I confess: I’m not really much of an antiquities aficionado. I’ve been known to bolt through the ground floor of The Met in less than ten minutes, muttering obtusely that all those broken columns and marble statues look like plain old rubble. So when I headed for Bogota’s National Museum, the biggest and oldest museum in Colombia, with an entire ground floor wing dedicated to pre-Columbian archeological treasures from 10,000 B.C. and centuries forward, I knew exactly what I planned to skip.
But this museum pretty much had me at hello. Built in 1874 as a prison, it was known as the Panóptico and its 104 cells were used for incarceration until 1946. The place was renovated in 1975 with lovely courtyards and fountains, and the galleries extend in a Greek cross in three directions–so there is always something hidden and beckoning you to explore.I started with the black & white photography show of Leo Matiz’s decades of photojournalism and avant-garde work – which was mesmerizing and profound.
Then I headed for the third floor — for fine art by Colombia’s beloved Fernando Botero, Alejandro Obregón, Andres de Santa Maria,and Guillermo Wiedemann. And that was… okay. I wasn’t really feeling the magic, so I cruised through the second floor which is mostly a history of portraits and odd stuff from Colombia’s founding fathers, none of whom I knew – except the inimitable (and incredibly gaunt supermodel) Simon Bolivar.
Finally, since I had the time and about 15% of my art energy left, I headed for the artifacts, figuring I could race through and said I did it. And boy howdy, did I get an eyeful! Here was all the magic I was missing from the modernists.
This didn’t feel like boring antiquities; it felt like having a conversation with somebody from 5,000 years ago… who just happened to have a nagging wife attitude like me.Or was poignantly sharing a secret with a friend…Or maybe was just having a really f@#*ing bad day. The pieces were so unbelievably charming….…I just about laughed out loud. It was incredible to believe I was looking at things created by people from cultures as far-flung and ancient as the Amazonas, Orinoco, Guajira, Andes and Pacific Coast …… when they really could have been people you’d see on the streets of New Orleans or Soho any day of the week. A little whacked but what the heck? And I’m pretty sure a few of them had to be inspiration for a video game or animation film …. I was just walking on air as I left .. until I got to the final little vault in which the museum keeps the 1500-year old mummies, surrounded by their graven gold.
That put a morbid chill in me! So I headed out to the cozy Museum Cafe for a cute cup of Juan Valdez’s special blend — and believe me, like so much in this sublime Colombian museum, it’s nothing whatever like Folger’s American model.
As I sat there marveling at my exhilarating, unexpected afternoon experience of photography, painting, creativity, caffeine, nature, incarceration and yes, antiquities… I thought this must be why I love museums so much. Because despite all our preconceptions and prejudices, they can sometimes show us who we are .. and who we apparently have been for thousands of years.
(I’m aghast that I didn’t bring my real camera and only have these iPhone photos to share with you…. just goes to show my cavalier attitude that was SO unwarranted!!)