By IVA MAURIN
GARAPAN, Saipan — What once was a Japanese Hospital is now home to thousands of years of history and culture of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Located in the heart of Garapan, the NMI Museum of History and Culture provides for its visitors a glimpse of a culture that is raw and rich, and history that speaks of both pain and triumph.
The building itself is a powerful exhibit of the island’s past to the future — as a hospital serving the community beginning in 1926, abandoned after the war in 1944, and now, an institution for all to learn from.
For three years, from 2017 to 2019, the museum went through extensive renovations and upgrades, led by Guam Museum lead exhibit designer Gerry Dizon, from the Galaide Group. It boasts of collections dating back to over 4,000 years, intelligently clustered into stations, each reflecting a segment of the NMI history.
In an interview with the Journal, NMI Museum Director Daniel Aquino spoke about the cultural and historical richness that people can experience as they walk around, and inside one of the Marianas’ heritage sites.
“Every collection is valuable,” he said. “Most, if not all, of the collections are special, rare, and one of a kind. Some are valuable in terms of the age which can range to over 4,000 years old…. Every collection in the different eras has a historical significance and depicts a story about the evolution, way of life and culture of the Chamorro and Carolinian people.”
In terms of price, however, Aquino revealed that the Nuestra Senora De La Concepcion jewelry collection holds the highest value, disclosing that the NMI government invested in it. The collection, one of the most requested and visited stations by residents and guests, is stored in safe keeping, and only gets displayed for large tours and special events hosted at the museum.
There are eleven stations — The Flying Proas and Spondylus, The Arrival of Catholicism and the Carolinians, Pre Latte and Latte Period, The Freycinet Collection, The German Period (1899-1914), The Japanese Period (1914-1944), Remnants of the Japanese Period, Unification with the United States, WWII Artifacts, Post War Internment Camps, and the Nuestra Senora De La Concepcion.
Initially, Aquino said, the Japanese hospital structure ran from North and East connecting forming an “L” shape. Opening up the NMI Museum in 1998, the Northeastern side of the structure was erected to house more collections and artifacts.
“We want all visitors to the museum to have empathy of what the people of the islands went through since the Spaniards discovered the islands until up to this day, making it to what is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.”
The museum serves a great deal of purpose for the people of the Northern Mariana Islands — preserving and advancing a better understanding of local heritage, promoting indigenous local cultural pride, fostering local study of the NMI heritage, assuring proper disposition, as well as adequate storage and preservation facilities for the safety of historical and cultural artifacts.
Upgrades are still on going, and is now on Phase 3, which covers the NMI Museum’s communications facility and the balance of the different periods that have not been refreshed in Phases 1 and 2, which included work on the Concepcion Collection, the Seafarers, and the Pre-Latte and Latte period.
“Phase 1 of the museum upgrade and refresh was completed in 2019 at a cost of under $25,000 by the Guam Museum. We were very fortunate to have the Marianas Visitors Authority provide the grant funding for the Phase 1 project,” Aquino said.
“The NMI Museum and the Guam Museum have a great collaboration and working relationship. We are very appreciative of Monica Okada Guzman and Gerry Dizon for the excellent work they provided. Much of the critical work was accomplished during the weekend and evening hours to avoid disruption to our normal operations of the museum.”
Outdoors, concrete slabs were also constructed for future local exhibits of food and other cultural products. The old Japanese Laboratory was repaired and maintained, and the grounds enhanced by adding palm trees.
“Our outdoor huts are just waiting for funding from the Saipan Northern Islands Legislative Delegation. The delegation assured me that they were working on ways to provide permanent funding for the museum. I am still anticipating to complete the huts this fiscal year.”
“There are so many plans that are being discussed at this time so visitors from Guam and our local residents will see some possible and visible things developing at the museum,” he said.
Aside from MVA and the SNILD, funding for the museum’s extensive renovations and upgrades came from donations from private businesses. mbj