Exploring ‘New World’ Cultures at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology

Exploring one of the world’s great archaeology museums is high on my list of favorite things to do. It’s an educational pursuit that’s taken me from London to Cairo, from Berlin to Athens and from Lima to Mexico City, as well as to many small and lesser known jewels in small towns across our planet.

Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology (Museo National de Antropología or MNA) surely ranks with the best of these. Located outside a gated entrance to Chapultepec Park just southeast of the historical city center, the museum’s 857,890 square feet of exhibition space showcases extraordinary artifacts from Mesoamerica’s most advanced ancient cultures along with fascinating ethnographic information that highlights Mexico’s incredibly diverse contemporary indigenous cultures.

El paraguas, the fountain umbrella and single supporting column for the concrete central courtyard roof, is located just outside the main entrance to Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Many gringos seem oblivious to the fact that the region directly across our southern border  — now encompassing the southern half of Mexico, as well as parts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras — was historically one of the world’s ancient cradles of civilization.

Map showing the major cradles of ancient civilization in red.

Spread along east and west coasts and the mountain valleys of the interior, the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Mixtec and Mexica (or Aztec) built flourishing empires in this region.

NMA does a magnificent job of informing visitors about the rise and fall of these advanced New World civilizations, while at the same time noting past lessons from which contemporary societies would be wise to learn.

If your Spanish skills are as weak as mine, you’ll appreciate the many English translations provided, although moving slowly through each gallery can also be a great way to improve your Spanish reading skills.

Museum Overview and Layout

Opened in September 1964 and designed by Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, the ground floor and outdoor gardens of the main structure host permanent exhibitions of Pre-Columbian civilizations.

Outdoor gardens, accessible from the ground floor galleries, offer visitors short breaks from the intensity of the exhibitions within. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Printed museum guides and audio tours instruct visitors to begin their exploration in the ground floor’s first gallery which offers an overview of anthropology and forms a foundation on which a curious student can build as they progress through each subsequent gallery.

Diagram showing the general layout of the ground floor galleries of Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology.

*For a detailed guide to the galleries on both floors of MNA, click here and scroll down to ‘Plana Del Museo’ where you can download the documents in PDF format.

The ground floor level of the MNA is filled with both grand cultural artifacts such as the Stone of the Sun — originally mistaken for the Aztec calendar — as well as reconstructions of some of each civilization’s most important monuments.

The Stone of the Sun was originally incorrectly identified as the Aztec calendar. Researchers believe is was actually a gladiatorial sacrificial alter on which fights were staged. Photo: Henry Lewis.

An artist’s rendering detailing the original brightly painted surface of the Stone of the Sun. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Reconstruction of a portion of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent — erected in one continuous operation between 150 and 200 AD — which was Teotihuacán’s most important political and religious center. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Massive carved stone figures from Teotihuacán fill with this central exhibition hall on the museum’s ground floor. Photo: Henry Lewis.

The Disk of Mictlantecutli, the god of death, was discovered in 1963 in Teotihuacacán’s Plaza de Sol. Photo: Henry Lewis.

In most ancient civilizations, there were cults of fertility represented by numerous female clay figurines. They were worshipped for their connection to human reproduction as well as being symbols of a bountiful harvest. Photo: Henry Lewis.

The ethnography galleries on the second floor (or 1st floor depending on one’s continent of origin) feature Mexico’s diverse contemporary indigenous cultures. Personal stories illustrate daily life and rituals, while finely handcrafted cultural artifacts demonstrate each group’s deep connection to preserving their customs and traditions.

Modern reproduction of the Aztec feather headdress attributed to Moctezuma II (an Aztec ruler) exhibited at the MNA, Mexico City. The original is in the Museum of Ethnology, Vienna. The feathers were taken from the Quetzel, a Mesoamerican bird well-known for its bright green plumage. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Indigenous groups in southern Mexico are quite famous for the variety of animal masks they produce which are still used in traditional ceremonies. Photo: Henry Lewis.

The ethnography galleries at MNA feature colorful textiles produced by various indigenous groups across the region. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Planning a Visit

For the keen observer, the twenty-three permanent galleries on the two levels offer a detailed picture of the cultural development of this region over the past 2,500 or so years.

Due to the sheer size of the building and depth of the MNA’s collection, more than one day should be dedicated to its exploration.

My mistake was to loiter too long among the eye candy on the ground floor, thereby not allowing enough time to fully take in the fascinating and exhaustive ethnographic exhibits on the floor above. A return visit is definitely on my bucket list.

Even a long morning or afternoon perusing the collections can serve as an invaluable tool for cultural understanding prior to further travel within the country and around the wider region.

Final Notes

While the MNA is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, it’s easy to take a short virtual tour and view a small selection of individual objects from the museum’s vast collection from this link.

peace and happy virtual trails~henry



Categories: Culture, TravelTags: , , , , ,
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