For Age-Old Treasures, the Very Latest Showcase
MEXICO CITY JOURNAL
By JOSEPH B. TREASTER
MEXICO CITY --
Thirty-five years ago, the National Museum of
Anthropology here was on the cutting edge of museum design
and acclaimed as a treasure trove of pre-Columbian art and cultural
But the museum
has remained almost precisely as it was on opening day
in 1964. It has become a sort of museum of a museum, with dark
paneled walls and dim, shadowy lighting that were once believed to
enhance a sense of dignity and seriousness, and boxy,
home-aquarium-style display cases that let the art speak for itself.
and fading glory of the museum began to bother Mexican
authorities. And now, despite years of economic turmoil, the
administration of President Ernesto Zedillo has embarked on a sweeping
The project is
going to cost about $13 million and is supposed to be
completed in December 2000 as Zedillo turns over power to a new
that the updating is overdue. But with such basics as
running water and electricity unavailable to many Mexicans, not everyone
thinks that so much money should be sunk into a museum, even one that
is internationally acclaimed and that helps pay for itself by contributing to
the country's important tourist business.
y Rivas, a first-term congressman in the center-left Party
of the Democratic Revolution and an anthropologist by training,
practically stammers when he talks about the project.
he said, the museum, where he once worked, is a great
showcase of Mexico's past. But he said it was "an insult that you can
spend that kind of money while so many of the country's Indians are
living in absolute poverty, with dirt floors and no water."
seems to be far more applause than criticism of the
"My guess is
that if we have to look at this as a trade-off, where do you
spend your money?" said Federico Estévez, a political science professor
in Mexico City. "In the end, a lot of people will prefer to spend it on the
museum. Maybe you need to pave roads or build something in a small
But the museum
is something that can be seen and enjoyed by everyone.
It's a big, gorgeous place with all this history."
an author and art critic for the weekly Proceso magazine,
said the right thing was being done for the wrong reason.
she said, "increases the number of projects like this at
the end of his term. They all spend their last year in office dedicating
hospitals, factories, bridges, museums, whatever."
Ms. Tibol said
the museum was built "too fast" so that the outgoing
President at the time, Adolfo López Mateos, could dedicate it. A result
was too little administrative space, she said, and inadequate climate
control in storage areas.
No one, she said,
should be put off by the cost. "Look at the cost of
corruption, or the cost of these political campaigns that are going on right
now," she said. "That is what is really outrageous in this country."
painters are to finish the first six galleries by late
September and three more by the end of the year, leaving 14 display
areas to be completed next year. Some skeptics question whether
meeting the December 2000 deadline is possible. And they worry that if
there are delays and cost overruns, a new administration may have other
The new design
for the museum transforms it from a passive, sometimes
somber viewing experience to one with exhibits that will draw visitors
along paths through sections of villages and burial grounds, combining
displays of centuries-old pottery and stone sculpture in reproductions of
the kinds of homes and temples in which they were used.
computers are being sprinkled in alcoves so as not to
distract from the antiquities but to provide instant historical details.
Bell-shaped acoustical devices will be suspended above some of the
paths so people can pause under them and listen to long-ago regional
music and voices speaking in early forms of some of the country's more
than 50 indigenous dialects. A huge panel covered with a drawing of the
Tlatelolco marketplace, where Hernán Cortez, the Spaniard who
defeated the Aztecs, reported seeing daily crowds of up to 30,000
people, is being turned into a video screen where three projectors will
play constantly changing images.
longtime criticism, museum officials are going to provide
legends identifying objects not only in Spanish but in English as well.
Besides all the
technological wonders, the museum is literally changing the
face of some of its proudest exhibits based on new information from a
surge of more than 200 archeological digs in Mexico in the last five years.
several revisions are being made to the big sand-table
model of the ceremonial center of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, where
Mexico City now stands.
"In 1965, people
invented a serpent wall around the whole thing," said
Felipe Solís Olguín, a deputy director of the museum. "That didn't exist.
In reality, there was a large platform wall with many staircases to ground
level. Some temples and the ball court were in the wrong position. And
five or six buildings had been left out. The archeologists found evidence
of how it really looked."
Memories of the
Christmas Day theft here in 1985, in which more than
100 priceless gold, jade and stone artifacts were taken, still pain museum
officials. Nearly all of the pieces were later recovered from a home in
Mexico City and two men were arrested.
At the time,
the Government said museum guards had apparently been
sleeping off the effects of a Christmas Eve party. But Teresa Franco, the
director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, which runs
the museum, said that it was not really a matter of anyone having had too
much to drink.
"The main fault,"
she said, "was our security system." Now, she said,
there are about 85 guards, nearly triple the size of the security force in
1985. Since the theft, the museum has also fitted alarms to display cases
and installed video cameras and a central monitoring room.