Reputed to be the city with the most museums in the world, Mexico City has a museum for everything imaginable. Although its archaeological offerings are usually the first thing that comes to the tourist mind, here you’ll find museums dedicated to chocolate, Mexican medicine, caricatures, shoes, old toys… The list is endless.
If you are coming to the city, you shouldn’t miss the Museo de Antropología and the Templo Mayor in my opinion, but also make sure to leave room in your itinerary to take in a few of the world-class art, photography and design museums as well as some of the more bizarre offerings. Also check out museum websites for temporary exhibitions. At the time of writing Yayoi Kusama’s Infinite Obsession is at the Museo Tamayo until January 18, 2015.
Here I review an eclectic mix of museums, old and new, large and small, each offering a distinct lens through which to view Mexico’s rich history.
There’s not much I can say about the Museo de Antropologia that hasn’t already been said in every single Mexico City guide, and such attention is rightly merited. One of the world’s most impressive museums and the most visited museum in Mexico, this colossal collection is famed as much for its size, as for its historic value. With more than 20 halls, housed over two floors and a number of outdoor exhibition spaces, the whole area spans almost 20 acres.
The museum is situated in the lungs of Mexico City, the magnificent Bosque de Chapultepec, and it is a real pleasure to walk along Reforma Avenue and through Chapultepec forest to get to it.
The architecture of the museum is truly unique with exhibition halls surrounding an iconic umbrella-shaped, inverted fountain representing a mythological tree, its invisible branches pouring a cooling curtain of water over the laughing children below.
If you are a serious enthusiast and the National Museum of Anthropology is the highlight of your trip, you could happily spend a whole day there and still not see everything. Those who prefer not spend 6 or 7 hours of their day in a museum might find the enormity tiring. Lonely Planet do a great breakdown of the halls enabling you to plan a shortlist of highlights beforehand if you fall into the latter category.
One last thing
Just outside the museum, indigenous Totonac people scale a 30m pole before launching themselves from the top, the ropes wrapped around their ankles slowly unwinding as they circle, upside down, until they reach the ground. Five voladores participate in this sacred “Dance of the Flyers” named Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO; four make the daring leap, while the fifth remains on top, providing the music with his drum and flute. It is a mesmerizing sight and you probably won’t see it anywhere else in Mexico City so do take the time to watch it.
As I mentioned in my post on Xochimilco, it is hard to believe as you walk around Mexico City, that the remains of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire, are buried beneath your feet. The centre of Tenochtitlán, described as the most impressive of all the Aztec cities, was located on the site of Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zocalo, and the largest and most important of its temples, the Templo Mayor, lay just a few metres northeast. This temple was dedicated to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, god of war, and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture, and its two pyramids built upon on a massive platform would have dominated the landscape.
If visiting on a weekend, be prepared for the sensory violation you will encounter as you first arrive at the Zocalo, especially if your hotel is located in one of the more touristy neighbourhoods. There isn’t another plaza like it in the world. The smell of corn being kneaded, toasted, roasted; the deafening sound of simultaneous sales pitches shouted by competing vendors of varying wares, their cries out of time with the rhythmic rattling of shells decorating the ankles of Aztec dancers, a sight to behold as they dance incessantly, their feathered headdresses whirling above crowds of excited tourists and busy locals, pushing past one another on their individual missions, each focused on avoiding the piles of handicrafts laid out for sale on the ground surrounding the Cathedral. This is where you realise why Mexicans are famed for their tolerance.
As well as bringing blessed relief from the chaos outside, your entrance fee allows you to wander around the excavation site where you can view several layers of open air ruins including the macabre wall of skulls, a terrifying reminder of the human sacrifice that once took place here.
Inside the museum you’ll find a vast collection of fascinating artefacts excavated from the area below your feet, including the huge stone disk measuring 3.25 meters (10.7 feet) in diameter, and featuring a decapitated and dismembered Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, famously discovered in the seventies by workers digging for the metro.
A fun museum to visit if you are in the Historic Centre is the Museo de Estanquillo. Housed in a gorgeous neoclassical building, the museum contains the personal pop culture collection of Mexican writer Carlos Mosivais, famed for his often ironic take on Mexican politics, culture, society and religion.
Although the illustrations, caricatures, advertising, photographs etc. on display may have greater meaning for local visitors, the collection gives a unique insight into Mexican society during the first half of the twentieth century. I found the illustrations portraying Mexican opinion during World War II to be especially enlightening.
Tucked away in a corner of the museum you’ll find the Sala de lectura, the museum’s “reading room” – a tranquil nook with comfy chairs and books on fine art and the history of Mexico, as well as others by Carlos Monsiváis himself. The fabulous urn in the glass centrepiece contains the writer’s ashes.
Often overlooked by tourists due to its lack of English translations, the museum is well worth a visit given that entrance is free and gives you access to a stunning terrace nestled among colonial rooftops, perfect for snapping a few photos with a backdrop you won’t find elsewhere in the city. Plus, you don’t have to purchase anything to spend time up there!
Built by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, in honour of his late wife Soumaya, to house their personal art hoard, the Soumaya Museum is Mexico’s most visited art museum, hardly surprising given its peculiar architecture, the free entry, and the fact it provides locals with the chance to view work by European masters such as Dalí, Van Gogh and Rodin, without having to leave the country.
Commanding iconic status, the shimmering fish scale exterior rises like a silver vortex amidst a redeveloping skyline in Mexico City’s posh Polanco neighbourhood.
The museum’s permanent collection contains over 60,000 pieces including 19th-20th century Mexican works, many of the most well-known European artists from the 15th to 20th centuries, and the second-largest Rodin collection in the world.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and I was pleasantly surprised to happen upon the art exhibit entitled “Sophia Loren Mexico: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow” featuring a collection of her fabulous dresses amongst other memorabilia.
While wandering, I met a foreign visitor, eagerly searching for a fellow English speaker with whom to share her gripes about the museums ill-planned layout, echoing the opinion of many critics. She was also frustrated by the complete lack of English translations, something that I find surprising given the museums capacity to draw in foreign crowds.
If you’ve already seen the top museums in Paris, London and New York, you might not find anything particularly mind-blowing here, though I’d still suggest you make sure to get a few pictures of the building if you happen to pass it on the open-top Turibus. For art enthusiasts and those who maybe haven’t had the opportunity to see the work of some of the great masters, then the Museo Soumaya makes for a pleasant (and free) way to while away a few hours.
I challenge anyone to resist entering the National Museum of Art having caught a glimpse of its breathtaking staircase as they bustle along Calle Tacuba towards the Correo Mayor building across the street or towards Café Tacuba a few blocks further down.
Located in the former Palace of Communications, the museum is worth visiting just for the architecture, but the main attraction is the collection representing the history of Mexican art from the mid-16th century to the mid-20th century. Here you’ll find the most important colonial art pieces in Mexico, as well as the largest collection of paintings by Mexican landscaper, Jose María Velasco.
Built in an eclectic architectural style, the building is full of hidden gems such as intricate banisters, curious door knockers, and a stunningly romantic, sweeping staircase beneath a ceiling of heavenly frescoes.
As you exit the MUNAL, you’ll see the Palacio de Minería at number 5, Calle Tacuba. In the foyer you will find 4 meteorites that struck Mexico weighing up to 14,114kg. Here I am touching a little piece of outer space:
If you are at all interested in muralism, then you cannot miss the San Ildefonso College, the birthplace of the Mexican Muralism Movement. An educational space since it was first established as a Jesuit boarding school in 1588, the building currently serves as a museum and cultural centre, displaying permanent and temporary art and archaeological exhibitions and showcasing some outstanding murals by Diego Rivera, his contemporary Jose Clemente Orozco – often considered the more gifted of the two, and Fernando Leal.
In order to promote the ideals of the Mexican Revolution among a mostly illiterate population, a government-sponsored mural program was initiated as a way of capturing the history and politics of the time. San Ildefonso was one of the very first public buildings to be painted this way and the political stance of each muralist seeps through in their artwork. I was particularly moved by Orozco’s powerful “Cortés and La Malinche” which you’ll find underneath one of the staircases.
The exhibition halls surround pretty courtyards shaded by magnolia trees and there is a gift shop and café for anyone who wants to spend some time admiring the gardens with a coffee.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and I was delighted to catch “Angelology” by internationally celebrated Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, where I learned how to use a giant ladder to meet my own angel.
As I mentioned in my video post, it will be impossible to visit all of Mexico City’s museums during your time here so my advice would be to research the museums according to your interests, whether it be art, architecture, photography etc. and plan your itinerary around that. Don’t forget to check temporary exhibitions too! You might even catch your favourite artist while you are here.