Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stop 2: Museums of Lima, Peru

The review of museums continues in Lima, Peru, where I spent the first several weeks of the year. Although the primary activity during my time there was to conduct the literature reviews and writing of my academic research (I needed to be far away from distractions), I took a few breaks.
During some of them, I visited these museums.

  • Museo de la Nacion
  • Postal Museum
  • Museo de la Inquisicion

Following are my reviews of them.

Museo de la Nacion (Museum of the Nation) (Wikipedia site--museum does not appear to have a website:  The museum aims to collect and present exhibits on the different cultures of Peru, a hefty mission that’s supported by its similarly hefty building, a hulking six-story concrete structure along the busy Javier Prado boulevard.

Unfortunately, the museum ultimately disappoints—and on so many different levels.  One of its two permanent exhibits—a collection of art from the various cultures of Peru just off of the museum entrance—nicely showcases a variety of artwork produced over the past 2 to 3 millenia, including gold work, jewelry, ceramics, and masks.  On the one hand, it represents the collection well.  On the other hand, when I visited in the summer of 2008, it was promoted as a temporary exhibition while the museum was in the process of remodeling in advance of the November 2008 Asia-Pacific summit.

Given that, I expected that the newly refurbished permanent gallery on the second floor would be a showcase.  I expected either a walk through time (as Peru’s major cultural periods are somewhat sequential) or through the various cultures (as each region has its own culture).  Instead, the exhibit was organized by themes, such as fishing, and religion.  Although thematic organization has its place, it’s not really at place in a permanent exhibition.  Most museums that use it as an organizing theme only use it as a cover for their otherwise small collections, whose limitations would become immediately apparent to even the most na├»ve visitor under other organizational schemes. That the museum has such a small collection is somewhat surprising as Peru has a rather strict law on antiquities, which I would think would benefit the collection of the museum.

Furthermore, the newer gallery is intended to be viewed on a guided tour by a trained docent.  Although nice in theory, this is essentially an impractical choice.  The exhibit does have some labels for those on a self-guided tour, but the labels are only in Spanish (an issue that did not phase me but did raise a concern among my companion, who is Peruvian, and felt that English labels would provide an important outreach to non-Peruvian visitors).

My concern about the labels was that they were incomplete (each gallery in the exhibition had a label, but some cases had labels, others didn’t, and objects were inconsistently labeled).

Temporary exhibitions addressed costumes used by traditional Limenian (of Lima) singers, the depiction of a pair of mythological creatures in Peruvian culture, and the re-habilitation of a pre-Columbian highway that stretches across several countries and is being promoted for tourism. All were well-presented.  The first two featured exceptional objects, the latter primarily told its story through photographs and reports.  All three were well-described through labels, and did not require a docent tour,  although the exhibition on the highway did seemed to feel a bit too much like a booster project, rather than a critical museum exhibit.

In the end, I felt like I had learned a lot about some discrete aspects of a few Peruvian cultures, rather than having a sense of the breadth of the Peruvian cultural experience, as the mission of the museum promises.

Postal Museum (no website): The Postal Museum is a display about the history of the Peruvian postal service, which is presented in the courtyard of the main post office building in the center of Lima, Peru.

On the one hand, using the term museum  to describe this display probably overstates its mission. Because the exhibit is in an open courtyard, anything displayed must be weatherproofed.  That primarily limits the exhibition to large labels with texts and photos, although they could display a a few hardy objects, including one of the first postal boxes used in the country (made of heavy metal) and one of the first mail carts.

On the other hand, even with these limitations, the exhibit managed to not only report the early history of the postal service in Peru (including some interesting challenges of moving mail between cities) and the design and construction of the post office (which houses this display), but also of the conditions in which the postal service operated.

A few of the display panels in the museum area were set aside for a temporary exhibition of photography and art from earlier times, although the relationship between these images and the postal service is not entirely clear.  The images were reproductions.

More of a display than a museum. But interesting all the same—get a sense of how the correo evolved in the past (though no sense of what it is today). Few artifacts, though the mailboxes are somewhat protected from elements.  Repros of art on display.

Museo de la Inquisicion (Museum of the Inquisition) (  I’ve seen a lot of museums, and I must say, this is one of the most daring, both in terms of the subject matter and its presentation.

As its name suggests, the museum explores the Inquisition—more specifically, the impact of the inquisition on the development of Peru. The museum is located in the Plaza Mayor (central square) of  Lima, and is housed in the building that housed the Inquisition authorities until Peruvian Independence when, ironically, it became a legislative building (I think).

Although I should have known better, I did not realize that among its other exports, Spain exported the Inquisition to its colonies.  The Inquisition was intended to root out heresy.  Among its victims in Peru were presumed Marano Jews (ones who had converted on threat of execution or expulsion from Spain in 1492), but continued to secretly practice their faith, as well as people suspected of being witches (usually single women and who, in the Peruvian inquisition, seemed to be the more likely target).

The subject of the museum, as well as many galleries, are clearly and thoroughly introduced with gallery labels (only in Spanish).  They describe the roots of the Inquisition, how it evolved, how it was exported to the Spanish colonies, and how colonial authorities perpetuated it.  Paintings recorded some of the more significant events of the Inquisition in colonial Peru.

The most significant, though admittedly disturbing, displays in the museum pertain to the torture of those arrested under the authority of the Inquisition. The exhibits not only describe the torture these people experienced, but also recreate it in a walk through the dungeons where authorities perpetrated these tortures.  I can envision the mannequins on the torturous chairs of nails, and the tools used in the water treatment.  (That said, I was surprised by how many parents brought young children to this museum, as well as the lack of warning about the almost graphic presentation . This might be a bit scary for young children.)

The administration requires that all visitors go through with a tour guide, and most of the tours are in Spanish, though some are available in English.  I went through with a Spanish tour, but was slow reading the labels as the group went through. I wanted to return to re-read them after the tour ended.  One staff member—to whom I explained my request in Spanish—was reluctant to let me go through.  But another saw my Canadian Association of Museums card and asked about my request in English, and had no difficulty letting me through.  

If I could offer any suggestions to this excellent museum, it would be: provide more documentation of its objects, as well as a gallery guide in several languages that visitors could purchase.

Summing Up:  A future post on this blog will explore some of the themes in this posting:

  • How designers structure the visitor experience in a museum building
  • Exhibiting pasts that we might prefer to forget.  

Next post:  Museums of Istanbul

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