Thursday, August 7, 2008

Even Better Than The Field Museum (Almost)

As you may be aware, the Field Museum in Chicago is my favorite museum, ever, anywhere. There are parts of it that are a little weird and anachronistic (probably too many stuffed dead animals), but I always loved it when I visited as a kid, especially during the pre-teen years when I aspired to be a paleontologist. And then, when the Field acquired the largest T-Rex ever found and placed it right in the main hall to greet you as you walk in, well…that just made it a permanent lock for Matt’s Favorite Museum Ever.

So when I learned that Mexico City has its own Museum of Really Old Stuff with lots of myths, legends and history thrown in for good measure, I knew we had to check it out.

The Museo Nacional de Antropologia is universally acclaimed; it’s both popular with the kids and has a solid amount of street cred as the finest museum in a city filled with them. It has several things in common with Chicago’s Art Institute: it takes up several pages in tourist guidebooks, it’s nearly impossible to see everything in one visit, and it’s located in the central city park. So, during the second half of our visit to Chapultapec Park, we made our way over to the Museo.

Just outside the museum there are people in traditional Aztec clothes hanging upside down and swinging around a pole. Another person stands on top of the pole, playing some kind of otherworldly flute. I’m entranced, but Chris has seen this before: she says they’re called voladores (pronounced vole-a-door-ays). The Lonely Planet guidebook says it was once an ancient indigenous ritual, but none of the flying people gives any explanation of what’s going on, so I think the point, for tourists at least, is to just be entranced. We sit, entranced, for a few minutes, then head into the museum.

Unlike our cold-weather Chicago museums, the main hall of the MNA is basically an outdoor courtyard, and is covered only by a massive slab of concrete that serves as a kind of tarp to keep out the rain. The slab of concrete is balanced on a giant emerald stone pillar carved with all sorts of ancient designs. Supposedly it’s the largest piece of concrete supported by a single pillar. It’s pretty impressive.

Standing just inside the entrance, there are exhibit salas (halls or rooms) to the right and left of the courtyard; these smaller exhibits cover ancient cultures and present indigenous cultures from different regions of Mexico. Straight head, at the far side of the courtyard from the entrance, is the museum’s largest exhibit hall, the Sala Mexica (pronounced meh-shee-ka). Mexica = Aztec.

The rooms feature placards that are hugely informative. There’s lots of text, some of it, according to Chris, who is familiar with contemporary anthropology, very up-to-date academic theory. It all stands in stark contrast to the Field Museum’s current emphasis on interactive, technology-driven exhibits, all of which I very much enjoy but which are not nearly as meaty as what we found at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

And, in addition to the brain food, there’s just a lot of OLD THINGS, big colorful overwhelming old things and little shiny intricate old things.

(Above: This is a sign saying this artifact has gone traveling. But look where it has traveled to!)

A few of the exhibits are life-size partial replicas of ruins that are found elsewhere in Mexico, and many of these are located outdoors, so that it feels like part of the museum is actually in a jungle (if you can ignore the sounds of screeching buses and honking taxis just outside the gates).

The Sala Mexica, or Aztec Hall, is the museum’s central hall. It’s sized like a warehouse, kind of a cathedral built to house these ancient sacred relics.

The Sala Mexica also features the museum’s crown jewel: a massive Aztec sun stone, sometimes called a calendar stone. Everyone and their tia (aunt) who has ever visited Mexico has seen one of these circular discs with a face in the middle and detailed carvings all around it; they’re for sale at every tourist stand everywhere. The ones you find at the tourist stands can be either small or pretty big, but the original is really, really big – 12 feet in diameter of solid stone. Here’s what my DK guidebook has to say about it:

“The Sun Stone. Often mistakenly referred to as the Calendar Stone, this basaltic disk was unearthed in the Zocalo in 1790. The carvings describe the beginning of the Aztec world and foretell its end. The Aztecs believed they were living in the fifth and final “creation” of the world. Each creation was called a sun. The central face could be the sun god Tonatiuh or the earth god Tlaltecuhtli. Four square panels around the center indicate that the previous suns (creations) were destroyed by jaguars, wind, rain, and water. The 20 days of the Aztec month are shown on the inner band. Two fire serpents run around the rim of the stone, their tails meeting at the date of creation.”

Also located in the big Sala Mexica is a 3-D map of Tenochtitlan (ten-osh-teet-LAN), the name of Mexico City before it was Mexico City. This is what the city looked like when the Spaniards arrived to conquer it – not merely pyramids, but pyramids on an island in the middle of a lake. As the Europeans rebuild the city to their own liking, they gradually filled in the lake. But the Aztecs are having a bit of revenge - many of the buildings in Mexico City, especially its great cathedrals and basilicas, are slowly sinking into the soft earth of what used to be a lake.

As you exit the Sala Mexica, there’s a single Christian cross on top of one of the ruins. When the Europeans arrived, they tore down the Aztec pyramids and build churches and later cathedrals on top of them. Now Mexico is a very Roman Catholic country. Visiting this museum, however, it’s easy to see why all the vestiges of Mexico’s ancient past haven’t been wiped away; those 2,000 years of pre-European, pre-Christian, pre-capitalist history run deep, like the roots of a very old tree.

As we leave the museum, it begins to rain. Then it begins to pour. Then it’s a monsoon. June through September is the rainy season here in Mexico, and by rainy season they mean it rains literally every day. Usually not all day, mind you, but only during those parts of the day when Chris and I happen to be out and about and far from shelter. Sigh.

We huddle under a tarp with the other families that have been caught in the rain. We’re at least a forty-five minute walk from our hotel, so we consider hopping on one of the green public transport buses, even though we don’t really know any of the routes yet. We take a look at the guidebook, roll the dice, and get on a bus heading north on the Paseo de la Reforma. (Public transport in Mexico City costs 2 pesos a ride – about 20 cents, compared with Chicago’s 2 dollars a ride.) Not knowing where this bus route ends, we jump off when things start to look familiar, and take shelter under the Monumento de la Revolucion.

When the rain lets up we walk the few blocks to our hotel, stopping at the 7-11 for coffee to warm our bones frigid from the cold high-altitude rain. Monuments, museums, and 7-11’s – it’s all just another day in Mexico City.