Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Santiago

Like many cities in the world, Santiago offers free entry to their museums one day a week – this happens to be Sundays, when most of the shops in town are closed. One museum I can recommend, specially to those who have limited time to explore other exhibits in Latin America, is the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art (Museo del Arte Precolombino). It is housed in a beautiful colonial mansion, the old customs house, only one block from Plaza de Armas in the city. The building is of typical colonial style, wrapped around two large open courtyards; one of these houses a quiet coffee shop.

Museo del Arte Precolombino, courtyard

Museo del Arte Precolombino, courtyard

The museum displays a small, but impressive, collection of artefacts covering not only Chile and surrounding countries, but also from as far north as Mexico and all the way down to Patagonia. So it presents a vast variety of cultures and periods. You can quickly get a good impression of the skills and styles of the craft from many highly developed societies throughout Latin America. When you reflect on it, you realise what a shame it is that the first conquistadores destroyed so much in their greed, and their quest for “Christian reformation”.

The museum is a good starting point to get an overview but, for more in-depth information you might want to visit regional museums in places of historical interest. Whereas the Museo del Arte Precolombino showcases some truly outstanding pieces, only specialised exhibitions in local museums convey more background knowledge about traditions, religious beliefs and typical ceremonies of a particular region or period.

For me, the visit was a good refresher. I was surprised at how many items there were, whose origin I was able to identify straight away, based on the knowledge I acquired during our previous trip down the Pan-American Highway, before I looked at the label and confirmed it. There were also numerous items on display from small native communities in the Amazon region, an area we didn’t visit last time – enough “unknown” to make it more interesting… My only criticism: I felt some pieces deserved more room, since the showcases are relatively small with a lot of unused wall space between.

I have provided detailed descriptions with most photos, except that initially I forgot to photograph the labels. To better understand the way people are depicted in many of the photographed pieces, you need to know that numerous ancient cultures in Latin America practised body modifications. The large stretched-out earlobes you see nowadays were first done be the Mayans. In this gallery you find a picture of a woman statue, standing with her arms angled out at her sides. Her forehead was probably flattened as a baby and her teeth filed into a narrow and pointy shape – all ancient traditions. If you would like more background information, see our photo from Mexico .

I left with one controversial thought: I’m not sure if this museum should have any of these exhibits. Many originate as donations from private collections. In a “just world” these pieces can be seen as part of cultural heritages, stolen from many different countries. But this is a general issue with all anthropological collections around the globe, and beyond the scope of our website… It just makes me cringe.

The museum’s own website provides good additional information (in Spanish).
If you would like to read more of our suggestions for places to visit in a ‘week in and around Santiago’ we put together our recommendations (including a visit to Valparaiso and the Pablo Neruda house on the coast).


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16 Responses

  1. It’s always great to be guided to specific museums. This looks like a wonderful one to visit!

  2. I love visiting the small local museums when traveling. I think the green man with the nose ring is my favorite! :)

  3. Michelle says:

    I spent 2 nights in Santiago boarding my ship to Antarctica and did not know about this place. I would love to visit the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art if I do this cruise again as I did not do much of significance with my time in Santiago.

    • Juergen says:

      Despite looking rather unattractive on the surface Santiago has quite a few sights worthwhile to discover. One of my favorite blog post about Santiago, telling you about almost all attractions small and big: Globetrottergirls.

  4. When I visited this museum a few years back, my favorite exhibit was of the many pitchers in animal shapes. It was truly an outstanding collection.

  5. Leigh says:

    We visited the Gold Museum in Bogota and saw a great deal of excellent Pre-Columbian art. I find the detailing and the workmanship so impressive.

    • Juergen says:

      We were really unfortunate: during our extended stay in Bogota the gold museum was closed for renovation. There was only a small exhibition of some of their collection in another museum, but I understand it was a miniscule selection. One reason to go back to Bogota…

  6. It’s nice that these donors returned the pieces to the public for everyone to see and learn about..

  7. Donna Janke says:

    The pieces are beautiful. I can see why you recommend this museum. I appreciate the opportunities to see collections like this in museums, but you raise an interesting point about where many of the pieces should rightly belong.

  8. We’ve been lucky enough to visit several museums with fine collections of pre-Columbian art from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to Manta, Ecuador and are so often astounded at the creativity and beauty of the art displayed as well as getting an insight into the ancient cultures. Your photos are lovely. Thanks for the virtual tour!

  9. These are beautiful pieces displayed in a remarkably lovely setting. The mood and mystery jumps out from your photos. Like you, though, I always wonder about provenance. I’m grateful to be able to see them, but I’m conscious that they aren’t really “owned” as much as moved.

  10. Carla says:

    I love visiting South American museums. Usually they are well done and give you a good history of the country. I agree with you about wondering where all the art comes from. I know the Smithsonian has artwork from other countries that they don’t even have space to display. Crazy!

    • Juergen says:

      I believe every major museum in the western world has this dilemma: more pieces in their vast collection than space to display. On one hand it gives the opportunity for an ever changing exhibition, keeping regulars interested. On the other hand I strongly believe historical items are part of a culture and belong to the people or nation they originate from. I still don’t mind paying an entrance fee to see “my property”, as conservation, security, and the maintenance of the display rooms all cost money.
      What I would wish for: that the competition for the best pieces would stop, that western societies (or the UNESCO) would finance museums in developing countries from construction to ongoing security – then more pieces could stay or return to where they originate from (and not be stolen from third world museums, as happens too often).

  11. Franca says:

    I usually enjoy more modern and contemporary art, but when I am in a foreign country I do make an effort to visit museums like this one. It definitely helps to learn more about the local culture, history and customs too.

    • Juergen says:

      I believe it’s not really an “effort” because it puts historical sites into a clearer perspective. We love to explore historical ruins in Latin America, admire the high standards of cultures like the Aztec, Mayans, Moche (in Peru), but the excavations of some buildings are only half the picture. You understand the values and achievements of each culture much better once you can see their art and craft in a context to (the often assumed) daily life of the ruin’s previous inhabitants.
      Otherwise my interests are very broad: I really appreciate architecture, both contemporary and ancient (hence my interest in ruin sites), modern art, street art (see our galleries), and contemporary craft like jewellery (used to be my profession for a while), glass, sculpture…

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