The Hispanic Society of America

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

FOR sometime, every time I have been in New York City or have made plans to visit, my research on where to go dredges up the Hispanic Society of America which is located on 155th Street and Broadway, the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, and way away from Midtown, somewhat of a discouragement to taking a trip there. I never had enough information about what the society was all about and found out late that it is a museum cum research library featuring the subject ofHispanism or Hispanic studies. Yet no one I knew ever went there or mentioned it to me for a clearer idea (turns out one daughter went there in 1989 but never mentioned it to me).

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To make a long story shorter, last year I finally inveigled a friend to adventure uptown and see the Hispanic Society of America. We took the No. 1 uptown train which took us directly to l55th St. and Broadway. I would say about half an hour’s ride on a fast subway. On the wayback, we took the bus to Midtown; it took about an hour and a half as the Hispanic Society is way uptown.

It was August and hot and humid despite being 10 a.m. But as soon as we saw the Beaux Arts building and open terrace with large sculptures, we knew we were in for a pleasant surprise despite the weather. The museum/library was founded in 1906 and it is therefore more than a hundred years old, an institution quite underrated and unknown to the general public from the number of visitors (there were maybe a dozen, including the two of us). In 2012, it was made a National Historical Landmark.

Inside was a collection of paintings that mesmerized us–several (maybe five or six) Velasquez portraits, some Goyas, a few El Grecos, and Zurbaran and Murillo, if I recall right. And a huge room full of Sorolla murals. Just that group of paintings a museum makes and a rare one, too. The Metropolitan Museum of New York bought a large Velasquez portrait in 1961 which they were so proud of acquiring they made a special exhibit for the public, among them myself as a graduate student in the US at the time, to see it (“Portrait of Juan de Pareja,” Velasquez’s former slave and studio assistant).

The library has 15,000 books printed before 1700 which piqued our curiosity. But alas, it was closed on that Sunday due to overwhelming heat (the building had no windows that I could see) and the staff was almost prostrate with heat and would close the museum early. In fact, it was quite uncomfortable inside and we were on our way to dehydration when a kind guard offered to bring us water from the employees’ cooler downstairs.

It has no air-conditioning, which is astounding. But promises were made that they will soon have it. It seems the Hispanic Society of America is about to wake up to the 21st century and upgrade its facilities. Philippe de Montebello, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, was named Chairman in 2015. There are plans for expansion as the Hispanic Society owns several other buildings in the same style in a contiguous lot which were former museums (American Indian) and headquarters (American Numismatic Society) that Huntington, the philanthropist, had given them to use. They are now gone and the buildings are now available. So now the museum has closed down for renovations. And taking the opportunity, the Metropolitan Museum of New York has the Velasquez paintings on loan from it on exhibit in the meanwhile.

But we left with a lingering interest in what was in that library.Particularly if there was anything regarding the Philippines which surely must be part of the equation of their collection of materials from the Hispanic world.

Next week, we will tell you what has now been revealed that is of utmost interest to Filipinos.

Abangan.

Anyway, what intrigued us during that visit to the Hispanic Society of America was the beautiful building and the rare books library of Hispanic materials which were acquired by its founder, the philanthropist, Archer Huntington, at the turn of the century, from the Hispanic world–Spain, Portugal, Latin America, Spanish colonies like Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Spanish enclaves in Africa (Morroco, Equatorial Guinea). Huntington was a renowned Hispanic scholar and wrote some scholarly articles on the subject. He was also an environmentalist and responsible for the Mariners’ Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, one of the largest maritime museums in the world. He was a benefactor of the National Arts Academy and eventually donated his Manhattan home to it, among many other notable philanthropic works.

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