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One of the many ethnographical exhibits at the museum | © Stefan Krasowki/Flickr
One of the many ethnographical exhibits at the museum | © Stefan Krasowki/Flickr
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A Brief History of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City

Picture of Lauren Cocking
Northern England Writer
Updated: 21 April 2017
Mexico City’s gigantesque Museo Nacional de Antropología is a well-loved museum with a rich and fascinating history, as well as being the most visited tourist destination in the country, boasting one of the world’s largest collections of pre-Columbian relics, artifacts and art. Here’s a brief history of this impressive institution.

The Location

Situated in the heart of the Bosque de Chapultepec, the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) is Mexico City’s largest museum and impossible to tackle in just one day, especially given that it covers a space of almost 20 acres, featuring 23 separate exhibition rooms and several gardens. Currently, as with many of the city’s museums, under the jurisdiction of the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) the National Anthropology Museum was famously critiqued by Mexican author Octavio Paz, who said that it was akin to ‘a temple’, as a result of the glorified Mexico-Tenochtitlán room. Despite this, the National Anthropology Museum is generally considered a popular and critical success, attracting around three million visitors annually.

The Construction

While the museum was officially opened some 50+ years ago, the wheels were set in motion for the development of the Museo Nacional de Antropología way back in the 18th century. What would later become the museum’s core collection started to be gathered under one roof for the first time, first in the Natural History Museum, then in the National Museum (later renamed the National Museum of Archaeology, History and Ethnography), before ultimately making its final journey to the National Anthropology Museum, although not in the location we see it today. In fact, construction on the contemporary building, which now contains collections centering on Mexican ethnography and pre-Columbian artifacts, only began in February 1963, taking 19 months to be completed before being inaugurated in September 1964.

One of the many ethnographical exhibits at the museum | © Stefan Krasowki/Flickr
One of the many ethnographical exhibits at the museum | © Stefan Krasowki/Flickr

The Exhibits

Famed for hosting a range of historically and culturally important artifacts from Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past, the 23 exhibition rooms of the Museo Nacional de Antropología cover everything from the Toltecs to the Zapotecs, the Maya to the Aztecs. Some of the most famous exhibits on show include the supposed ceremonial headdress of Moctezuma, Aztec emperor, as well as the iconic Aztec Calendar Stone which was once on display in front of the Catedral Metropolitana. The entire collection includes more than seven million archaeological pieces and over five million ethnological pieces. However, if you can’t make it to Mexico to see them in real life, you can take a virtual tour of the exhibitions online, thanks to the Google Art Project.

Aztec Calendar Stone | © Xuan Che/Flickr
Aztec Calendar Stone | © Xuan Che/Flickr

The Architecture

However, it’s not just the museum’s exhibits that lend it the great reputation it boasts to this day, as the spectacular, minimalist architecture surely contributes to its enduring success. Designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca, the sprawling building centres on a courtyard dominated by El Paraguas (The Umbrella), a towering water feature. In fact, many of the architectural features cleverly echo or feature subtle references to pre-Hispanic Mexican cultures, from Iker Larrauri’s bronze snail which emits sounds of pre-Hispanic instruments to the building materials which give the illusion of being in a grand pre-Hispanic temple. If you’re interested in murals, it’s worth noting that you can find several in the National Anthropology Museum, by artists like Leonora Carrington and Rufino Tamayo.

Museo Nacional de Antropología, showing the scale of El Paraguas | © LWYang/Flickr
Museo Nacional de Antropología, showing the scale of El Paraguas | © LWYang/Flickr
One of the museum’s many murals | © William Neuheisel/Flickr
One of the museum’s many murals | © William Neuheisel/Flickr

Museo Nacional de Antropología, Av Paseo de la Reforma & Calzada Gandhi S/N, Chapultepec Polanco, Miguel Hidalgo, Ciudad de México, México, +52 55 4040 5300