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Category Archives: Museums

Stones from Heaven – Stunning carvings of Jade and Jadite from Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica and China

Jade, more correctly – Jadeite,  was prehispanic Mexico’s diamonds. This green stone was no less valuable in Asian cultures. “Stones from Heaven: Civilizations of Jade” offers a glimpse into both the ritual and decorative aspects of what was once, and continues to be, a highly prized stone in both Mesoamerica and China. The 220 pieces on display at this relatively small but highly illustrative exhibit currently on at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is one not to be missed.

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A Mexica (central Mexico culture, late post-classical period) rendition of a human heart, carved out out green stone. And remember that the Mexicas  who practiced human sacrifice knew a thing or two about human anatomy!! (24.2 x 20.9 x 14.1 cm) Photo: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Called “yu” in Chinese, “chalchihuitl” in Nahuatl, and “ya’ax chin hun” in Mayan, the term “jade” loosely refers to a variety of metamorphic green stones including jadeites and nephrites (a distinction best left for geologists and gemologists to differentiate) – all of which were of great value to early civilizations. Varying in size, craftsmanship and hues, the pieces showcased were hand-picked from hundreds of pieces crafted by the ancient cultures of China and Mexico.

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The Chinese items are on loan from the Forbidden City’s Chinese Imperial Palace Museum (of Beijing) marking the framework of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Mexico and the People’s Republic of China. The Mexican objects have been culled from collections of the Olmec civilization, Teotihuacan culture, Mexica and Maya zones (borrowed from the National Museum of Anthropology), Teotihuacan, the Regional Museum of Yucatan, the Regional Museum of Campeche, the INAH in Veracruz, the Regional Museum of Tabasco, the Templo Mayor Museum and the Anthropology Museum of Xalapa).

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An elaborate funeral mask of Yuhkno’m Yihch’aak K’ahk’ (translated as Jaguar Claw) Maya Calakmul ruler (from Campeche, classical period). Mosaic work made principally from jadeite, shell and obsidian. Ca. 695 d.C., 28.2 x 21.5 cm. Photo: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

All are stunning. The displays are divided into five principal themes touching on the characteristics of jade/jadeite and the techniques of working with these stones; the rituals involving jade/jadeite and its aesthetics; jade/jadeite as a symbol of power and the last segment of the exhibit shows evidence of how it was believed that jade/jadeite accompanied people into the after-world, both in Mesoamerican and Chinese cultures. The use of funeral masks in ancient Mexico is illustrated with a spectacular piece from the tomb of Calakmul’s great ruler Jaguar Claw, dating back to the late 7th century.

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Jade Mountain, from the Qing Dynasty (1736-1795), 51 x 51.5 cm. Photo: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The oldest item shown is a piece from China – shaped like a ring – calculated to be close to 7,000 years old.

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Prismatic Tube (Cong), carved from grayish-green jade. Liangzhu Culture dating back to the Neolithic Period (3200 BC -2200 BC), 31 x 7.5 x 7.5 cm. Photo: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The array of carved items, range from utilitarian pieces such as incense burners, arrow heads, musical instruments and jewelry, to sculptures of animals, humans and scenes, provide viewers with an ample selection of styles, uses, materials and symbols. It is fascination how these two unrelated early civilizations showed parallel esteem for this naturally occurring ornamental stone.

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Jadeite treasures from K’inich Hanaab Pakal’s tomb on permanent exhibit at the museum in the Mayan Hall (Maya civilization, classical period). Photo: Lynda Martinez del Campo

Ironically the color green has taken on a renewed relevance today. Whether it be nephrite or jadite from Asia or the Americas, this exhibit curiously reminded me that the color green, symbolizing life and vitality for early agricultural societies, has come full circle. Given our 21st century environmental sensitivities, once again the color green has become not only pertinent but fashionable to our cultural – with people “thinking green,” and activist groups baring names such as Green Peace or Partido Verde (a Mexican political party).  Whether you are an environmentalist or not, be sure to catch this unusual collection which shows how two unrelated civilizations held such a high regard for this rare, natural stone.

The National Museum of Anthropology is in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City. It is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 am to 7 pm. General entrance fee is $57 pesos.

 

Awesome On-Site Museum at Tlateloloco (After A 50 Year Wait!)

A sign for the new on-site museum at Tlatelolco, depicting its pre-Hispanic glyph (a mound of sand)

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!

A snapshot in time of the architecture of a pre-Hispanic pyramid, an early Spanish Franciscan church and school, and a modern-day apartment building, forming the scenery of the Plaza of the Three Cultures

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.

A glimpse of the impressive displays inside the museum which showcases artifacts discovered duirng 50 years of excavations of the site.

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!

An anthropomorphic vessel with an unusual head-lid found in a dig at Tlatelolco.

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.

One of several showcases exhibiting the use of natural dyes, part of the permanent exhibit on the 1st floor of the CCUT - be sure not to miss this fascinating section.

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.

An impeccable example of the Teotihuacan symbol for time is emblazoned on this hand-carved stone, part of the Stavenhagen Collection, which is on display to the general public for the first time. Refugees of WWII, the Stavenhagens started collecting pre-Hispanic pieces when they arrived to Mexico. The family recently donated their acquisitions to the UNAM, the country's National University.


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.

This ceramic hairless (and often toothless) Mexican dog was typically found in ancient funeral offerings, since natives believed it led the deceased on their journey to the underworld. The Xoloitzcuintle recently regained its American Kennel Club recognition, making it a potential dog show breed. The worldwide population of Xolols is estimated to be around 30,000.

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!

Another spectacular artifact showing the quality craftsmanship of the native populations who inhabited Central Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. This museum is a must for tourists and residents alike!

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.

Two images from the Mezcala culture of Mesoamerica. Every item on display has been hand picked and is exceptional in quality.

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.

 

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis – How Mexican Can You Get?

MUTEM pays tribute to tequila, mescal and mariachis

Three of the most emblematic symbols associated with Mexico – for better or worse – are tequila, mariachis and charros (Mexican cowboys). The Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis (the MUTEM, as it is known colloquially) showcases all three!

A typical gala charro (Mexican cowboy) outfit used by Mariachi musicians

This month, the UNESCO recognized Mariachis as Intangible Cultural Heritage (meeting the committee’s stringent criteria, since it is “transmitted generation to generation and continuously recreated during festive, religious and social events; it strengthens the sense of identity and continuity of its communities, within Mexico and abroad”). With this honor comes a commitment from Mexico to promoting this genre of music and foster related research. More than anything, I applaud this declaration because it raises what is seen as a folkloric expression to a more serious level, assuring that Mariachi music remains vital and will, hopefully, be taken more seriously.

Mariachis playing on a chalupa or flat bottom boat in the Xochimilco channels in southern Mexico City

Mariachi music, for those unfamiliar with this traditional Mexican music, is played by a group that varies in size and style. It takes songs from different regions of Mexico – including jarabes, polkas, waltzes, the traditional serenata and corridos, many of which were not written for the express purpose of being played in a “mariachi” format – and turns them into a sound that is unmistakably Mariachi!  The vast majority of lyrics are associated with romantic courtships or rural life, and became recognizable worldwide during Mexico’s Golden Age of Motion Pictures, with actors such as Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and Luis Aguilar to name a few, who often broke into song intermittently in their films.

A sampling of instruments which give Mariachi music its unique sound

Mariachi bands are made up of guitar, violin, trumpet, vihuela (an acoustic guitar with a rounded back) and guitarron (an acoustic bass guitar on steriods) players. The groups usually range between 6 and12 members, decked out in gala charro outfits with tight-fitting pants (or skirts, in the case of women Mariachis) studded with silver-plated buttons commonly linked with chains running along the side seams, a short jacket, long bow tie and the typical broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero, embellished with portmanteau embroidery and optional sequence.

A collection of hundreds of artisanal tequila and mescal bottles in the MUTEM

Mariachi bands can be heard and hired in Garibaldi Square. Yes, believe it or not serenades are still popular in Mexico, particularly for quinceaños’ festivities, to charm disgruntled novias, at weddings and for birthdays and saint’s days, though given the current economic climate, they are not as ubiquitous as year’s begone since they have become less and less affordable. The musical groups congregate in Garibaldi, which is lined with numerous bars, situated just off the city’s central artery (Eje Central) downtown. That is, appropriately, where the Museum of Tequila, Mescal and Mariachis is located.

A spruced up and renovated Garibaldi Plaza downtown

In the city’s attempt to clean up the “Plaza de Garibaldi,” the zone has been given a recent face lift, including the creation of the MUTEM (last year). Mariachi music has morphed over the years, but it’s roots can be traced back to the state of Jalisco in the 18th century.  The MUTEM is the only place in Mexico City to learn about the history of this music, or about tequila or mescal, which are all intertwined. (There are other tequila museums in Mexico (country) – one in the heartland of Jalisco – in Tequila (city) and another in Guadalajara (also in the state of Jalisco.)

The MUTEM has several displays illustrating how tequila and mescal are made

In order to retain the international honor that the UNESCO has bestowed it this month, Mexico is required to “protect” this living manifestation of its cultural tradition, so hopefully this small, yet comprehensive, museum will take on greater importance, and continue to expand its displays, which showcase the production of tequila, mescal and mariachis!

The open-air roof bar provides a great place to sample hard-to-find labels of tequila and mescal from around Mexico

By the way, the MUTEM offers one of the safest watering holes on the Plaza, since the third floor is the museum’s roof-top bar. The entrance ticket to the museum includes one shot of tequila or mescal of your choice from a broad collection which lines the walls! (Mexican antojitos or snacks are also available at a reasonable price.)  As an added bonus, you can listen to mariachi music to your heart’s content – for free! The best groups on the plaza alternate sets in this open-air space. If you chose to continue your spree, you can sample the agave-based liquors, selecting from a long list of top-notch tequilas or mescals carefully selected from around the country. And, given that the museum and the restaurant-bar is run by the city government, there is no fear of being overcharged or taken advantage of (as is often the case at the surrounding local bars) as your mind gets fuzzy from the libations!

There are hundreds of agave plant species in Mexico, but tequila is made ONLY from the "Agave Tequila Azul" or Blue Anaweber variety of plant, giving it its D.O. distinction

Thus, not only can you learn about the Mexican D.O. liquors – both tequila and mescal have been granted the seal of Denominación de Origen (D.O.) under the international appellation system, assuring that these beverages have been produced in a specific region and comply with stringent quality criteria – and Mexican music, but also sample the music and drink to your heart’s content in a safe environment, at a reasonable price.

The boutique handicraft and spirit store at MUTEM sells unique items you may want to stock up on, either for yourself or for gift-giving!

Be sure to check out the ground-floor museum store, which is brimming with a hand-picked selection of handicrafts unavailable elsewhere. The MUTEM staff travels around Mexico, combing the countryside for unique keepsakes, which it offers at affordable prices at its gift shop.  Plus, the spruced up Plaza now has underground parking, where you can park your vehicle yourself, rather than leaving it with often unreliable valet parking services or having to walk several blocks late at night (very convenient, particularly when your steps are wobbly!).

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Happy New Year from me and a 20 member mega-Mariachi group!

Happy New Year with a Mexican touch! Be sure to check out the MUTEM in 2012!

 

Mexico’s New Constitution Museum: Trying to Make Sense of a Complex Legislative Trail

The recently inaugurated Constitution Museum

Mexico’s new Constitution Museum has yet, once again, given a new purpose to what was originally a Jesuit School and Temple dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Abandoned when the Jesuits were banned from all Spanish territory in 1767, the building fell into disrepair, until salvaged almost half a century later by Mexico’s first emperor, Agustin Iturbide, who hosted several Constitutional Congress meetings here in 1823 and 1824. This is where Mexico’s first (or second – depending on how you count – more on that in a minute) constitution was signed by such historical heavyweights as Fray Servando Teresa de Mier and Miguel Ramos Arizpe. Mexico’s first president – Guadalupe Victoria – was sworn into office here as well.

Sparse explanations dot the ex-Jesuit school

Having previously served as a library, a military barrack, a military hospital, a customs warehouse, a home for the mentally ill and an animal stable, it was Public Education Minister José Vasconcelos who commissioned the very first mural here after the Revolution, launching what would become, unbeknownst to him, Mexico’s world-famous Muralist Movement. From then on, the building was assigned to education-related functions, housing the Hemeroteca collection (periodical library) and more recently, the National University’s Museum of Light, an interactive children’s museum.  In August of this year, it was re-purposed with its latest mission, narrating this nation’s constitution history.

Architectural detail from by-gone days add character to an otherwise bland exhibit

Mexico’s history is complex, and its constitutional history is even more complicated, justifiably meriting a museum all to itself.  Its first Constitution, by all counts, is the Constitution of Cadiz – promulgated in 1812 – however, the museum ignores this fact, perhaps because this legislation was handed down by Spain rather than issued in Mexico (however, duly note that the main square in downtown Mexico City, informally referred to as the “Zocalo,”  is formally named  “Plaza of the Constitution,” precisely after the liberal Constitution coming from the Courts of Cadiz – the first Constitution for Spain as well as Mexico, even though Mexico was still known as New Spain at that time.)

Roberto Montenegro's historic mural entitled "Tree of Life," fully restored

The Museum begins its count with the Constitution of 1814, and continues with the Constitution of 1824, the Constitution of 1836, the Constitution of 1843, the Constitution of 1857 and the Constitution of 1917, as well as the Plan of Ayutla, the Act of Reform and the Laws of Reform. It is hard to keep up with all that legislation, which is why this country needs a museum dedicated to all of its Constitutions!  In fact, the name of the museum in Spanish is Museum of Constitutions – in plural!

Details of Montenegro's mural

The exhibit is quite sparse and simple, made up of written texts except for two small, circular showcases. The building, seeped in over 400 years of history, is more impressive than the museum itself. Hopefully, with time, memorabilia and new material will be added to make the museum, and the topic it covers, richer and more interesting.  In fact, the saving grace of this museum (located on Carmen Street #36, on the corner of San Ildefonso downtown) is its backdrop – Roberto Montenegro’s recently restored, seminal work entitled “The Tree of Life” (often referred to as the Tree of Science) – the first mural painted in modern Mexico – and three of his stained glass window designs.

One of the three magnificent stained glass windows designed by Montenegro and Xavier Guerrero in the early 20s

 

Museo de la Estampa – NOT a Stamp Museum but a Showcase for Graphic Art

A sampling of graphic work currently on display at the Graphic Art Museum

The Museo de la Estampa (MUNAE) is NOT a museum dedicated to stamps as this false cognate might insinuate, but rather a museum devoted to graphic art, prints and engravings, inaugurated in 1986 to fill the gap in public space earmarked for graphic work.  Do not be put off by the building’s semi-abandoned, somewhat dilapidated façade, particularly in contrast to the oft visited and highly lauded neighboring Franz Mayer Museum to its left.  Both museums are located on the Plaza de la Santa Veracruz (on Hidalgo Avenue), flanked by two churches (San Juan de Dios and The Santa Veracruz Parish Church built in 1586, one of the oldest in Mexico City, from which the plaza gets its name), behind the Alameda Park, yet the Museo de la Estampa rarely gets its due of publicity, and is seldom visited.

The somewhat abandoned aspect of the building housing the Museum


Don’t miss the MUNAE’s currently show entitled “The Double Fold Dream of Art; 2RC – Between the Artist and the Artifact.”    “2RC,” for those unfamiliar with the art world, is one of the most important and well-known contemporary graphic art printing houses, founded in Italy by Valter and Eleonora Rossi. This itinerant exhibit has already toured the United States (in Chicago, Indianapolis and San Francisco) as well as Russia and Saint Petersburg, Indonesia and Japan, and includes the collective work of 40 conceptual European artists, representative of the contemporary graphic arts movement of the 60s, including Francis Bacon, Lucio Fontana, Eduardo Chillida, Henry Moore (studies for his later sculptures), Man Ray, Julian Schnabel and many, many more.

A colonial structure refurbished to house exceptional graphic work

The 160 pieces on display aim to illustrate the idea behind the title of this show.  Although many art forms are achieved solely by the artist (oil painting, sculpting, water color, etc.), graphic arts, by nature, demand a collaborative effort of many players.  This genre of art is produced through teamwork, as required by the process itself.

Another sample of the work coming from the Roman Worshop 2RC

Even if you are not a fan of contemporary art, be sure to check the MUNAE’s calendar of ongoing exhibits which rotate regularly, since the realm of graphic art is amazingly broad – encompassing pre-Hispanic art (made from clay seals which, by definition, fall under the category of print work) to pieces by Dali or Picasso, part of the museum’s permanent collection, and everything in between, including notable Mexican artists who worked in this medium such as Jose Guadalupe  Posada (known for his Catrina skeletons), and Siqueiros and Tamayo, whose works are shown sporadically.  Definitely worth a visit to the grimier northern edge of the city’s first urban park!

An upclose view of a 1980 work of Victor Pasmore

 

Presidential Assassin or Future Saint?

(I apologize for posting so sporadically this month.  I have had SERIOUS tech issues with my photo management software, which seem to be unresolvable, so after almost a month of frustrating, time-wasting effort I have changed software programs and I can now see and use my photos again!  Time will tell if the glitch has been solved permanently. Keep your fingers crossed for me!)

Tucked tucked away in the Colonia Roma district of Mexico City, for very defined interests, the Museo de Padre Pro (Museum of Father Pro) showcases the life of a very controversial figure in Mexican religion and history.  Father Pro was a charismatic Jesuit priest who studied and lived in the United States, Spain, Belgium and Nicaragua before repatriating to Mexico in 1926.  Unfortunately, he returned to a nation convulsing in the bloody Cristero War. The dubious relationship between Miguel Agustín Pro and the assassination of President Álvaro Obregón is addressed face on in this permanent exhibit.


Mexican history is not easy to understand, and this chapter of Mexican history, in particular, is a complicated one.  It was President Benito Juarez who separated Church and State over 150 years ago, but this mandate was not easily enforced.  Even with the last and current Constitution (of a series of 6!), the government continued to view the Catholic Church as a foe.  The framework of that Constitution, when passed in 1917, clearly forbade religious instruction in schools (Article 3), prohibited public worship outside of ecclesiastic buildings (Article 24), restricted religious organizations the right to own property (Article 27), and went to the extreme of stripping priests, ministers and rabbis the freedom of wearing religious garb in public, participating in politics and even commenting on government policy (Article 130).  These restrictions were repealed only recently, under the government of President Ernesto Zedillo in 1998, to be specific, but it is important to note that these anti-clerical laws were strictly enforced when Father Pro returned to Mexico.


Plutarco Elias Calles, Mexico’s President between1924-1928, cracked his whip on the Catholic Church, by implementing even more rigorous legislation than that stipulated in the Constitution, under the guise of the so-called “Calles’ Laws,” thereby limiting clerical civil liberties such as the clergy’s right to vote or receive trial by jury. 

Father Pro was a warm, caring priest, sympathetic to religious factions.  He held  mass in secret and became a social activist helping hundreds of impoverished families financially and spiritually, thus falling into Calles’ disfavor.  Pro was eventually linked to President Obregón’s assassination in 1928, when, according to Museum information, his brother Humberto, sold his car, which was used as a get away vehicle by the assassins of Obregón.  To his misfortune, Humberto had forgotten some personal papers in the glove compartment of the car, linking him directly to the murder scene.  Given Pro’s antagonistic relationship with the Calles government, the President arrested him along with two of his brothers,  accusing them of sabotage and terrorism.  Father Pro and his brother Humberto were executed without due process, within the framework of the Calles’ Laws – without a trial and without concrete proof involving them in the crime (their brother Ramon, who was not clergy, was released).  Calles, in order to send a message to religious activists, went to the extreme of carefully documenting the police firing squad execution, photographing the details of the event and printing the pictures in the national press the following day.



Father Pro was vindicated, at least by the Catholic church, when he was beatified by Pope John Paul on September 25th, 1988, on the anniversary marking his execution.  His remains are deposited to the right of the main altar of the church adjacent to the museum, the Sagrada Familia, an emblematic landmark in Colonia Roma which was built when the then fashionable neighborhood was being urbanized roughly a century ago.


This museum appears to me to be doubling as the official platform to promote the cause of Pro’s sainthood. There is a wide discrepancy in the number of lives reported lost in this oft forgotten chapter of Mexican history, with estimates running between 90,000 and 250,000 depending on the source.  Guilty or innocent, there is finally a museum in Mexico City which recalls the tragic ending of Pro’s life and pays tribute to the thousands who died on both sides of this little-talked-about war, assuring that the Cristero War and the people who lost their lives fighting for freedom of religion, will not be forgotten, regardless as to whether Pro is sanctified or not.

 

Handicrafts Galore at the Museum of Popular Art, and Good Shopping as Well!

A unique Tree of Life made with intricate ceramic detail

A magnificent collection of Mexican handicrafts can be enjoyed in the MAP or Museo de Arte Popular (Museum of Popular Art).  This fantastic museum, located half a block from the Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City, is a remarkable example of what can be achieved with a little commitment, elbow grease and collaboration (in this case between the Mexico City government, the Federal Government, CONACULTA or National Council for Art and Culture and a very active and highly visible group of volunteers).  The museum building is an outstanding art deco 1920s firehouse, which has been painstakingly re-purposed into a noteworthy showcase for a formidable array of arts and crafts and folk art hand-picked from artisans and private collections around the country.

A few handmade baskets on display

Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon (worthy of separate blog entry) masterminded the architectural make over, taking full advantage of the once open patio where firetrucks were once parked (and I may add, the backdrop to the hilarious 1952 Cantinflas movie El Bombero Atómico – the Atomic Fireman).  Have lived many distinct lives over the years (aside from a firehouse, it held Treasury Ministry offices, and Naval offices), it was given yet a another reincarnation after the devistating 1985 earthquake.

Piñatas hung in the central patio, part of an annual contest

The museum’s fare is is curiously grouped by themes (daily life, festivities, etc.) rather than by typical geographic or ethnic divisions, which allows for more interesting viewing, since sundry baskets from around the country are displayed side by side, showing the vast creativity and variety of workmanship.  Indigenous garments, many of which are still worn today in the nation’s remote countryside, line a wall in tribute to persistent creativity, as is the case with ceramics which contrast in technique, craftsmanship, glaze and purpose, sitting side by side, once again highlighting the impressive diversity of Mexican crafts.  Thus, the MAP’s three floors are chock-full of examples paying tribute to Mexican artists and their talent.

An alebrije or phantasmagoric figure, on Reforma Avenue

Unusual for a museum is the MAP’s outreach efforts.  Much more than a platform for displaying assorted handiwork, the museum actually promotes what was becoming a dying tradition, reinventing new trends in this field and injecting pride and attention among youth.  Aside from ongoing workshops for children, since its inauguration in 2006, it has underwritten annual piñata competitions, hosting Day of the Dead altar exhibits, and sponsors a highly-acclaimed and much-anticipated Alebrije parade with larger-than-life phatasmagoric paper mache animals and figures that are marched through the streets downtown and set up on Reforma Avenue for weeks, drawing heavy crowds.

A sampling of Indigenous garb still worn in small villages around Mexico


The MAP is also a superb spot for picking up a unique or unusual present.  Although a bit pricey, the museum gift shop offers carefully selected items of top-notch quality, as well as hard to find pieces, such as ex-votive painting, hand embroidered blouses, tinware, straw figures, marquetry, ceramics, jewelry, books and calendars.  Plus shoppers can rest assured that the artisans producing these wares were paid fairly for their painstaking labor.  So even if you think you have seen enough Mexican handicrafts to last a lifetime, the MAP collection is a treasure not worth missing.

A VW Beetle, covered by Huichol Indians in 2 million glass beads. After traveling to Paris and Berlin, the car will be auctioned off with funds going to the Huichol community

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Contemporary Art, Museums

 

A New Meaning for MX – the Abbreviation for Museu de la Xocolata!

Museu de la Xocolata in Barcelona, Spain ... why not in Mexico City?

Although this blog is entitled “Mexican Museums and Mavens,” I have chosen to break out of my self-imposed restrictions in order to share with you my thoughts on a museum I recently visited, a museum which could be and should be a source of inspiration for Mexico. The Museu de la Xocolata, in the Catalan language, or The Chocolate Museum in English, located in the Spanish city of Barcelona, provides an interesting concept which is sorely absent from the broad repertoire of Mexican museums.  The museums abbreviation -  MX, taken from the first letters of the name of the museum is suspiciously similar to the standard abbreviation for Mexico.  Is the abbreviation MX just a simple a coincidence?  Maybe, but we certainly know the importance of Mexico’s role in the cultivation and production of chocolate!

Cocoa beans, removed from the pod and spread to dry

The first question which came to mind when I stumbled upon this gem of a museum was, “What’s a chocolate museum doing in Spain, and more specifically in Barcelona?”  My next question was, wait a minute, “”Why doesn’t Mexico have a real chocolate museum?”  I say real, because there are a few meager attempts at chocolate museums around the country, specifically in the areas where this crop is cultivated, but certainly nothing conventional or serious, and definitely nothing on a national scale – nothing that truly pays homage to this gift from the Gods, and, with much chagrin, none as spectacular as Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum.

An example of the typical chocolate sculptures on display in the museum, this one is a scene from the famous classic Don Quixote!

Addressing the first question, “Why does Barcelona have a chocolate museum?” I must admit that I considered it odd, particularly since, from a historical perspective, the Royal Spanish Crown was careful to control its trade routes through the Casa de Contratación with an iron clad fist for close to 300 years (thereby assuring the Spanish monarchs their royal fifth – or the 20 percent obligatory tax on private merchandise). The offices of this institution were located in Seville, not in Barcelona.  As a matter of fact, many historians have attributed Spain’s demise directly to its monopolistic trade policies, which lead to its economic, financial and political demise, converting it from one of the wealthiest empires in the world into a faltering has-been.  So with most merchandise from the New World filtering through the seaports of Seville, Barcelona’s role was minimal in terms of imports and more specifically in terms of chocolate.  So what was Barcelona’s role in chocolate making?

Reproduction of an emblematic Teotihuacan vessel. Note bottom edge decoration of cocoa beans. The original piece is in the on-site museum in the archaeological zone of Teotihuacan. Notice the chiles, vanilla beans and spices to the right of the vessel, which were added to the hot chocolate in pre-hispanic times.


Once inside the museum, that lurking doubt was cleared up quickly.  Barcelona did not boast an early relationship with this once exotic foodstuff.  It become a major player in chocolate-making in the 19th century (after New Spain’s independence) with the establishment of The Industrial Confection Center.  Later, in the early 20th century, The Artistic and Industrial Candy Guild was established.  The history of that trade group was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War, to emerge in modern times as an umbrella organization under the guise of the Barcelona Confectionery Guild.  And that is how the Museu de la Xocolata emerged – as a showcase for the guild and its promotion of internationally acclaimed skills in chocolate making, chocolate art (sculpting) and baking.  And here I was trying to figure out the historical angle linking Barcelona to Mexico’s chocolate crops!  Sometimes I am just too intellectual for my own good!

Another sculpture made entirely of chocolate - this time tinted white chocolate.

That cleared up, I could better understand and enjoy the simple explanations of the displays covering the history of chocolate, its origins,  its processing, and the art of chocolate making, with visual masterpieces – chocolate sculptures – dotting the museum, displaying a clear mastery of what was an unfamiliar art form for me.

A glimpse of the equipment showcased in the museum which explains the industrial process of making chocolate

After a walk through the exhibit, an obligatory stop at the candy shop for a tasting of chocolate in its many manifestations could not be avoided. Without a doubt, Barcelona chefs have moved this culinary niche to greater heights, dominating to perfection this culinary specialty both artistically and taste-wise.   Clearly, the Museu de la Xocolata  is a front window for the guild’s culinary school housed behind the museum, as well as a platform for its tasting sessions. (Unfortunately my trip did not last long enough to coincide with their tasting schedule. Maybe next time!)

The chocolate school behind the museum

Going back to my second question – it is my strong belief that Mexico should build a Chocolate Museum, to trace the history of cacao in Mexico, its importance in pre-hispanic life, the highly prized use of chocolate in the pan-Maya traditions as a foodstuff, medicine as well as a form of currency, and link the gastronomic globalization between Mexican chocolate production and how it was adopted and adapted in Europe.  Any museum policymakers out there listening?

A sampling of items for sale in the museum shop

By the way, I forgot to mention that the entrance ticket to the Museu de la Xocolata was a superb quality chocolate bar, so how can you go wrong?  If you don’t like the museum, you can still eat the ticket!

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Food, Museums

 

Ready to Go and Nowhere to Go?

The very modern Terminal 2 counter area at the Mexico City Benito Juarez International Airport

So there you are, stuck at the Mexico City “Benito Juarez” Airport Terminal 2, killing time. With the new regulations requiring international travelers to arrive at the airport two hours ahead of time, you’ve got a long wait until you catch your flight. You’re already checked in and have wandered around, window shopping at the gift shops lining the passageways, leafing through the books and magazines at the newsstands (who really cares about Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, anyway?), have already grabbed a double espresso while perusing the fast food shops, which by the way, provide an astonishing array of appetizing options at a decent price – I am referring to the the food court outside the security gate with its vast assortment of fresh fruit platters, Mexican antojitos, the requisite Starbucks, delicious pastry shops, as well as Chinese, Japanese and American fare, to name just a few options, and I am NOT being facetious. What the food court lacks in decor, it makes up for in quality, variety, freshness and value.

Entrance to the INAH Museum across from security gate entrance

You are just about ready to go through the security check point, when, wait a minute … what is that that you see out of the corner of you eye? A museum?  A museum in the middle of the airport?  Yes, a museum!  As of 2008, briefly after Terminal 2 was inaugurated, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (better known as the “INAH,” an abbreviation of el Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Spanish), in collaboration with airport authorities, has etched out an oasis, offering temporary exhibits on Mexico’s pre-hispanic cultures, thus, providing weary local and international travelers, as well as those waiting to pick up passengers, a refreshing cultural option.

Reproductions of Paquime ceramics from Chihuahua, Mexico

The 650 square meter exposition center is open 24-7, 365 days a year, displaying mainly, though not exclusively, high quality reproductions of early cultural artifacts, a few original pieces, and a series of excellent photographs. If not told, the average viewer could probably not distinguish between an original pre-hispanic piece and a well-made copy.  As a matter of fact, there are plenty of reproductions filling the halls of the National Museum of Anthropology, all clearly marked, yet often undetected by the untrained eye!  The displays in Terminal 2 change regularly, approximately every 6 months, an antidote for the doldrums of the well-seasoned traveler, and a refreshing alternative for the typical non-museum goer or tourist who is visiting Mexico to learn more about its early history.

Travelers enjoying the temporary photo display detailing pre-hispanic ceremonial centers around Mexico

The INAH’s efforts are to be lauded.  All the exhibits I have seen, and there have been many, are well organized and informative, plus easy to understand even for those unfamiliar with pre-hispanic cultures. The current exhibit, entitled “Mexico, Territorio Arqueológico,” is particularly well structured, and for travelers who have lots of time on their hands, it provides a good alternative to balancing a computer or book on their laps after checking in their luggage.

Pieces typical of Teotihuacan pottery (Pre-classical, Central Mexico)

As a matter of fact, you might consider arriving to the airport 15 minutes early to be sure to have time to check out the exhibit!  The INAH Museum is easily accessible, opposite the security check point entry at Terminal 2, with an EDUCAL Book Store within view for those whose interests are whetted, with an unusually well-stocked collection of books on Mesoamerican culture and Mexican history, making the arduous wait for your flight somewhat more bearable.

Newly assigned divisions of Mesoamerica color-coded onto a modern-day map of Mexico

 

So That’s What Half the Population Gets?

The facade of the recently inaugurated Women's Museum

According to the INEGI, Mexico’s National Statistics and Geography Institute, more than 51% of this country’s total population (of 112.3 million) is female.  So how can a space as tiny as that of the Museo de la Mujer – The Women’s Museum – be expected to reflect the history, achievements and role of women in society, while doubling as a cultural center for programs related to women’s studies? It’s a tall order to begin with, and the UNAM (Mexico’s National Autonomous University) funded site, inaugurated earlier this year falls far from its goal.  It is inexplicable how a 15 year project could end with such meager results.

A view of the Bolivia Street, where the museum is located, somewhat off the beaten track in downtown Mexico City

It is bad enough that women are not taken seriously in this society, that equality remains a myth,  that all but a handful of women hold top level positions in both public and private spheres and that women are systematically discriminated against,  but a first attempt to honor this gender and trace its importance historically fails miserably.  Housed in the long forgotten and abandoned Publishing House of the University, the small colonial structure (located on Bolivia 17) has been painstakingly renovated.  Although the admirable architectural outcome does not offset the fact that it is in a remote, inaccessible, low traffic zone on the periphery of the Centro Historico, the architectural makeover itself is the sole redeeming aspect of the museum.

The ambitious list of themes, divided into 8 rooms, are lofty and unattainable:  (1) Equality, Universal Principals of Harmony; (2) a Dual Cosmovision of Ancient Mexico; (3) the Virgin Mary in Viceregal Mexico; (4) Women at Home and Insurgent Women; (5) Freedom and Education; (6) From Teachers to Revolutionaries (7) Women Citizens; and (8) From the Women’s Revolution to Modern Times.  The flow is poor, the signs are spotty, the guards are unprepared.

Given that Mexico is recognized for its outstanding museography and innovative solutions related to cultural displays, this long awaited site is nothing short of a let down.   Not even the valuable art works of renown Mexican painters such as José Luis Cuevas, Francisco Toledo, Guillermo Ceniceros and Esther González, as well as sculptures by Federico Silva, Sebastián y Glenda Hecher which dot the exhibit can atone for the lack of cohesion and research.

If this museum aims to show how women have changed the world, or at least Mexican society, it does not come close to meeting its objective.  In fact, the long awaited  Women’s Museum, if nothing else, makes evident the secondary role that women continue to play not only in this misogynist society but in the heart and budget of a heavy-weight university.  My question to the UNAM is why did it even bother?  It seems that Mexican women’s fame is destined to remain relegated to domestic violence, and the outrageous head count of femicides in Ciudad Juarez.  A possible solution to this embarrassment could be to shift the focus of the museum to its second objective, converting it into a Women’s Study Center, and taking away the word “Museum” from its name.

    

 
 
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