A spectacular on-site museum has just opened in Tlatelolco showcasing the artifacts from the archaeological zone. To be more precise, there are two new museums to be seen – the impressive ground-floor exhibit showcasing the items found during the many phases of excavation at Tlateloco (Mexico-Tenochtitlan’s twin city), plus the extraordinary collection of Kurt and Lore Stavenhagen on the second floor of the CCUT Tower (the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center), a.k.a. the building which used to be the headquarters of Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Neither of these sections is your average, run-of-the-mill pre-Hispanic museum. Once again, Mexican creativity is at its museographic best!
Stunning architecturally, with the dramatic backdrop of the Plaza of the Three Cultures (given that name because of the three phases making up the rich heritage of the zone: (1) the pre-Columbian ceremonial center, (2) the viceregal church and remains of the first school build for native Indians in New Spain, and (3) the modern-day high-rise apartments, once exemplary architecture, today left in squalid, tenement-like conditions), the displays showcase approximately 350 pieces culled from over 2,500 in total, highlighting the religious, political, social and commercial aspects of the people who inhabited Tlatelolco at its height.
Tlatelolco, established around 1337, was an impressive market site, which reached its splendor between 1465 and 1519. Hernan Cortes wrote a descriptive account to the King of Spain, narrating the vast selection of wares traded at the open-air market, as well as the organizational structure, thus we have a good idea of how the locals lived there. Tlatelolco was also the last strong-hold against the Spanish conquistadors, since this is where Cuauhtemoc was taken prisoner in 1521, thereby establishing the official date of Mexico’s conquest (take note that since part of Yucatan wasn’t conquered until the 18th century, 1521 is more of a symbolic, and somewhat arbitrary date, but don’t get me started on that topic). Plus, this is where the Spanish evangelists set up a school for locals, and where the Florentine and Badiano Codices were written. The area was also the site of two more recent tragedies – the student uprisings of 1968 where innumerable innocent people were slaughtered, and the earthquake of 1985, where even more people lost their lives. Tlatelolco is steeped in tragic history!
The spick-and-span, state-of-the-art museum reflects changing times – providing lots of interactive displays (Ipads, computers and bar codes for the electronically savvy, who chose to scan signs for information), as well as a computer room.
A personal collection of pre-Hispanic ceramics and other artifacts amassed over close to four decades by a prominent immigrant family (1942-1984), the Stavenhagen Collection can be easily skipped over, since it is hidden away on the second floor of the CUUT. This corpus, on public display for the first time ever, is unequaled by anything I have seen (except, obviously, the National Museum of Anthropology). It is composed of 560 stunning pieces, objects of art, hand-picked from an amazing accumulation of approximately 3 thousand pieces of hand-crafted earthenware and carved stone, dating back thousands of years, evidence of the stupendous workmanship of the Amerindian cultures of Mexico.
Apparently so extensive, the family transferred part of its private repertory to the Museum of Xalapa and to the Museum of Colima years ago. Rodolfo Stavenhagen donated part of the family’s legacy to the UNAM (Mexico’s National University), which have been classified by general topics (rather than by the more conventional geographic and chronological criteria) ranging from daily life, love, maternity, bodily decoration, death, early man’s relationship with animals, etc. Although many of these pieces are unprovenanced, the majority belonging to the Mezcala, Maya, Mexica and Zapotec cultures.
The wait for this site was exaggeratedly long - given that it was originally envisioned for the mid 60s but never materialized. However, the outcome of the laudable collaborative effort of the two giant Mexican cultural institutions (the UNAM and the INAH – the National Institute of Anthropology and History) is fantastic! Aside from providing a dignified abode for pieces which were in storage for decades, it breathes life into the often overlooked site of Tlatelolco Hopefully more museums of this stature will continue to pop up. This is a new “must” on my list of basic sites for tourists and residents alike! Visit or re-visit Tlatelolco – you won’t be disappointed!
Note: The museum is not easy maneuver. The difficulty lies in the fact that there are several exhibits spread between two separate buildings, with an absence of signs – makes it easy to miss important collections. Hopefully, this is an oversight that will be remedied with time.
The Tlatelolco Museum (Museo de Tlatelolco) is open Tuesday through Sunday; 10am to 6pm; entrance fee is $20 pesos; Ricardo Flores Magón 1, Nonoalco-Tlatelolco.