What do Birds, Olmec Heads and 6 Ancient Cities Have in Common?

20 Aug

So what do birds, colossal Olmec heads and 6 ancient cities have in common?  Well … these three topics are themes for separate temporary exhibits currently on display at the National Museum of Anthropology.


The first is on feather art … that’s right – feather art, a native handicraft traditional dating back to pre-Hispanic times. The exhibit “Alas: El vuelo de las imágenes del mundo indigena,” part of a two-museum display (the other exhibit, hosted in the MUNAL, Mexico’s National Museum of Art downtown on Tacuba Street,  has unfortunately closed) showcasing how this highly valued, yet today forgotten, natural material was incorporated into textiles, paintings and decorative arts in popular cultures, as well as the importance of birds (in music, mythology, religion, dance, costumes and in oral tradition) in Mexican indigenous cultures.


The significance of birds is reflected in pieces made by close to forty different indigenous groups.  The extensive display illustrates how “amanteca” or feather art has yet to lose its relevance despite effort of the Spanish viceroyalty, remaining, in fact alive and pertinent, as evidenced by this sampling of crafts.


A second temporary exhibit, the longest running of the three at the National Museum of Anthropology, is entitled “Six Ancient Cities of Mesoamerica,” which projects the relationship between the peoples of different corners of Mesoamerica and their environments. Over 400 pieces are being shown – some for the first time ever and others borrowed from 17 distinct public and private museum collections. The goal of this exhibit is to trace the similarities and differences of six urban nuclei, using the writing systems, economic development, religious and ideological beliefs, and monumental architecture and art (ceramics, stone carvings, jewelry, masks, etc.) as a point of departure.  The similarities and differences are striking!

The third, most recently opened exhibit, is a fabulous collection of Olmec objects found along the Gulf Coast of Mexico.  Indeed, the museum itself houses an impressive selection of artifacts from the oldest civilization in Mexico (frequently referred to as the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, however, more recent anthropological theories are reconsidering it as the “sister culture,” supporting the idea that several groups emerged simultaneously yet independently, seeing as how NOT all cultures of Mesoamerica can trace their origins back to this specific ancient civilization) in its permanent collection, yet this grouping is coming from an exhibit which was hosted at the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco under the heading: Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico.


The 106 pieces on display have been culled from collections belonging to the Anthropology Museums of          Xalapa and Merida among others, and include two colossal heads (which are referred to as Head Number 5 and  Head Number 9 from San Lorenzo).  The sheer fact that these artifacts date back to the second millennium BC, yes – the second millennium before Christ! – weighing in at a hefty 4 and 6 tons respectively, make them obligatory viewing. (By the way, over 600 thousand people visited the exhibit in California, at $25 US dollars a pop, so how can a local visitor bypass the opportunity to see this exhibit  in Mexico City for roughly  $4.00 US (depending on the fluctuating peso-dollar parity rate) – that’s $51 Mexican pesos, with no waiting lines either!!)

I personally cannot remember a time when the museum had so much going on simultaneously. Obviously, each of these exhibits requires the collaboration and coordination of too many experts to list here, but in reference to my previous post – the fact that Director Diana Magaloni has been spearheading the initiative to bring quality exhibits back to the Anthropology Museum, and is sponsoring all sorts of educational forums on topics related to these shows, you can expect to see even more great exhibits and talks at this emblematic museum.  Her efforts are not going unnoticed.  Kudos to Magaloni!


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