Las lluvias del invierno… Museums and Mummies in Guanajuato

Museo de las Momias, Guanajuato, Mexico

An unusual rainy spell has struck pretty much all of Mexico, and here in San Miguel de Allende the high altitude has made for some pretty cold temperatures with daily highs only in the low 50’s F.  This chill, combined with the non-stop rain showers, have made the past few days rather unpleasant.  Normally warm and sunny with bright blue skies during the day and cooler, dry air in the evenings, the high-altitude desert of Guanajuato state is usually an ideal locale to spend some time during the winter months.

Yet the region has had a significant drought in recent months, with the normally wet summer producing inadequate rainfall.  Wells are low, the lakes far below the normal depths, and there are reports of cattle dying in the fields.  Mother Nature has not been kind to the region last year.  Sanmiguelenses had been praying for rain – fortunately for them past few days have generously spawned downpours and frequent passing showers.  This soaking rain will go far in replenishing the local supply of fresh water much to the satisfaction of all of us that depending on it.

For the tourist and visitor, however, these days have been harsh and dispiriting.  Walking the slick cobblestone streets and polished marble sidewalks has been a challenge, and everyone has layered all their warm weather clothing to escape the bone-chilling temperatures.  The bright faces one normally sees on the streets of San Miguel haven gone into hiding.

With my unheated apartment in the 50’s at night, I have slept fitfully.  The one upside is my normally boisterous barrio with barking dogs, pounding of pipes and cement an d stone, loud trucks and motorcycles, clanging bells of the knife sharpener, whistles of the garbage collector, vehicles with loudspeakers broadcasting upcoming events and deals – all have been conspicuously quiet the past few days so it has been an uncharacteristically mellow period in Mexico.

When most plans in San Miguel depend on the out-of-doors, such a period of constant rain throws a wrench into things:  The farmer’s market and botanical garden are out, a promenade along the fine jardín is also out, reading and relaxing on the rooftop terrace out as well.  As a result, I’ve pretty much hibernated the past couple of days, spending time with Mom in her cozy apartment (she has a brand-new heater) and making home-cooked meals.  That has been good – I am thankful to have family here.

Since today was also a bust (weather-wise), I decided to day-trip it to Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage city just over an hour from San Miguel.  I visited once before in better weather and enjoyed the refined Plaza de la Unión and other pretty parks, the cobblestone alleyways with colorful houses winding up the sloping hills, the funicular that edges up a steep cliff and affords spectacular views of the city and surrounding hills.  What I didn’t do during that first visit was spend any time under a roof.  As a rich cultural city centered on the large University of Guanajuato, there is no shortage of museums and other indoor sights worthy of attention.

Guanajuato in fair weather

My impressions and recommendations follow:

Museo Casa Diego Rivera

This excellent museum contains a surprisingly good collection of early Diego Rivera works that give insight into his formative years.  Diego was born in this house in 1886 and lived here for 6 years before his family moved to Mexico City.

The first floor replicates the house during this time with period antiques and occasional family photographs.  The galleries on the second and third floors are concisely organized, with the childhood (and award-winning) art of Diego, his later experiments with Cubism and other stylistic movements in Europe, and his gradual shift to find inspiration in Mexican folk art and his early mural work.

I especially enjoyed the sparse black-and-white drawings of an active volcano erupting and its calamitous consequences on the surrounding impoverished pueblos.  Equally impressive was the collection of interpretations of Mayan codices, depicting the myths and legends (as well as the day-to-day goings-on) of pre-Columbian Mexican culture.  As an added bonus, the annex featured an interesting selection of 1970’s portraits by a Mexican photographer.

Rating: A must!

Jam and Jerusalem

I ducked into the imposing yellow-orange Basilica to escape the pouring rain.  I sat in the cold, typically garish church watching a group baptism of little ones, very cute indeed.  Since I had skipped breakfast, I hungrily ducked into Truco 7 just behind the church and greatly appreciated a bowl of steaming tortilla soup and a hot café con leche among chatting students and 1980’s rock music.

Rating: Basilica 0, Food 1.

Teatro Juárez

Built at the end of the 19th century and inaugurated by the dictator Porfirio Díaz in his waning days, this theatre is a fine example of the morisco style, a uniquely post-Reconquista mix of Moorish and Christian Spanish design.  The main lobby features a lofty glass ceiling and many pillars reminiscent of a mesquita, and style more conventionally European in the upstairs lounge where Mexican movers and shakers smoked, drank and rubbed shoulders.

The theatre itself boasts striking Moorish motifs in every corner of its many levels.  Marvelously opulent, the only surprise was the rather ordinary seats – wooden and stiff, they appeared more fitting for a Depression-era university lecture hall.

Rating: Spectacular – even without a performance.

Museo Iconográfico del Quijote

Guanajuato is best known for its acclaimed Festival Cervantino, the yearly arts festival featuring international and local artists, actors, dancers, street performers, musicians and film makers.  Paul and I were in San Miguel in October of last year and a caught a few of the events there.  The performances spill into all parts of Guanajuato state, although the headliners are centered in Guanajuato City.  Because of its world-renown status as a hub for all things “Cervantes”, it seems appropriate that the city has an Iconographic Museum dedicated to Don Quijote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes’ masterwork and literary hero.

When I studied in Madrid, I dedicated an entire semester-length course to this seminal novel.  Having read the work in the original Spanish (and enjoyed it immensely), I was eager to see what this museum had to offer.  Not surprising, there’s a lot of Don Quijote – 100% to be precise.  The first floor contains a varied collection of the bearded Don by Mexican artists, each remarkable and stylistically unique.

The upstairs galleries are grouped by theme: Don Quijote as represented by female artists, Don Quijote as represented by international artists, including Salvador Dalí from Spain, as well as Argentine, Russian, Canadian, German, English, Italian, and Canadian painters.  There is also a gallery depicting various interpretations of Don Quijote’s famous battle with the “giants” (windmills).  Another room is dedicated to the Don’s supporting characters: Dulcinea (the love interest), Sancho Panza (the beer-bellied and blundering servant), Rocinante (the feeble horse).

The space itself is exceptional, abundantly-staffed with spacious rooms, all very well planned and presented with succinct introductions.  And you won’t find just paintings – the museum also boasts sculpture, tapestries, toys, ceramic figurines, and clocks.

Rating: If you like Don Quijote, highly enjoyable.  If you don’t, a bearded-old-man-on-a-horse overdose.

Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato

Tucked alongside the University, this dour museum offers up a plentiful and delicately-crafted collection of miniature folk art, aka items for a dollhouse.  Frankly I was a bored by display-after-display of tiny tables and chairs, diminutive loaves of bread, and Lilliputian flowers and frocks.  The upstairs was no better, a few dark rooms with brooding, colonial religious – basically an assortment of bleeding Jesus and teary-eyed Marias thickly painted on wood planks.

I did find the colonial building itself of interest – apparently it belonged to the owner of one of the most productive silver mines in the region.  The intimate chapel on the second floor contains a stimulating mural.

Rating: Yawn.

Oddly I did stumble across a little corridor that connected to a limited but thought-provoking exhibit of the 2011 university undergraduate award winners.  Although not technically part of the Museo del Pubelo, this unexpected annex deserves a pass through, especially to see what the artsy youngsters in Mexico are up to.

Rating: Unrated.

Museo de las Momias

Wow, where to begin!  Certainly the most macabre museum I have ever visited – the Mummy Museum is a creepy, cadaverous journey past disinterred corpses of from the local cemetery.

To preface:  As I wandered toward the museum, I chanced upon the hill-top cemetery and took a quick look-see since I am always fascinated by these in Latin American.  In Mexico they provide a fantastic backdrop to the día de los muertos (day of the dead) celebrations in November.

I pondered the eclectic mix of piled headstones and sarcophagi, festooned with dead flowers in rusting tin cans of jalapeño peppers, faded plastic plants and photographs and flags.  The wall crypts have always fascinated me – boxy filing cabinets stacked a couple of stories high on the perimeter of the cemetery – since these aren’t common today in the United States.

I eventually found my way to the entrance of the Mummy Museum, just on the other side of the cemetery as it turns out.  Not knowing much about the museum beforehand, I assumed it contained the ancient remains of pre-Colombian people.   It is actually quite the opposite – the corpses on display are especially recent and most only a few decades old.  Yikes!

Here’s how the museum came about: starting in 1865, the city started to remove the remains from the wall crypts to make room for the more recently departed.   Since the bodies were never buried in the ground the dry desert air effectively mummified the cadavers in just a few short years.  Apparently the city lined up the disinterred cadavers for display so the townspeople could “identify” their relatives and presumably find them a new resting place.  Hundreds of remains were never claimed, and the Museo de las Momias was born.

It is indeed a spectacle:  dead body after dead body, naked or with half-eaten clothing, often with gruesome expressions – one woman is thought to have been buried alive since her body position suggests her struggling to get out of the tomb.

There are babies in diapers, murder victims with clearly discernible wounds, a sad mother and unfortunate fetus (childbirth fatalities), some corpses with body hair and fingernails still intact.  Some have real names and identities (like a French doctor who had no relatives to claim his remains) and others with just anonymous first names (“Tomasito” and “Bernarda”).

One particularly arresting corpse is tilted upright at an angle so you could clearly see how the decaying flesh flattened on the cement beneath, like the folds of an unbaked loaf of bread sunken by gravity.

It is a morbid, ghastly exhibit – and a stunning display in a country with an obsession with death and acceptance of dying.

Rating: Grotesque and irreverent – this one is your call.

After the mummies, I had enough of museums for the day.  I made my way back to the Mercado Central just in time for another downpour and began my journey back to San Miguel.

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