The Museum of the University of Santo Tomas is considered as the oldest existing museum in the Philippines. Included in its collection are antique items coming from what was then known as the “Gabinete de Fisica” -- a room where medical students could study in detail the three kingdoms of nature. It was founded by Royal Decree, and meant to function as the co-curricular arm of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, one of the first faculties founded in the university.
By 1871, the Gabinete had so far extended its collection from the three kingdoms of nature to collections going beyond the study of medicine and pharmacy. The collection was big enough to formally open the UST Museum, not only to students of the University but to the public as well.
The very first Museum director was FR. CEFERINO GONZALEZ, O.P. who later became Archbishop of Toledo and Seville.
Following on the heels of Fr. Gonzalez, the UST museum’s next director, FR. RAMON MARTINEZ VIGIL, who later became the Bishop of Oviedo, wrote “Curso de Historia Natural”, a manual of natural history widely used in Spain. He edited this manual when he returned to Spain in 1883.
When the Philippine Republic was inaugurated in 1898, the only existing museum was the one originally located in Intramuros.
Said by many to be the Museum’s greatest director ever was FR. CASTO DE ELERA, who entered the museum at the close of the 19th century. He was the one responsible for reclassifying the collection and starting a system of data communication with other musea of the world. He also published voluminous work on Philippine fauna, entitled “Catalogo Sistematico de toda la Fauna de Filipinas”, copies of which can be found in the Museum library. Most importantly, Fr. de Elera indicated in his catalogs which specimens could be found in the Museum.
The museum transferred to its present site, originally conceived as the theater or the “paraninfo” -- a large, general purpose area meant for important gatherings like graduations and concerts -- in July 1936 from its old site in Intramuros, where it used to occupy one corridor and two big salles of the University’s original building.
The museum grew to its present status as a repository of the sciences and the arts right after the First National Painting Exhibit in 1941 which was organized by then Rector FR. SILVESTRE SANCHO, O.P.. Following this event, the University was able to acquire works by such masters as Fernando Amorsolo, Vicente Manansala, Carlos “Botong” Francisco and Galo Ocampo. Since then, the UST Museum entered a new phase; it was no longer a museum only for the sciences, but the arts as well.
During the Japanese occupation, the grounds of the University were converted into an internment camp. At its peak, the Main Building housed some 3,000 prisoners, a few of whom were allowed to work with the Museum’s vast collection. Some of their names may still be found among the records, including a woman named Leila Maynard, who subsequently wrote a book in which she recounted her experience of cataloging shells and rare books for the UST Museum.
It was a great insight when FR. JESUS MERINO, O.P., realized the importance of religious images in the molding of Filipino religiosity. He painstakingly undertook the collection of Philippine religious images of saints, which at that time were appreciated by very few people but which today have become quite precious as collectors’ items. He likewise greatly increased the ceramic collection and the ethnographical section.
FR. ANGEL APARICIO, O.P., in his turn, continued the splendid work done by his predecessors and made every effort to transform the oldest Museum in the country into something by modern spearheading a renovation in 1987, bringing logic and order to the increasingly crowded, jumbled, and confusing mass of exhibits. Further, Fr. Aparicio published a general brochure about the Museum.
Aware of the growing responsibility of the Museum as a potential agent of quality education provided by the University, as well as the growing need for cultural development, FR. ISIDRO C. ABAÑO, O.P., the Museum’s incumbent Director, also implemented a series of facility rehabilitation programs which concluded with the completion of the UST Museum Main Hall renovation. During a short transition period while Fr. Abaño was in Rome for almost two years, taking up advance studies in “The Cultural Heritage of the Church” at the Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, FR. DENNIS MAQUIRAYA, O.P. took the reins. Fr. Maquiraya acted as Director and kept the Museum in fine running condition until Fr. Abaño returned from Rome. Fr. Maquiraya started working on the catalog that Fr. Abaño had designed and planned. Upon Fr. Abaño’s return, he continued working on the catalog. The latest in computer technology was also brought in to facilitate cataloging and documentation, and the Museum offices were built at the third floor.
Also, the facility rehabilitation program had borne fruit via two major additions: first, the Museum Library, where rare, reference, and museology books – both existing in the collection and brought back from Rome by Fr. Abaño – are stored; second, the Museum Laboratory, where preservation and conservation tasks are carried out. In his letter to then Fr. Rector Rolando de la Rosa, O.P., dated January 10, 1997, Fr. Abaño proposed another major refurbishing for the Main Hall of the UST Museum, which was approved on January 21, 1997. On September 9, 1997, Jacob Joseph Builders, the contractor, started the tedious process of renovation. It took almost a year to complete the entire project.
Almost a year later, the renovated UST Museum was unveiled with a Grand Opening on July 31, 1998. The Museum then geared up for its vital role in providing an enriching cultural and aesthetic experience for Filipinos in line with the Celebration of the Philippine Centennial.
Its treasured visual art collection includes works of Filipino Masters such as Juan Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Fernando Amorsolo, Victorio Edades, Galo Ocampo, Carlos “Botong” Francisco and Vicente Manansala. Suffering the onslaughts of time and the elements, these masterpieces must receive the proper care they need to survive and be admired by future generations. With this goal in mind, the UST Museum Conservation Laboratory was established, bringing in state-of-the-art technology and training its own staff to develop expertise to ensure the preservation of these priceless masterpieces.
Working closely with the UST Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and Environment in the Tropics (CCCPET), and being instrumental in the creation of the ground-breaking Master’s program in Cultural Heritage Studies at the UST Graduate School, it has also been active in promoting and preserving the Church cultural heritage.
In 2008, UST Museum Director Rev. Fr. Isidro Abaño, O.P. and art patroness Madam Maricris Zobel co-chaired the UST Christmas Concert Gala, a spectacular holiday musical presentation that featured Thomasian talents, with the goal of raising funds for the conservation of the Museum’s visual art collection. A runaway success, the Gala became of the most-awaited events of the year, and has provided some means to conserve selected damaged art pieces, which need immediate intervention.
The UST Museum played a leading role in the celebration of the 400th anniversary (1611-2011) of the University of Santo Tomas, with exhibits and activities geared towards better awareness and greater appreciation of UST’s contribution and significance to Philippine history and cultural heritage.
On the occasion of the University’s Quadricentennial and the 140th anniversary of the formal establishment of the UST Museum (1871-2011), the Hall of Visual Arts was inaugurated, re-occupying its original space at the mezzanine level’s right wing. Having come full circle, the UST Museum also seeks to keep moving forward by presenting works, not only by the Filipino Masters, but also by rising contemporary talent – the first University-based Art Gallery in the country remaining relevant and integral to our cultural heritage.
The Museum’s ongoing activities include the cataloging of the many objects that come into the collection, labeling each object, restoration, and preservation.