Cover The colourful façade of Museo Pambata

The Museo Pambata is enjoying a rebirth, with fresh new concepts and creative vision to ensure that it’s a safe haven for kids

When she accepted the position of president of Museo Pambata in 2019, Bambi Mañosa-Tanjutco knew exactly whom she wanted to be by her side: Sofia Zobel-Elizalde, her classmate since Grade One and partner in many projects. “Sofia understands me and my ideas,” she explains, encapsulating their relationship in a nutshell.

“I jumped in right away when Bambi invited me to join Museo because she always does things so well,” Sofia says, echoing the same sentiment. She was not prepared, however, for Bambi’s request for her to sit as vice-president. “I was shocked”, says Sofia, “but when she showed me her plans for the Bakuran [the outdoors of the Museo], I just had to say yes.

The passionate women with creative minds took the reins of the children’s interactive museum, the first of its kind in the Philippines, at its most challenging period. Its 25-year lease with the City of Manila was in its last four years and the museum was facing a threat of being turned into a casino. It was also in need of a facelift, a youthful and modern vision and an infusion of funds. Overwhelming. Bambi, however, hit the ground running and faced the first item on the agenda: a new lease.

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“As head of the board, I presented to the newly-elected Mayor Isko Moreno our concept of upgrading the space and bringing it closer to the future. He liked what we showed him and saw how it will benefit not only the children of the City of Manila but all Filipino children here and abroad. He gave Museo Pambata a new 25-year lease, renewable for another 25! Pretty much a lifetime!” Bambi enthuses, the excitement in her voice impossible to hide, seeing as how long-range planning is now possible and how investors would be more enticed to give.

And then came COVID-19. “When the pandemic happened, we decided to do the exterior first,” says Bambi. With the approval from Mayor Isko (Museo’s honorary chairman, Manila being the owner of the prime land on which stands Museo Pambata) who Bambi describes as “very supportive”, the restoration efforts all moved outside to the Bakuran (the Filipino word for yard).

“We have established the Bakuran Fund for all the plans for the exterior,” Sofia shares. “But the work is done in stages, depending on how much funding we get.” The first to rise is the Bahay Pukyutan, a honeycomb-shaped jungle gym where children can climb up and down and negotiate the maze of the hexagons to their heart’s content. “My dad [the National Artist for architecture Francisco Mañosa] designed one in the late Seventies for Lungsod ng Kabataan,” says the proud daughter, who studied interior design for college.

“The structure is no longer there and may not comply with the more stringent safety standards today, so my brother Gelo Mañosa with volunteer architects from Mañosa & Co Inc made the design space specific for the area.”

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Attached to the Bahay Pukyutan is a swing area which, Zobel-Elizalde informs, can be transformed to install swings for children with disabilities; and beside the bahay kubo treehouse is a breezy place to hold meetings and “bring out the child in us”. The Museo also decided to buy five hives of urban bees producing honey that will be a learning tool for children and families. Honey bottles of their first harvest were given for free with a PHP3,000 minimum donation to the Bakuran Fund.

The fund to build the Bahay Pukyutan was a donation by the Tukod Foundation and from the Baro at Sayá fashion show fundraiser last 2019. “When Mayor Isko came to see the playground, I told him how much Museo needed financial support to continue the rest of the spaces. He immediately said that he will donate the talent fee of his next endorsement,” Bambi relates.

“I didn’t expect it to come so soon, but three weeks later, a check arrived at Museo. We all screamed!”

Museo Pambata opened in 1994, co-founded by early child educator Nina Lim-Yuson, mother of four, who was so inspired by the Boston Children’s Museum in America. The other founder was her late mother Estefania Aldaba-Lim, a former secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. The two envisioned the museum to be a venue for alternative learning for children, especially those with no access to formal education.

Then-Mayor Alfredo Lim granted the first lease for Museo to use the 4,095-square metre lot on which stands the historical Elk’s Club on Roxas Boulevard, sandwiched by the US Embassy and Rizal Park. It has eight theme rooms: Environment, for learning and loving Nature; Old Manila, to travel back in time; Career Options, for envisioning what children may want to be; I Love My Planet Earth, for inculcating a love for Earth; My Body Works, to learn about the human body; Marketplace, for developing entrepreneurial skills; Global Village, to learn other cultures; Karapatan Hall, for children’s rights awareness.

The pandemic put a close to visits to the Museum, but the two women now steering the ship both see the advantages of developing the outdoor areas on top of additional learning activities for children. “We can even open the area for private groups, future weddings, launches and other events,” says Bambi. Next on their agenda is Tipun. “It is the biggest area in the Museo and we want to convert it into a garden,” describes Bambi. This is where Tutubing Bakal, an iconic helicopter in Museo, will be reimagined and turned into an art space that will speak of peace-building. 

Soon to rise (depending on the funds) is an outdoor library, a reading area, a lecture area, a tilapia pond, an aquaponic and a hydroponic exhibit with hobbyist Mark Lacay and IC Jauican,  even a light and sound show in the future. “The story of the Bakuran ends in an area where body, mind and spirit come together, a space for outdoor art workshops, mindfulness, yoga and arnis classes. The objective is for everything to attract the five senses, as what Nina [Lim-Yuson] always promoted,” Bambi says.

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Sofia, who believes in the importance of outdoor space for children, is excited about the Living Wall being costed now. “It was inspired by Dr Joven Cuanang of Pinto Art Gallery,” she says. “We would like to fill it with different fern species from all over the Philippines. It’ll also offer an opportunity to bring in technology into the Bakuran. The concept of the Living Wall involves using the QR code to learn about the ferns and the other plants.

All the child needs to do is point his phone to the plant and it will link him or her to the necessary information about it.” She envisions this to be a “beautiful outdoor space but progressive”. With highly creative visions, intense passion for advocacy and unwavering commitment, the two childhood classmates are most able to realise their dream for Museo Pambata. As Sofia states: “It has to be a wonderland for kids, a place where they can get away from the world and be in a place of play and discovery and to grow their love for country.