5000 Years of Peru’s History at the Larco Museum
If you only visit one museum in Lima, make it the Larco Museum. It is one of the most impressive museums we have visited anywhere in South America.
Did you know that Peru is recognised as one of the ‘cradles of civilisation’, alongside Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Mesoamerica? When the pre-Columbian history of South America is mentioned, most people think of Machu Picchu and the Incas. In fact, the Inca Empire only really dominated this part of South America for about 150 years. Then the Spanish arrived, and proceeded to destroy it. Peru’s civilisation actually goes back so much further than that.
Rafael Larco Hoyle was fascinated by this 5000 years of history, and studied it his whole life. The Larco Museum is a testament to his passion.
During 2008, we were in Lima, and went to the Rafael Larco Herrera Archaeological Museum. The two impressions it left were its gallery of erotic ceramics and its huge storerooms. The museum was completely renovated (2006-10) and is now simply named Museo Larco (link to their excellent website). We visited it again recently.
Rafael Larco Hoyle founded the museum in 1926. He became one of Peru’s pre-eminent archaeologists of the 20th century. He named it after his father, and it was originally housed in his home state of La Libertad in Northern Peru. In the 1950s he decided to move it to Lima, making it more accessible to visitors and scholars from all over the world. Its new name honours both father and son.
When you enter the main gallery from the reception area, you are immediately introduced to the long history of civilisation in Peru and also to the work of the museum’s founder. On one wall there is a huge timeline showing the 4 areas of Peru and the cultures inhabiting them during 7 epochs identified by Rafael Larco Hoyle.
Video and Reference Room
To the right there is a room showing an introductory video (you can also watch it on youtube ). And from there you can either enter the library, where you are welcome to relax and read the reference books, or enter the Cultures Gallery. There are also computers in the library for use by visitors to check out the online catalogue, or the virtual gallery in the Google Art Project.
In the four rooms of this gallery, information about the various cultures is organised by region and chronology. Excellent examples of artefacts support the written information. Most of the exhibits are pottery, although there are also stone carvings and wooden objects. It is quite an educational experience, which is thoroughly captivating and enjoyable.
Even in the pre-ceramic epoch, the people of Peru were using cotton, and wool from alpacas and vicuñas, to produce textiles. This part of the gallery has some quite amazing exhibits. The desert conditions have preserved some very old examples of this handiwork. The colours and textures are surprising. The most beautiful textiles were usually created to dress the dead for the afterlife, and these were often as valuable as items created in silver and gold.
Sacrifice Ceremony Room
Human sacrifice was practiced in most ancient civilisations – to appease the gods, or to transform the victim onto a higher realm. The gallery dedicates this one room to representations of this practice: mostly it’s depicted in ceramic forms, but ritual knives and other implements to perform the sacrifice or ritual mutilation are also on display.
Ceremonial Vessels Room
This room displays mostly cups, bowls and other vessels, which were created to hold ceremonial liquids – water, fermented drinks and sacrificial blood. They are made of clay, wood or metal. The more precious the material, the higher the political or social position of those involved in the ceremonies.
Gold and Jewellery Gallery
The five rooms of this gallery exhibit many priceless objects. As with the textiles, some of the most impressive objects here were created for the dead to take on their journey into the afterlife.
Gold and silver represented the power of the sun and the moon to the Andean people and anything created from these metals were reserved for the most important persons in the society. The museum holds the only known complete set of gold Chimu clothing in the world. It was probably the funerary offering of a great lord buried at Chan Chan, the capital of the Chimu kingdom.
Storerooms open to visitors
Larco Museum has a huge collection of over 45000 pre-Columbian artefacts. Those that are not in the permanent exhibition are held on simple shelves in storerooms. Unlike most museums in the world, these storerooms are open to visitors to wander around.
The collection is also available to peruse, in an online catalogue, on their website.
Erotic Art Gallery
This is a fascinating collection of pottery depicting sex explicitly and in all aspects. As the museum explains:
This gallery provides us with a clearer understanding of the world view of the societies of ancient Peru. At the same time, it offers a unique and fascinating opportunity for the study of sexuality, free of our own myths and prejudices.
Beautiful gardens and amenities
The museum is set in a beautiful environment. We were there at the right time of year because the bougainvillea were completely covered in flowers. The building was the Luna Cartland family house, a mansion built in 1700.
There is an excellent restaurant, with outdoor seating under a veranda, and a view directly into the gardens. We had lunch and the food was great. There are also several shops, clean bathrooms, and iced drinking water is freely available.
The exhibits in the Larco Museum are presented in 6 languages (Spanish, English, French, Italian, German, and Japanese). We found the explanation texts used clear language and were fascinating to read.