The Museums of Oaxaca… a window into the culture of this part of Mexico

Okay, so I’ve been in Oaxaca a few days.  It’s my first return since August and like a swallow returning to Capistrano, I always have a sense of rebirth when I return.

Perhaps it is the sun, or the people, but in any event, returning as I do annually after the new year, looking ahead always seems full of endless possibilities.

Early this week I decided to visit a few of the museums I had not seen in a few years.  What a great time I had re-exploring the Cultural Museum of Santo Domingo.  I had gone years ago but that was early on in my journeys through Mexico.  This time, with a little more experience under my belt, I was much more able to appreciate what a great museum this is.  It was almost as if  was seeing this museum for the first time.

As I wandered the hallways and the exhibit rooms, I found myself wondering about the thoughts and the lives of the people who lived in this ex-convent years ago.  I thought about the immense project this must have been when it was built in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Today we sometimes struggle to get a small 1200 square foot building right and the people that designed and built this magnificent structure simply did an amazing job.

If I had any suggestions for the museum, here’s what I would suggest.  They should take one or two of the smaller rooms that used to be sleeping quarters for the nuns that lived there, and recreate them.  Show us what life looked like for some of the people that used to call Santo Domingo home.  i think that would add a great element to the experience.

Another museum I revisited was the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Columbian Art located just off the Zocalo on Calle Morelos.  Housed in the 18th Century Casa de Villarraza, what you see here is nothing short of breathtaking.  Tamayo, the great Mexican artist of the mid 20th century was the first person to present the historical artifacts of Mexico as art.

We’ve always appreciated these works, but in the context of history, so that we could learn about the people responsible.  Tamayo stood that type of thinking on its head and said that these creative works should stand alone in their own right, as art.

What resulted is a stunning collection of over 1000 pieces of artistic sculpture, pottery and carvings dating back to 1250 BCE.  Covering almost every region of Mexico, you are able to literally trace the artistic development of the indigenous people up to the time of the Spanish Conquest.

If you’ve never been, this museum should be on your bucket list, but when you go, remember this… yes, it is historical, but it’s also art.  As you weave your way through the different colored rooms, keep that in mind, because art historically has been a little window into the culture.

Next up I went for a curve ball.  From the Pre-Columbian to the hallowed hallways of Santo Domingo, I headed to MACO, the Oaxacan Museum of Contemporary Art.  It’s on Macedonia, or to make it easier, the main walking street in Oaxaca.

The building itself is worth the price of admission which is very reasonable at only 20 pesos, about $1.50 US.  Built in the 18th Century it was previously known as the House of Cortez, although he never lived there.

Now the massive structure is home to a constantly changing series of contemporary exhibits.  Here’s what that means in a very practical sense.  You are going to like some of the expositions and others will leave you feeling meh.

But you should still go.  The juxtaposition of the contemporary new, and the old, represented in the building architecture and original wall decor is fascinating.  Right along side remnants of the original look of this large former home hang works created just a few years ago.  That in itself is almost other worldly.

But these are just a few of the many wonderful museums located in Oaxaca.  Graphic arts, stamps, textiles and  even trains are on display across this great city.  But these are just a few of the offerings.

Many people come to Oaxaca to see the great archaeological areas like Monte Alban, Mitla and Yagul.  Some come for the mezcal.  Those are great reasons.  But if you want to take the next step and get off the typical tourist trek, visit the many museums this city has to offer.

Even if you’ve been here many times before,  you’ll be glad you did!

Here’s a great link to a comprehensive list of museums across Oaxaca from our friend Ron Mader of Planeta.com.

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