spoliarium” was sold for 20,000 pesetas. In 1953, the Spanish head of state returned the painting to the Filipino people. The Filipinos in Visayas and Mindanao clamored to see the famous painting, thus, it began an inter-island tour on board a ship. At each stop, the crowds wept when they saw Luna’s painting.

Today, “The Spoliarium” hangs in the National Gallery of Art of the National Museum. To this day, teachers and students come to see it, but not all of them understand its meaning. This underscores the importance of art appreciation in the education of the Filipino youth.

War and peace

As the three-hour lecture tour drew to a close, Silva teased the group, “Are you tired? Do you want to see more?”

Without hesitation and with one voice, the group answered, “Yes!” Perhaps that was when the museum lights grew brighter and the paintings became more vivid. There is nothing like an appreciative audience to breathe life into the most primitive artifact.

In the Gallery of National Artists, the group feasted on the works of such greats as Fernando Amorsolo, Victorio Edades, Vicente Manansala and Carlos "Botong" Francisco. All of these painters, Silva told the group, came from the working class, long before they became famous and rich [in that order], and sometimes just famous.

One of Francisco’s paintings depicts the first Mass held on Philippine soil. It showed Ferdinand Magellan in attendance along with the pintados.

Silva asked the group if they could spot any discrepancy. How could Magellan have been present during this occasion when history tells us he had been killed by Lapu-lapu? Silva advised the teachers: “Study historical paintings and discover inaccuracies against real facts.”

In another room, the paintings depicted the tragedies of the Japanese Occupation. “Rape and Massacre in Ermita,” a painting done in 1947 by Diosdado Lorenzo, was particularly disturbing.

When children viewed these paintings, Silva said, he told them war was a horrible madness that made people go crazy. These paintings underscore the importance of peace among nations.


After the tour, the principals in the group were asked what they had learned that could be used in the classroom.

“The National Museum Tour experience was one of a kind. It was my first time to hear the stories behind every portrait and mural,” said Mendoza of the Plainview Elementary School. “It was a realization of how the power of art can define the history of our freedom and the pride of a nation."

She said the tour gave them a close, firsthand look at the various art media that was not readily available to every public school pupil and teacher.

She estimated that only ten percent of the pupils could afford the transportation and other expense of an educational tour; the majority had no option at all. But today, teachers can bring the museum—its artwork and other installations—into the classroom via computers.

Arrubio of Nueve de Febrero Elementary School said, “In the classroom, paintings can be effective in stimulating interest and imagination. A painting can be used to inculcate values, respect for mankind and nature, patriotism and value for life.”

She would like to have “a room for storytelling that will focus on the biography or experiences of the famous artists in the museum.”

Also, she would like to see scenes from around the world, or children’s favorite places. Such a collection can be a springboard for learning, for expression [composition writing] and creative ideas [scrapbook-making].”

There is art in the order of mathematics, in the cadence of music, in the coherence of language, in the cohesion of a people sharing a pure love for country. The interconnection of things lies at the very heart of learning. And it can start with a day at the museum.

Make reservations to John L. Silva’s three-hour museum lecture tour through 09267299029 or jsilva79@mac.com. Attendees are requested to wear walking shoes [no heels, please]. A portion of the fees [P700 for adults, and P500 for children up to 18 years] goes to Silva’s “I Love Museum Program” to bring public school teachers to the National Museum. Check out the blogsite http://johnsilva.blogspot.com/ and his blog: http://johnsilva.blogspot.com/2008/06/you-don.html

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