Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Upstairs at the Museum

Most visitors to Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology never make it beyond the ground floor with its unrivaled collection of archaeological treasures from Mexico's pre-Hispanic past.  But upstairs there is an excellent, ethnographic display on the indigenous peoples of present-day Mexico.  I had not been upstairs for a couple of years, but on Friday, on a whim, I climbed the stairs and discovered that the upper level has been completely redone. (In fact, a couple sections are still under renovation.)

At the top of the stairs is an enormous "Tree of Life" sculpture with the theme of Mexico's many different indigenous tribes.

Just beyond that is the mural painted by Miguel Covarrubias for the opening of the museum in 1964.  It depicts the ethnic diversity of Mexico.

I did a quick walk-through the new upstairs exhibits.  The floor is divided into several halls, each one devoted to an indigenous tribe or geographic area.  It's going to require several visits to thoroughly view everything.  Of course, much of the material is the same that was there before, but it is all presented in a new manner.

I spent more time in the first hall which is devoted to the Huichol and related tribes who live primarily in the western Mexican states of Nayarit, Jalisco and Zacatecas.  Their homeland was not conquered by the Spanish until the 1700s, and they resisted conversion to Christianity more than almost any other tribe in Mexico.  They still worship their gods: the Corn, the Blue Deer, Peyote, and the Eagle, who are all children of the Sun God.  Each year they make a pilgrimage into the mountains to search for the hallucinogenic mushroom, peyote, which they use in their religious ceremonies.  The use of peyote is illegal under Mexican law, but an exception is made for the ceremonies of the Huichols.

The art of the Huichols has become very popular, but it all began as an expression of their religious beliefs and mythology.

The gods' eyes, yarn wound around a cross of two sticks, represents the creation of the earth.

Yarn paintings depict the myths of the Huichol.  Colored yarns are glued upon a board to create pictures.  Modern yarn has a greater variety of colors and is more tightly woven, allowing for greater detail.  The Huichol artists of today have created highly prized works of art, but they are still rooted in Huichol traditions.

The beaded art of the Huichols is relatively new.  Ritual objects used to be decorated with small pieces of bone or seeds.  Now the artisans use small, colored glass beads to create decorative objects that are sold to tourists.  But, again, the designs are traditional.  The Christmas tree decoration that you bought in a handicraft market might, for all you know, be covered with symbols representing peyote.

On my next trip to Mexico I will have to return to the second floor of the museum and take a careful look at more of the ethnographic halls.

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