Suitcase and World: Museo Nacional de Antropología.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Museo Nacional de Antropología.

There is no doubt, especially after having gone, that the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City is must see destination for anyone traveling to Mexico.  It gives you historic background on the diverse cultures of Mexico that in turn sets the stage for much what you will see and experience in this wonderful.

Our first trip to the museum happened late yesterday afternoon, after our visit to Teotihuacán.  We arrived back into Mexico City in the pouring rain.  It was rush hour and it was a slow crawl through the city.  We had to make our way to Chapultepec Park which is where the museum is located.

It was pelting down cats and dogs when our driver stopped the van and we got out.  Rain hoods up, we scurried along, following behind in Daniel's footsteps.  No time to even take pictures of the front of the building. We ran up to the front entrance, got scanned in and headed to the bag check area where we would leave everything behind except for our cameras.

Where to go.  The museum is laid out in a rectangular layout with a long courtyard in the middle.  The museum's entrance, gift shop and main auditoriums occupy one of the two shorter sides of the rectangle.

The 12 ground-floor salas (halls) are dedicated to pre-Hispanic Mexico.  When you enter the museum, the rooms on the right hand side show the cultures that developed in Central Mexico and are organized in chronological order. Start on the right and make your way around counter clockwise to get a feel for how the cultures changed over time culminating in Sala 7 which is the Mexica (Aztec) exhibition hall.  On the left of the entrance are halls devoted to other cultural areas of Mexico; the Oaxaca and Maya halls very much worth seeing.

In the middle of the complex is a  long, rectangular courtyard that is surrounded on three sides by two-story display halls. An immense umbrella like stone fountain rises up from the center of the courtyard.  I thought that was one of the coolest fountains I've seen.  I want that fountain in my backyard! :-)

The priceless treasures.  The museum has more treasures in it than you can see in a day so it's best to focus.  I figured that Daniel would take us to see the highlights and I was right!  I had no idea which Sala it was in but I figured we had to see the most treasured piece of all and I was right.  I saw from the outside.  I recognized it immediately.  We entered Sala 7 and there it was, Exhibit 57 - the wondrous Piedra del Sol!!  Finally, I get to see the real thing.....can't tell you how many pictures and reproductions I have seen of this priceless treasure.

The best thing about coming to the museum on weekday afternoon was that there absolutely no people around.  We could walk up to the stone and spend as much time as we wanted to admire it.  The first thing that strikes you about the stone is its sheer size.  I cannot imagine how the Aztecs hauled this piece of stone to its resting spot at Templo Mayor and then proceeded to carve the detail.  It's an amazing piece!  Pictures definitely do not do it justice.

No doubt that the Piedra del Sol is the highlight of Sala 7 but the rest of the hall contains many magnificent pieces, including some other very large stone sculptures recovered from Templo Mayor.

Other important pieces in Sala 7 include this sculpture of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue.

And this one of  Ocelotl-Cuauhxicalli. Ocelotl mean "jaguar" in Nahuatl and cuauhxicalli means "eagle gourd."  You can't tell from the picture but this is actually a very large stone vessel that was used by the Aztecs to keep their most sacred offerings, human hearts!

 From Sala 7, we quickly darted over to Sala 10 which is the Maya hall.  There, the main highlight is the funerary mask of Pakal the Great, recovered from his tomb at Palenque.  The pieces are beautifully rendered in jade.

There's also a reproduction of Pakal's tomb with his skeleton and all.


The Maya hall opens out to a side garden where there are large stone reproductions of Mayan temples.  The garden is landscaped to make you feel like you're walking the rainforest and you happen upon a temple.

In the Maya hall, there were also Mayan murals on display.  I don't know where they were recovered from but they were beautiful. The red was a vibrant as the day it was painted on.

Sala 6 houses the cultural icon of the Toltecs - Chac Mool, a common presence at Chichén-Itzá. The Chac Mool is a sculptural figure seated on the ground with its upper back raised, head turned to one side, knees bent, elbows resting on the ground, and hands holding a vessel, disk or plate on the stomach where offerings may have been placed or human sacrifices carried out. There's significance to the direction that the head is turned in but I can't remember what that is.

We spent quite a bit of time wandering through the various halls with Daniel but both my brother and I agreed that we hadn't enough time to really appreciate the museum so we decided to come back today.

Just outside the front entrance, I quickly snapped a photo of the front of the building, equally modern on the outside as it was on the inside.  We followed Daniel to the street where a car and driver were waiting to take us back to the hotel.  I was pooped; it had been a long day and we had walked a lot!

And we return for a second visit. Today, we arrived back at the museum after going to see Templo Mayor.  From the zócalo, we took the subway to the Auditorio stop. The Mexico City subway system is very, very extensive. Down under, its a labyrinth of interconnecting hallways that lead to you the platforms for the various lines. For 3 pesos, no matter how many stops you go, it's a bargain!  The lines are all color coded so it's easy to follow - we had to change from Line #2 (Blue) to Line #7 (Orange).  The system runs quickly and efficiently and the stations are well marked so getting in and out is easy.  And.....contrary to what we had read in the guidebooks, it's safe to ride. At least, neither one of us felt endangered at any point in time.

When we surfaced at Auditorio, it took a bit to make sure we were oriented to walk in the right direction.  We soon happened on a street that, from how it looked, we thought was Paseo de la Reforma.  That was the street we needed to be on.  But which direction to go in?  Always helps if there is a fruit vendor to give instructions.  He just can't resist :-)

Took us a while to get to the museum as the subway stop was quite a distance away but it was such a beautiful day, neither one of us minded the walk.  Since we had just been at the museum less than 12 hours ago, we knew exactly what to do to get inside.  This visit though we decided to rent audio headphones so we could get English explanations of the key exhibits.  Very much worth the 75 pesos!

Culturas Maya y del Golfo. This time around, we decided to focus on halls to the left side of the entrance which display treasures from the Maya and Gulf Coast cultures.  For me, the best representation of the Gulf Coast cultures were the colossal Olmec heads with their helmet-like headdresses.  Several of the ones that were outside were covered by tarps yesterday, presumably to protect them from the rain.  Today, they were out in full display.  I can't explain it but I find these heads to be irresistibly cute.

Found lying in the jungles of Tabasco and Veracruz, no one knows who or what the heads represent so they continue to be the subject of much speculation. Once theorized to be ballplayers, it is now generally accepted that these heads are portraits of rulers, perhaps dressed as ballplayers.  No two heads are alike and the helmet-like headdresses are adorned with distinctive elements, suggesting to some personal or group symbols. There have been 17 colossal heads unearthed to date.  Aren't they cute?

We wandered through the halls, stopping at the exhibits that had entries in our audio headphone guide.  The voice on the end had a British accent.  I wondered why.  Is a Mexican accent not good enough?

I have to say that the museum is beautifully laid out and you can see that a lot of care and attention was taken to make sure that each object is appropriately lit and everything is well described.  Of course, it's described in Spanish ergo the need for the headphones.

Today, the doors to the side gardens were wide open.  A long stone walkway runs, through the garden, down the length of all the exhibit halls. 


We walked through all 12 of the downstairs halls.  Part way through we needed to rest our feet.  Luckily, in the center of the courtyard is a small pond with raised stone walls where you can sit to rest your feet and have a sip of water.  Beautiful day, perfect spot to rest and a turtle go about its day.

Dancers and lunch.  By early afternoon, we were ready to leave.  We had one more place that we had wanted to go to before calling it a day so it was time to mosey on out.  We turned in our headphones and retrieved our packs.  Out the front door we went.

As we walked towards Paseo de la Reforma, we heard the sound of music.  In a clearing, very nearby the front of the museum’s entrance, indigenous Totonac people were performing their ritual *dance* - Danza de los Voladors (Dance of the Flyers).  Although the ritual did not originate with the Totonac people, today it is most strongly associated with them, especially those in and around Papantla, Veracruz.  They had just finished one performance so we decided to grab a bite to eat while the men got set up for their next performance.

There were a few food vendors parked outside the museum.  We were drawn, admittedly by the smell wafting up from the grill.  The woman was selling tortas so we decided to get a torta Milanesa which has pork and ham - it's all about the meat here - to share.

We found ourselves a spot to sit near where the Totenac men were doing their performance and we enjoyed their performance while we munched on our torta.  The men had started to climb the pole.

How those men can stay upside down for so long is beyond me.  I would have fainted from the blood settling at the top of my head while the ground spun around me.  Very dizzying, if you ask me.

Watching the men slowly spin to the ground wasn't much of anything to watch.  Or maybe it was because I was hungry and the torta wasn't filling enough.  Had to leave the performance to look for food.  Luckily, we didn't have to go far.  We found a vendor selling tlayudas which are a specialty of Oaxaca.   Our first tlayuda so must try.  Basically, it was large corn tortilla that was topped with Oaxaca cheese and in our case, cilantro.  All I was missing was some salsa and it would have been like many a snack I've had at home  :-)

It was hard to walk and eat the tlayuda at the same time but we really needed to make our way to our next destination so we munched and walked.  As we hit the sidewalk that runs alongside Paseo de la Reforma, I took one quick look back at the museum.  What a great place!  I'm so glad and so lucky to have been able to see as much of it as I did.  For my brother, I hope it's given him some context for the rest of this trip.  If nothing else, he now knows who Pakal is!