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.
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).