In Iloilo’s museums, you find pioneering photos and rock stars

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The Regional Museum of Western Visayas, restored from the original provincial jail built in 1911, beckons to visitors hoping to find the old and new in the region. —PHOTOS BY TJ BURGONIO

ILOILO CITY—Surely there’s more to this city than molo, batchoy, biscocho and tablea tsokolate.  

The city’s gastronomic haunts are well-known and all over. But in between hopping into these pit stops, you can take leisurely strolls along its esplanade, in the old downtown, in plazas outside churches and, yes, in its museums—the better to get to know the old and new.    

They say the gems are those places rarely seen. In Iloilo, some of the treasures worth exploring are those in American-era buildings and houses that have been scrubbed clean, fitted with ACs, and turned into modern museums.  

One revelation is Iloilo’s provincial jail that was transformed into the Regional Museums of Western Visayas. Built in 1911 a stone’s throw from the provincial capitol, it housed prisoners for decades. It was shuttered in 2006 and its inmates moved to another jail.  

It underwent a makeover and opened its doors as a museum in 2018.    

Save for the marker on the facade and the doors and windows of iron bars, nothing much reminds you of its past. Once you get past its massive gate, you are greeted by a neat, well-lit central courtyard topped by a metal framed glass dome.

Rocks, fossils, artifacts  

The first-time visitor will find it refreshing to find fossils of the region’s prehistoric beginnings, as well as striking black-and-white stills of Manila and Iloilo taken by a homegrown photographer toward the end of the 19th century in its galleries on the ground floor.    

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The museum showcases rocks of different sizes, shapes and colors, but the centerpiece is the tooth fossils of the elephant and its extinct cousin, stegodont.

Rocks, fossils and artifacts are the main draw at the Geology and Paleontology Exhibition Hall, beckoning visitors to take a closer look and discover how geological shifts shaped present-day Western Visayas in the last 250 million years.  

A note on the region’s oldest rocks reads: “The islands of the region once lay beneath the bottom of the sea. While dinosaurs roamed the Earth, Buruanga Peninsula in Northwest Panay is originally part of the continental shelf of mainland Asia over 250 million years ago.’’  

Precious stuff such as gold, copper, iron, manganese, chromium, which the region is blessed with, are also on full display at the gallery. 

(Trivia: The ancient Bisayans were obsessed with gold and thought of it as having a spirit of its own. Datus were buried with gold ornaments and their acceptance into the afterlife depended on the amount of gold they were adorned with.)   

And there’s more. As you go farther, you’ll encounter two odd-looking, ribbed rocks each encased in glass, propped up by metal rods for better viewing.  

They’re the gallery’s “rock stars.” They are tooth fossils of an elephant and its extinct distant cousin, the stegodont, that were unearthed in the foothills of Cabatuan town in the mid-1960s. Imagine them tramping around Panay Island 750,000 years ago. 

Pioneering photographer

Obviously, the region takes pride in the pioneering work of Felix Laureano, who studied photography in France and opened studios in Spain in the late 19th century. It has devoted a gallery to his black-and-white photos.  

Having lived at a time when trade was flourishing in the country in the latter half of the century, Laureano took snapshots of ports as well as churches in Manila and Iloilo. These and a host of others, including family portraits, are on display at the museums.

His works saw print in Spain and in the Philippines. He also mounted exhibits in Madrid. 

Laureano published “Recuerdos de Filipinas (Memories of the Philippines),’’ containing 37 photographs of Iloilo and nearby areas, in Barcelona in 1895, a year ahead of the Philippine Revolution. He dedicated the book to Juan Luna.    

It may yet be the first coffee-table book on photography published by a Filipino. 

“The picture book departs from the Orientalist photographic output produced by foreigners on and about the Philippines by virtue of the “insightful essays that could only have been written by a local with ample knowledge,’’ reads a gallery note. 

Laureano was born to Augustinian friar Manuel Asensio and Norverta Laureano delos Santos in 1866 in Patnongon, Antique, and died in 1952. Not much else is known about his life. He is considered the first Filipino photographer.


A third gallery transports the visitors to the art of weaving “hablon,” the handwoven textile known for its bright colors, stripes and plaids. It’s made of banana fiber (jusi), pineapple fiber (piña) and silk threads, cotton, rayon and other indigenous materials. 

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‘Hablon’, the handwoven textiles known for its bright colors

Thankfully, the heritage is kept alive by a smattering of hand-weaving households and establishments, including Arevalo Handwoven Products which is tucked away at the end of a nondescript alley on Sta. Cruz Street in the city. Here you will meet two sisters, both in their senior years and still at it. They learned the art at home.  

Arevalo Handwoven Products is known for producing the “sablay,” the official graduation garment of the University of the Philippines.  

Yet another museums worth a visit is the Museum of Philippine Maritime History. It is located at the ground floor of the Customs House (or Aduana, built in 1916), across from Iloilo River.  

Through videos, photographs, paintings, illustrations and boats, it retraces the Philippines’ involvement in maritime affairs, from the galleon trade to the establishment of the first nautical school in the country, from the South China Sea row to the Paraw Regatta Festival.  

“I’ve not seen anything like it. I’ll be coming back with our kids,’’ a father, who lives in the city, remarked as he exited the museum.

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