In the storied halls of the Manila Clock Tower Museum

Behind the Manila Clock Tower Museum’s fresh coat of paint lies the scars of Manila’s gloomy and martial past. Yet it is this very characteristic that makes it the perfect venue for the city’s attempt at reviving Manileño heritage and culture. Ronald Flores, chief tourism operations officer of the Department of Tourism, Culture, and the Arts of Manila (DTCAM), underscores the importance of such a landmark as “it’s fast becoming an icon [of] Manila’s desire to reclaim the seat of being the center of arts and culture in the country.”

The museum is now home to many world-renowned Filipino works of art, with dedicated exhibits that aim to preserve Manila’s rich, albeit checkered, past. And after weathering countless natural disasters and even World War II, this landmark now acts as a beacon of the capital city’s beauty, history, and continued progress—proving that there are still many infrastructures in Manila that are hidden gems, waiting to be revitalized.

A different kind of tick-tock

The 100-foot clock tower-turned-museum consists of various exhibits that try to encapsulate Manila’s colorful personality. Jose Belmonte, the Manila Clock Tower Museum’s project manager, proudly reveals that the museum was designed to be as distinct, memorable, and historically accurate as possible—especially in its exhibits. Their team wanted to not only appease the local public but also to meet the global standard set by the most prestigious of museums around the world. “‘Yung pinaka-trend ngayon internationally is being immersive and being interactive as a museum,” he explains. In their attempt to do so, they came up with the Mayor’s Hall where you can pose as a mayor and interact with the many objects found within.

(The trend right now…)

Akin to the city’s increasing diversity, the museum’s mezzanine houses a moving exhibit that’s replaced with a new set of artworks surrounding a particular theme every two or three months, much like how their March line-up featured Filipina and Manileña artists to coincide with Women’s Month. “Kunwari pumunta ka dito ng February…iba naman makikita mo sa April. So hindi ka mananawa na pumunta dito,” Belmonte reassures.

(If you went in February, expect something else in April. This makes each visit a different experience.)

The museum’s pièce de résistance, however, is the clock tower itself. Visitors are greeted with a sublime 360-degree view of Manila upon reaching the topmost floor. Even more impressive are the four exterior clocks that are connected to PAGASA’s Precise Time-Scale System. “Sa sobrang accurate niya, magkakamali lang siya ng plus-minus one second after 100,000 years,” Belmonte discloses. 

(It’s so accurate that it’ll take 100,000 years before it’s off by plus-minus one second.)

Storied halls

The Manila Clock Tower is no stranger to history. Built in the 1930s, the clock and its six faces stood witness to a capital city ravaged by conflict. “It [was] there during the war; you could see it standing there during the height of the battle.” Diego Gabriel Torres, president of heritage advocacy group Renacimiento Manila, explains. “It was damaged, but luckily, since it’s [made of] reinforced concrete and matibay iyong pagkakagawa sa kanya, hindi siya nasira during the Battle of Manila.”

(It was damaged, but luckily, since it’s made of reinforced concrete and is of sturdy construction, it was not destroyed during the Battle of Manila.)

The tower eventually fell into disuse after World War II, but its storied past and iconic structure inspired many to revitalize it as a museum for the City of Manila. “Since the tower was built, it’s never been used for public access…according also to former Mayor Isko Moreno, the area at the foot of the tower was just used as a storeroom and left to rust,” Torres recounts in Filipino. “With the creation of the Clock Tower Museum at the tail end of Yorme’s (Moreno’s) term…Manila had a place [to] showcase its history.”

Looming struggles

The clock tower’s status as a heritage site, though, has complicated plans for its renovation. “After repairing, our biggest challenge up to today is that we cannot repair it without the permit of NHCP (National Historical Commission of the Philippines) because it’s a heritage site. What we can repair are the water lines, the interiors, but we can only touch up the exteriors,” Belmonte reveals in Filipino.

Another great challenge, according to Flores, was fixing the clock tower itself. “Because the mechanism (of the clock) is imported from abroad, local technicians [had difficulty] repairing it. There was a time that the clock tower was a laughingstock because it [showed] different times on different sides, which [didn’t] really fit a government office…it should display accuracy and reliability,” Flores laments. “But now, aside from its function as a museum, it also serves its real function…to show the clock or the time at any side.”

Sign of the times

But despite the struggles faced, all the renovation challenges prove to be worth it, especially when the museum ushers in a hopeful shift toward better cultural preservation. “The Clock Tower Museum, as managed by DTCAM and the government of Manila, represents a possibility for the city to be more active in terms of the campaign to save its structure,” Torres notes. He adds that, together with groups like Renacimiento Manila, the local government could do something similar with other heritage buildings in the city, such as the Philippine General Hospital, by allotting dedicated spaces within the structures to tell its history.

Not just a sign of the times, the museum is a new, shining beacon of Manila’s past, present, and future, its light radiating from Manila City Hall. “We’re not only trying to reclaim that seat as the premier business and trade capital, we’re also trying to reclaim that seat as the capital of arts and culture,” Flores proudly shares. “The energy you want to reverberate throughout the city should come from where you are.”

Truly, perhaps no other place would be better to tell the story of Manila than its very own iconic clock tower, which stands reassuringly tall against the backdrop of a constantly changing capital city as the city’s new storyteller and timekeeper.

Albert Bofill

By Albert Bofill

Therese Genota

By Therese Genota

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