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A three mile stroll through Mexican history

Allan Cogan

I’m going to sound like something of a museum freak – which I’m definitely not. There’s a limit to the amount of "tourism" I can handle when I’m travelling. My strict ration is one castle, or one cathedral or one stately home per day. However, even with that rule strongly enforced, I confess that I have enjoyed visiting museums in Cairo, and the Forbidden City in Beijing and, of course, in places like New York and London. By far the most interesting one was quite tiny, in Hobart, Tasmania, right on the southernmost edge of the map, just before you come to Antarctica. One rainy Sunday afternoon my wife and I found ourselves with nothing else to do but visit a museum that featured just three topics – the terrible history of the convict period in Australia; the even more ghastly things that were done to the Aboriginal people of Tasmania by the white settlers; and a collection of artifacts and exhibits about the whaling ships that regularly sailed and steamed into Hobart when they cruised the southern oceans. It was all rather grim, but it was absolutely fascinating.


I offer that small introduction simply to prove that I have seen a museum or two. And I’m not completely immune to the charms of museums. I even think I know quality when I see it. All of which is my way of saying that by far the classiest, the biggest and the most elegant museum I’ve ever seen is in Mexico City - The National Museum of Anthropology.


Biggest? Well, let’s start with some statistics. If you walk past all the exhibits you’ll find three miles of them displayed in a magnificent building that occupies some 44,000 square feet on three levels. And you’ll be strolling through about 3,500 years of Mexican history, from prehistoric times to the arrival of the Spanish in 1519. Whether you take an hour or a day to visit all of the twenty halls you’ll be given an introduction to all the principal cultures that existed in this country throughout the centuries.


For me, the best part of the Museum is the building itself. The halls are built around a huge central courtyard, with a reed-filled pool. When you walk into the courtyard you are immediately confronted by a huge umbrella which also doubles as a fountain. I’m afraid you’ll have to go there to see how that trick is accomplished. Also at the entrance is a massive statue of Tlaloc, the god of rain. It weighs 167 tons and stands 23 feet high. The legend is that when the statue was brought to the museum telephone and electrical wires en route all had to be raised or removed so the special trailer could get through the city streets. And even though this move was made in the dry season, a thunderstorm took place during the journey. Such is the power of gods.


The various halls and adjoining spaces are filled with wonderful artifacts such as statues, masks, pottery, weapons, crafts, paintings, furniture, clothing, utensils, jewelry, religious objects and memorabilia of every conceivable kind. Many of the walls are adorned with gorgeous murals. All of these represent the various cultural periods and distinctive geographic areas of Mexico. There are literally thousands of artifacts, all beautifully and elegantly displayed. Most of these are on the lower floor. On the upper floor you’ll find a "living museum" showing village life in Mexico, complete with straw huts and lifelike models of people engaged in various activities, enhanced with appropriate songs and dances.


For me, the murals and models depicting Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) as it was at the time of the arrival of Cortez was the most interesting exhibit. I had just finished reading Hugh Thomas’s excellent "Conquest", the story of Cortez’s encounter with Moctezuma and the eventual conquest of Mexico by the Spanish. I was never quite clear about what this fabulous city in the lake actually looked like. Seeing the huge diorama and the detailed model of the city and Lake Texcoco made the whole story come more alive and made it more understandable. It’s easy to see why the conquistadores compared it to Venice and why they looked on it as such a fabulous prize.


It was interesting, too, that Hugh Thomas wrote about a tribe of Indians, the Totonacs, who Cortez’s men encountered in the area around Veracruz. Their special claim to fame was that they did the dance of the "voladores" (the flyers) whereby several men would climb to the top of a very high pole, dance up there on a platform, and then swing upside down in fifty-two expanding circles, their legs attached by a rope tied to the top of the pole. And, lo and behold, when our group was assembling to go in the Museum we were approached by an Indian man who offered to perform the dance for us – for a price, of course. We agreed and out came the cameras. His team of four flyers went up the pole and put on a performance, swinging down from the pole in fifty-two revolutions. The significance of the 52 is simply that it represents the weeks in the year. No doubt they’ll be there when you go to the Museum. Take twenty minutes and enjoy.


I should add that the Museum is comfortable with plenty of places to rest and look at the various displays. There’s an attractive restaurant and a good book shop. Be warned, however, that the text on the various displays is all in Spanish. No English. However, in the bookstore you can buy excellent guidebooks or rent tape cassettes that will lead you through the Museum. Or go, as we did, with a knowledgeable guide.


The Museum is closed Mondays. Admission is free on Sundays.

Published or Updated on: March 1, 1998 by Allan Cogan © 1998
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