Last updated: 05:30 PM ET, Fri August 05 2016

Dispatch Mexico City: City of Museums

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | August 05, 2016

Dispatch Mexico City: City of Museums

PHOTO: The Aztec Sun Sculpture, known to most people as the Aztec Calendar.  (Photos by David Cogswell)

Visit Mexico, the tourism board of Mexico, claims that Mexico City has more museums than any other city in the world. It’s an impressive claim, but Mexico City is a city of 20 million, one of the largest cities in the world, and one of the oldest cities in the New World.

The National Council for Culture and Arts lists 141 buildings registered as museums. Stephanie Schneiderman, founder of Tia Stephanie Tours, believes the number is more than 160. It’s a lot of museums however you calculate it, but if you visited one every day you could finish well before the year is out.

We only had a few days on this iteration of the Tia Stephanie Art, Culture and Cuisine of Mexico City tour so we had to be very selective. Besides the home of Frida Kahlo, which is really more of a shrine in Kahlo’s home than a museum, we visited two museums: the National Museum of Anthropology and the Museum of Modern Art of Mexico.

Tia Stephanie designed the tour to be a solid basic introduction to Mexico City, a foundation of understanding upon which to build on in future visits and further inquiry. The National Museum of Anthropology was a good place to begin to get an idea about the origins of the city and its people.

Approaching the museum, the first thing that impresses you is not anthropology at all but archaeology. The building was designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, a prominent Mexican architect of the late 20th century who was responsible for many major buildings in Mexico and beyond.

It’s a giant, sprawling building with monolithic windowless stone surfaces, and its most striking feature is a giant roof over a central courtyard. It is a giant horizontal slab that appears to be floating in space with nothing to support it underneath. But although it can barely be seen without walking back a block or so from the museum, the roof is held up with suspension cables connected to a vertical column on top.

The museum has 23 exhibition halls and covers nearly 20 acres of ground in Chapultepec Park, which is the largest park in the Western Hemisphere, covering 1,695 acres.

Tia Stephanie set us up with an anthropologist guide who took us on a streamlined tour so we could get a good snapshot and selection from its many halls in a reasonably short time.

From our guide, we learned about the earliest known people in Mesoamerica back where history fades off into the mist of mystery and myth. We learned about some of the different ethnic groups that populated the area, how they lived and interacted, how civilization in a sense began with the domestication of corn when it became possible to store up surpluses of food and how that made new ways of life possible.

It’s always jarring to get a glimpse of that kind of long view of human history. It’s hard to absorb the magnitude of it, but it provides rich food for thought, fresh content for dreams and tools for digging deeply into the recesses of the human unconscious. The artifacts were mind blowing to look at, including tools and tiny sculptures, pottery, decorative art, human bones and stone altars where human sacrifices were carried out.  

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The Museum of Anthropology is also a bit of an art museum because some major artists were contracted to create giant illustrations and maps to illustrate the story of humankind in Mesoamerica.

The museum is in possession of the original stone sculpture that is commonly known as the Aztec Calendar. Our guide told us it is not actually a calendar, but was a religious sculpture offered to the sun god. Through some kind of spectral analysis scientists determined the original colors of the sculpture and the museum exhibits a picture representing how it looked when it was new and brightly colored in red, yellow and gray. The thing is huge and very imposing.

After spending a couple of hours in the Museum of Anthropology and then recharging with lunch, a visit to the Museum of Modern Art of Mexico was enough to exhaust one’s sensibilities for the day. But what a great way to saturate your senses! The art museum is also in Chapultepec Park, a short walk from the anthropology museum.

It has Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas,” one of her largest paintings. It also has work by Diego Rivera and a number of other notable Mexican artists, including José Clemente Orozco, Manuel álvarez Bravo, Leonora Carrington, Rufino Tamayo, Juan Soriano and Vicente Rojo.

The museum had a temporary exhibit examining the life and work of B. Traven, the German-Mexican author of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The Death Ship” as well as a number of other books that were made into movies.

The exhibit included several of the movies made from B. Traven’s books playing continuously; early copies of his books and various memorabilia such as photographs, letters and manuscripts; and personal artifacts such vintage typewriters, cameras and pistols. It steeped my curiosity and made me want to find out more about B. Traven.    

To me the greatest museum of all is outdoors, the living museum of the streets, and when we had saturated ourselves we left the museum and the park and took a long walk down Reforma Avenue, the great 10-lane highway that might be called the aorta of Mexico City’s transportation system.

It was a lot to absorb, much food for thought from Paleolithic times to the movies. I’ll be chewing on it a long time.

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