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Category Archives: Historic

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

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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.