Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Remembering the northern cultures

I am sure I’ve been to Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park hundreds of times. I regularly take student groups there. If anyone visits me in Mexico City I will suggest we go by. And I’ll go on my own to see temporary shows like the exhibit of Greek vases on loan from the Louvre there through April 27. It’s that good.

The museum was built 50 years ago during the administration of President Adolfo López Mateos (1958-64) who took great interest in Mexico’s ancient history.

Lead architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez reportedly asked President López Mateos: “Would you like a museum that will be as secure as a bank vault? Or would you prefer a museum that will give visitors the opportunity to wander outdoors as they move from one room to the next?2 Thankfully the president chose the second option.

Ramírez Vázquez took inspiration from the ancient Maya courtyard in Uxmal’s Nunnery Quadrangle. He mimicked Uxmal’s design with the top half of the long, low buildings intricately decorated while leaving the bottom half smooth. At one end of the huge courtyard a fountain, known as the umbrella, holds up an enormous canopy with a single column.

The museum is designed to give visitors a crash course in Mesoamerican anthropology. You enter through the room explaining how anthropologists view the world and then follow room by room the settlement and development of the high cultures of Mesoamerica. The main floor shows the archeology while upstairs shows how people lived. You’ll also see contemporary indigenous exhibits upstairs.

The Aztec room breaks this pattern. It has soaring ceilings and no upstairs. Architect Ramírez Vázquez said it houses “the essence of Mexican-ness.” Indeed the Aztecs who called themselves Mexicas gave their name to the nation.

However, in the 50 years since the museum was built, perceptions of the Aztecs have changed.
Now we understand that every ethnic group in Mesoamerica feared the Aztecs. Those that had been conquered by the Aztecs were tired of sending tribute to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. Those that hadn’t been conquered were tired of being threatened with conquest. Many ethnic groups welcomed the opportunity to join with Hernán Cortés and his 550 Spanish soldiers to overthrow the Aztec empire. Granted that at the time they didn’t know what life would be like under Spain’s control.

I don’t normally take my groups into the last two rooms at the museum that cover the arid northern and western parts of Mexico. These cultures have more to do with Arid-America which extends into the U.S. southwest and I’d have to begin a whole new story to talk about them. They are set apart by the architect too, separated from the Mesoamerican rooms by a break in the building the width of a street.

Now is a good time to focus on those northern cultures — admiration for them is soaring. New expanded displays fill the Arid-America rooms. Nearby Chapultepec Castle is hosting a temporary exhibit that complements those exhibits titled “Infinite North — Indigenous people in movement.”
Infinite North focuses on 13 contemporary indigenous ethnic groups living in areas bordering the Gulf of California in Sinaloa and the states along the border with the United States from the Pacific coast to the easternmost part of Chihuahua.

Displays start with stunning baskets. Some so large they are angled sideways to allow visitors to peer inside and admire their intricate detail inside and out. Another that sticks in my mind is a tortilla basket made entirely of pine needles.

Most of the indigenous cultures of northern Mexico suffer from discrimination and poverty and are at high risk of disappearing. The case of the Kiliwa culture is the most dire. Only five people now speak Kiliwa.

As the exhibit explains, “The loss of a language takes with it the link that gives meaning to all of that culture’s expressions: cuisine, clothing, dances, fiestas, religious ceremonies, and art. Indigenous languages are an essential part of the identity of its people. It is through their language that ideas, objects, and practices take on meaning. Language is the code through which they perceive the world and construct its significance. A culture can disappear when its mother tongue is no longer spoken.”

I liked how the exhibit emphasized the importance of language with information available in Yoreme (Mayo), Yoema (Yaqui), and Rarámuri (Tarahumara) as well as in Spanish and English.
The Museum of Anthropology is open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. “Infinite North — Indigenous people in movement” in Chapultepec Castle is open until June, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Both museums are closed Mondays. Keep your eye out for other treats the National Institute of Anthropology (INAH) has for us celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Museum of Anthropology.

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