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

11 Nov

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

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