Manila can often seem like just the sum of its most obvious parts - traffic choked roads, never ending tail backs, polluted streets and a dearth of open spaces. And while that's true for a lot of the city, downtown especially, after 5 months of exploration I've been consistently impressed by Manila's cultural cred. The excellent National Museum of Natural History was one of my favourite cultural excursions yet.
Located in the green oasis of Rizal Park, the museum stands grand and gleaming, all white marble and columns and a sweeping staircase worthy of a Rocky style run. It sits opposite the equally impressive National Museum of Anthropology easily reached across the park. If Manila has a London-esque Exhibition Road, then this is it.
The entrance itself is a feast for the eyes. Coming into the Tree of Life Foyer with its huge, domed glass ceiling and white marble central "tree" was something akin to stepping into a copy of Architectural Digest. Huge portraits of Filipino critters loomed down from the walls as ancient dinosaur skulls stood on stands across the hall. I'd come on a Tuesday morning so things were pretty quiet, apart from a couple of school groups. Free entry means big crowds at the weekends, though considering the size of the place I imagine they'd be swallowed up pretty fast.
Set across five floors, I "naturally" began at the beginning with a series of rooms demonstrating the natural inheritance of the Philippines. Interactive displays and videos showcased the incredible biodiversity of the islands. Many animals and plants are endemic, which tends to happen with islands, but I was surprised by the amount of diversity to be found here too, usually lost in island nations. I learned the Philippines is one of the world's "mega-biodiverse" countries, meaning a whopping 70-80% of the planet's plants and animals can be found here. The variety of landscapes from tropical forests and coral reefs to cool mountain highlands coupled with an unusual geology has given a home to many a creature. New species are still being discovered and a whole wall was dedicated to those found in the last decade. The beautiful Marsha's Lanternshark was one such species, a small shark found in the deeper waters around the islands, with green eyes and luminescent fins. They literally glow in the murky depths they inhabit.
I then headed into a room dedicated to the pioneering naturalists who "discovered" or at least documented much of the Philippines' flora and fauna. Most arrived on European expedition ships during the 18th and 19th Centuries, cast away from the mighty Kingdoms of Spain and France to look for new lands and trade routes. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines in 1521 during a voyage which was to become the first complete circumnavigation of the world. He was killed in Cebu after a fracas with a group of indigenous people, as tended to happen, but his journey opened the way for Spain's eventual conquest of the Philippines. Magellan's and other voyages during this time had resident naturalists onboard that began drawing and documenting the plants and animals they found along the way. The ancient notebooks and specimens on show were fascinating.
Next up was some spectacularly bad taxidermy on the floors dedicated to the many different forests found in the country. From rare mangroves to pine and limestone karst forests, each was brilliantly depicted through classic, kitsch dioramas and interactive displays and videos popular with the kids. Stuffed birds and rodents stared out with glassy eyes from their mossy perches in the "forest". Unseen birds and insects sang out from the walls as I walked through a tiny copse of plastic trees hiding yet more taxidermy delights. I particularly loved the way the information boards on the birds of the forest had pictures of the stuff version, rather than the real thing. But the displays were genuinely fascinating and also showed how much of the Philippines and its waters are legally protected from fishing and development. The Tubbataha Reefs National Park in the Sulu Sea is a Unesco World Heritage Site owing to its high diversity of marine and bird life and was even nominated as one of the new 7 wonders of the world. I always knew the islands here were beautiful but I hadn't realised quite how pristine some of them were, and how much was being done to protect them.
I wandered on up the winding staircase past yet more fossils and beautiful paintings of orchids and insects. One of the last rooms I visited showcased the stunningly high probability of natural disaster which seems pretty much imminent, all of the time. Active volcanoes are everywhere here, along with fault lines and a coast just waiting for any number of tsunamis from every direction. Land slides, I discovered, are pretty much a guarantee at any moment given the steep mountains found all across the islands and a warning there would probably be another earthquake before I'd even left the room. I came away slightly shaken by the graphic videos and doom laden prophecies plastered across every wall. It seemed like a miracle anything was still standing given the tendency for an apocalypse at any moment.
And so I ended my visit in the Symphony of Nature - a quirky little circular room hidden behind a curtain. Dimly lit and with speakers all around, the calls of birds and insects, frogs and animals create a cacophony of song as you enter, all in an attempt to make you feel as though you've set up camp in a remote Filipino forest. LED displays flashed in sequence with various times from 6am, to midday, to 4pm and 8.30pm and each time signified the turn of a particular animal call. The eagle owl on cue at 8.30pm was a calming delight and I sat on the floor trying to forget the roads and chaos outside and picture myself on damp leafy ground surrounded by all the creatures I'd discovered that day. Stuffed woodpeckers and all.
This museum is a real gem and demonstrated that no matter where you are, and how well you think you know a place, you never really do.