email
The Silk Route - World Travel: Mexico City, Mexico
americas asia pacific africa & middle east europe

Mexico: Mexico City Museums & Murals
May 2012

Museum of Anthropology Secretaria de Educacion Publica: Diego Rivera Murals Frida Kahlo Museum
Anthropology Museum

The Anthropology Museum in Mexico City is one of the world's greatest and really needs much more time than we were able to devote to its magnificent collections.

Frida Kahlo's colourful home is where she lived with Diego Rivera, whose wonderful murals around the city illustrate the lives of ordinary Mexicans through the ages.

Museum of Anthropology

Anthropology Museum
Anthropology Museum
Jaguar on the waterfall fountain.

 

Early on a Sunday morning our guide Pepe picked us up on the corner of the block. A lot of the roads are closed on Sunday mornings until 2pm so that bicycles have free run, so he couldn't get the car right to the hotel.

Anthropology Museum
Beautifully carved ball game rings. It is thought the players had to get a ball through the ring without using hands or feet. A ball court was rectangular in shape with a ring high on the long wall on each side.

We drove through the quiet streets to the world-famous Anthropological Museum.1 The galleries are set around an internal courtyard with an impressive waterfall fountain carved with eagle and snake, jaguars and helmeted warriors, and topped by a sun disk.

The museum is large and stuffed to the gills with interesting artefacts. Pepe wanted to concentrate on the history and myths of the Aztec (Mexica) people, but we had time to quickly view the other galleries - the museum really deserves at least a full day.

The Olmecs are thought to be the first "civilisation" in the region, flourishing between 1800 and 400 BC, during what are termed the Early and Middle Preclassic periods.

Anthropology Museum
Clay figurines of ball players.
Valley of Mexico
600-200BC
These attest to the age of the ball game. The players wear a padded belt and a helmet.

 

Anthropology Museum"The Wrestler"
An amazingly dynamic Olmec sculpture.

Their origins are most probably in southern Veracruz and Tabasco1 and the greatest Olmec sites are found here. The Olmecs were master stone carvers and their sculpted figures are lifelike and three-dimensional - chubby baby-like figurines feature a great deal. Many carvings have cleft heads, fleshy lips or feature jaguars. The jaguar was sacred to the Olmecs, specially in the form of a were-jaguar - half man half beast.

Anthropology MuseumTypical Olmec "baby" figurine.
1200 - 600BC
The exact significance of these figures is unknown.

The most famous, and curious, of their works are massive carved stone heads which are thought to represent Olmec rulers. The heads have very individual features and were almost certainly carved to represent real people.

 

Anthropology Museum
Colossal Olmec Head
San Lorenzo
Both these heads wear a helmet, probably for protection in war but also worn in the ball game.
Anthropology Museum
Colossal Olmec Head
San Lorenzo

At San Lorenzo in the heart of the Olmec region ten such heads were discovered. Each weighing many tons, the biggest almost three metres high, they are truly colossal. The basalt from which they were made has been identified as coming from 50km away and it is postulated that the huge raw boulders must have been transported by river as far as possible, on wooden rafts, and then dragged, perhaps on wooden rollers, to the site.

Anthropology Museum
Urn
Monte Alban
100BC-200AD
This urn was recovered from a tomb in Monte Alban. It shows clear Maya influence in the facial features and represents the deity known as "ave del pico ancho" which translates as "bird with the broad beak".

The Zapotec people rose to prominence as the Olmecs declined. Around 500-450 BC they built their magnificent city of Monte Alban, west of Oaxaca. We were due to visit Monte Alban later so were keen to see what we could see and learn in the museum.

Anthropology Museum
Water Box
Monte Alban
100BC-200AD
The box bears the "water" glyph.
Anthropology Museum
Jade Mask
Monte Alban
Representing Murcielago, God of the Night.

They were one of only two Mexican civilisations up to this point that had developed both writing and a calendar. Only the Maya had a more fully developed hieroglyphic script which recorded the spoken language.2

The Zapotec had at least some interaction with the lowland Maya (who inhabited roughly the current-day Yucatan peninsula) as there are clear Mayan influences in artefacts.

Anthropology Museum
Jade death mask and ornament of K'inich Janaab Pakal, Lord of the fabulous Mayan city of Palenque in the 7th century.
Anthropology Museum
The Maya Gallery.

The museum has an impressive collection of Mayan artefacts - the civilisation as a whole was perhaps the longest lived in the Mexican region, beginning in the Preclassic around 200BC, reaching its peak between 250 and 900 AD, after which it declined substantially, though still having a presence at the time of the conquest. Great cities such as Calakmul, Tikal, Palenque, Copan and Yaxchilan rose and fell.

Monte Alban is one of the few great mesoamerican sites to perpetuate right up until the conquest, though under different peoples. The height of Zapotec Monte Alban was in the late Preclassic leading up to the Classic period, where civilisation in the region reached its peak. The Classic period in Mexico lasted roughly from150 to 650 AD.

Anthropology Museum
Replica facade of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Teotihuacan.
Feathered Serpents (the Aztec name was Quetzalcoatl) and Fire Serpents alternate on front of the platforms.

The greatest city of all was Teotihuacan. It was so revered by the Mexica (Aztecs) that they believed the gods were actually here. Its monumental pyramids and temples ranged either side of a broad avenue over 3 km in length impressed them immensely. The city surrounding the so-called Avenue of the Dead was vast, covering 20 sq. km.2 and laid out on a grid.

The Teotihuacanos were literate, but used their hieroglyphic system mainly to accompany images giving dates, names or locations.2

Anthropology Museum
Atlante
Tula
900 - 1250 AD
Only 80 cm high and retaining its original pigments, this atlante was probably used to support an altar. It represents a warrior and wears a breastplate and necklace of the same design as those on the right.
Anthropology Museum
Breastplate and necklace.
Tula
650 - 900 AD
The breastplate was undoubtedly an elite item, made from shells and rectangular pieces of shell.

Alongside the important gods of fire, rain and maize, the Feathered Serpent was revered and depictions of it, and use of the distinctive talud-tablero architectural style, spread far and wide, a testament to the influence of the city. This influence had subsided by 600 AD and the palaces seem to have been deliberately destroyed, no-one knows why, but since the city around the monumental centre continued to function for another two centuries, perhaps the elite were specifically targetted.

Tula was one of the centres which grew to be influential following the decline of Teotihuacan. It flourished around 900 AD and was a Toltec stronghold from which they established a great empire, stretching from northern Mexico down to the Guatemalan highlands and encompassing much of the Yucatan peninsula.2 The Toltecs were known as highly skilled craftsmen and some of the artefacts that have come down to us certainly display a high degree of artistry.

Anthropology Museum
Chac Mool
Chichen Itza
950-1200 AD
Chac Mools may have been used as receptacles for sacrificial hearts.

Chichen Itza, probably the most famous, but not at all the greatest, mesoamerican centre, had its roots in Mayan civilisation but bears many similarities to Tula, nor least the ubiquitous Feathered Serpent, which is not a Mayan concept.

Anthropology Museum
A display of Mixtec gold and turquoise jewellery.

 

Anthropology Museum
The making of a Mixtec turquoise mosaic mask.

 

In these Post Classic times the Mixtecs of the Oaxaca region flourished as the Toltecs further north were declining. They inherited much from the Zapotecs, not least Monte Alban, and were also highly skilled artisans, especially in the working of rock crystal, jade, gold and turquoise.2

Anthropology Museum
Textiles
Cueva de La Candelaria, Coahuila
1100 - 1300 AD
Galleria Norte
The long bands were found as part of funerary deposits and are made from yucca and agave fibres. These textiles have been so well-preserved because of the extreme dryness of the cave

 

Anthropology Museum
Warrior
Nayarit
200 BC - 400 AD
Galleria Occidente
He wears a cap with feathers, body paint, a cape and loincloth. In his hands he holds a weapon called a macana. The comb-like crescent on his face appears to be a nose ornament.

 

The museum has far too many exhibits - far too many highlights! - to do it justice here. I haven't even mentioned cultures covered in the Occidente and Norte galleries - and I was particularly impressed by the amazingly well-preserved textiles in the latter.

Anthropology Museum
A beautiful mask in the Galleria Occidente.
Anthropology Museum
The Mexica Room
On the right is a large monolith in the shape of a temple, carved with symbols of the sun and war.The remains of the carving on the back show an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak (shown below, right).

The largest part of the Museum's collections is devoted to the Aztec culture, and Pepe was very keen that we get a thorough understanding of their development and beliefs so we'd have a good grounding for our subsequent visits to the archaeological sites.

Anthropology Museum
The Mexica Room
The large cylindrical stone in the foreground is associated with gladiatorial sacrifice. The upper surface bears an image of the sun and the central recess is carved with a human facial representation on the sun. Around the edge are eleven scenes of victorious combat
Anthropology Museum
Carving of eagle and snake on the back of a temple monolith.

 

A lot of what we learned I've used on the Tenochtitlan page so I won't go into detail here. Suffice to say that the Aztecs came from Aztlan, in the north of Mexico, looking to settle in a new land, which they would know, according to their guiding deity Huitzilopochtli by the appearance of an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak. This duly happened at the Great Lake in the Valley of Mexico where they built there city of Tenochtitlan and where now the modern day Mexico City grew up after the conquest. Part myth, part history but a colourful tale nonetheless.

Anthropology Museum
Chapulin (Grasshopper)
1250 - 1521 AD
Chapultepec Hill, just outside the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, was considered sacred. Insects were a good source of protein for the people.

The Aztecs, along with other mesoamerican cultures, recorded much on codices, inscribed on lengths of deerskin or bark paper and folded concertina-fashion. This included economic information, maps, pictorial representations of mythic beliefs and possibly historical works.

Unfortunately the Spanish Franciscan friars embarked on a campaign of burning as many of these as they could lay their hands on, believing them to be heretical and an obstruction to conversion of the local people to Christianity. Colonial-era codices do survive, in the same pictorial style but with European influence.

 

Anthropology Museum
Boturini Codex
Here the Aztecs are shown arriving at Grasshopper Hill.

 

 

One of the most important codices is the Boturini Codex which pictorially chronicles the migration of the Aztecs from their original homeland of Aztlan to Chapultepec (Grasshopper) Hill and Tenochtitlan. It was created perhaps ten years after the conquest.

 

Anthropology Museum
The Sun Stone

 

The most famous of the exhibits is the Sun Stone, almost four metres in diameter it was though to have been destined to be a sacrificial stone but became flawed through a large crack on the back. It was once part of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan and is covered with iconography representing part myth of the creation of the world and calendar symbols.

Anthropology Museum
Ocelotl-Cuauhxicalli or Jaguar Sacrificial Stone
The ocelotl, or jaguar, was revered as a patron of masculinity. The stone has a cavity in its back, seen below, used to hold blood offerings and sacrificial hearts.
Because their myths say that our age was born through the blood sacrifice of gods, the Aztecs believed that they must in turn make blood sacrifices to keep their gods happy and thus the crops growing well and to be victorious in war.

Anthropology Museum

 

Anthropology Museum
Reproduction of the interior of the cavity on the Jaguar Stone.
Pepe told us that the curly forms emanating from the mouths of the two men represent speech and that the man on the left is angry, represented by an upward curl, and the man on the right calming, represented by a downward curl.

Anthropology Museum
Obsidian Monkey
1250 - 1521 AD
It would have taken immense skill to carve this fabulous jar from a single piece of obsidian. This was one of the priceless artefacts stolen in December 1985, most were recovered in 1989.

 

 

The Aztecs believed that they lived in the fifth incarnation of creation, the previous four having failed because of the failures of man. This age had been created through two gods sacrificing themselves in fire. Thus in the Sun Stone The face of Xiuhtecuhtli, the fire god, emerges from the centre of the disc, his tongue in the shape of a tecpatl, a ceremonial knife, and he holds bleeding hearts in each of two claws.

 

Anthropology Museum
Teponaztli
1250 - 1521 AD
This is a percussion instrument and represents a crawling warrior.
The Aztecs had wind and percussion but no stringed instruments.
Anthropology Museum
Xochipilli
1250 - 1521 AD
"Lord of the Flowers" was a god of nobility, patron of music, flowers and pleasures.

 

Anthropology Museum
Model Aztec Market
On the right are convicted criminals. Their sentence would be a period of enslavement which their master would buy with the appropriate payment. A slave could be freed with a payment of 40 cocoa beans to the slave's owner, who could not refuse. Presumably this was a huge amount of "money".

There is a very nice model of an Aztec market place which allowed Pepe to explain various aspects of Aztec life. A type of hairless black dog was considered sacred and highly prized, not least because their bodies gave off heat which could warm a room! When the owner died the dog was killed and buried with him and acted as a guide in the afterlife.

Anthropology Museum
A young warrior is chosen as the elite of his year after training, at the age of 20 on graduation. For a year he has anything he wishes, he is then sacrificed to the gods, a huge honour.
Anthropology Museum
Anthropology Museum
This curious monkey with a bird beak mask is related to the cult of Ehécatl-Quetzalcoatl, god of the wind.
Anthropology Museum
Turquoise and coral mosaic skull.
Anthropology Museum
Fabulous feather headdress - the original is in Vienna!
Anthropology Museum
Aztec Gold
Anthropology Museum
The Aztec regarded disabled people as favoured by the gods. They were given special duties, thus a cripple might become an astronomer as it is a sedentary occupation, a hunchback was regarded as a wise man and dispensed medical treatments, a blind man might become a poet, dwarfs were temple guardians. In this cabinet there is also a sculpture of an old man (second from right) - the elderly were also highly respected.
Anthropology Museum
Yacapapalotl
1250 - 1521 AD
Emblem of Xochiquétzal, the young goddess of flowers.

There is little left of the fabulous Aztec gold which caused their downfall, driving the Spanish to terrible acts of destruction and cruelty. It has to be said that they were aided by other mesoamerican cultures who had suffered terribly under the Aztecs!

I made a fleeting visit upstairs in the museum to see the ethnic collections - lots of costumes and displays showing village life and activities, but I really had no time to study anything!

Anthropology Museum
Upstairs in the ethnographic section.

 

Secretaria de Educacion Publica: Diego Rivera Murals

Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals

 

Having seen the wonderful Diego Rivera murals in the Palacio Nacional, we made a special excursion to the Secretaria de Educacion Publica where there are an immense number of his works covering the walls of two courtyards. Rivera intended the panels to cover all the life of the Mexican worker and subjects range from agricultural to factory work, fiestas and celebrations, demonstrations and political meetings - not surprising as Rivera was a fervent Communist.

Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
The Maize Harvest
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Laundry Women
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals

 

Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Leaving the Mine
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Entering the Mine
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
The Embrace and Peasants
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
Festival of the Day of the Dead
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
In The Arsenal
1929
The central figure is clearly a portrait of Frida Kahlo.


Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
He who wants to Eat has to Work
1928

 



Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals
In the Trench
1928
Secretaria de Educacion Publica Diego Rivera murals

 

Frida Kahlo Museum

Mexico City Coyoacan
Fountain in the shady central square of Coyoacan. The animals are coyotes; in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, Coyoacan means the "place of the coyotes". The language, or variants of it, is still spoken today.

Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
The beautiful blue colour that gives Casa Azul its name.
Mexico City Coyoacan
Coyoacan

We took the metro one morning south to General Anaya then walked west to the pleasant historic centre of Coyoacan. Originally an Aztec village, now much modernised of course, and part of the urban sprawl of Mexico City.

The centre is very pleasant with a shady central square. We walked a few blocks north to the Frida Kahlo museum and were astonished to see a huge queue. Forty minutes later we were inside La Casa Azul - the blue-painted house where Frida Kahlo was born in 1907. It's necessary to buy a photo permit, which we did, in order to take photographs inside.

Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
Portrait of Frida Kahlo
Roberto Montenegro
Frida Kahlo Museum6
Permanent Collection

 

As a child she suffered from polio which left her with a withered right leg. Even more tragically she was involved in a bus crash at the age of 18 when a metal pole pierced her body. She was extremely lucky to survive. Kahlo began painting while she was recovering from the accident.

She married the celebrated muralist Diego Rivera in 1929 but ten years later divorced him because of his many infidelities culminating in an affair with Kahlo's sister. However, they remarried a year later. They lived together in the house for many years. and she died there in 1954.

Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
Replica temple in the gardens of Casa Azul
Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
The lovely bright kitchen.
Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo

Rivera was a communist and, when Trotsky was offered asylum in Mexico in 1937, he and his wife first stayed at Casa Azul.

 


Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
Her studio is filled with light.

There are many of Kahlo's works on display, including several self-portraits in various guises and portraits painted by other artists. She is unmistakable with her thick monobrow.

I can't say I'm a big fan of her work, but I loved the bright colourful house and garden. It is well worth a visit, but best to buy tickets online before arriving!

Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo's desk; the photograph is of Diego Rivera.
Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
Kahlo had day and night bedrooms; her death mask now lies on the day bed, her ashes in an urn are in the night bedroom.


Mexico City Casa Azul Frida Kahlo
Some of Kahlo's dresses.
The museum description tells us that, as well as disguising imperfections, Kahlo may have adopted this style of clothing as a declaration of the strength of women. The Tehuana dress is worn by Zapotec women - a matriarchal society.

 

 

References

  1. Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
  2. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe & Rex Koontz, Seventh Edition, Thames & Hudson.
  3. bluffton.edu: Rivera Murals
  4. Diego Rivera
  5. Frida Kahlo Museum