A Brief History of the Museo Nacional de Antropologíaairport_transferbarbathtubbusiness_facilitieschild_activitieschildcareconnecting_roomcribsfree_wifigymhot_tubinternetkitchennon_smokingpetpoolresturantski_in_outski_shuttleski_storagesmoking_areaspastar

A Brief History of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City

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 history of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City dates back centuries. Culture Trip explores how it came to be, and why it should be on your must-visit list.

Mexico City’s gigantic Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA) is a well-loved museum with a rich and fascinating story that begins centuries before its doors officially opened. MNA is the most visited museum in the country, boasting one of the world’s largest collections of pre-Columbian relics, artefacts and art. Here’s a brief history of the Museo Nacional de Antropología.

The location

Situated in the heart of the Bosque de Chapultepec, the National Museum of Anthropology is Mexico City’s largest museum. It’s impossible to tackle in just one day, as it covers a space of almost 20 acres (8 hectares), featuring 23 exhibition rooms and several gardens.

The monolith to Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, was moved to the Anthropology Museum in 1963 © Cathyrose Melloan / Alamy Stock Photo

The construction

While the museum officially opened in 1964, the wheels were set in motion for the development of the Museo Nacional de Antropología way back in the 18th century. The artefacts that compose the museum’s current core collection were gathered under one roof for the first time at the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, then in the National Museum (later renamed the National Museum of Archaeology, History and Ethnography), before ultimately making their final journey to the National Anthropology Museum, although not in the location it occupies today. In fact, construction on the contemporary building, which now contains collections focussing on Mexican ethnography and pre-Columbian artefacts, only began in February 1963, taking 19 months to complete before its inauguration in September 1964.

While the items in the collection had been gathered over the previous centuries, the presentation – which prominently displayed the ancient works and cloistered the section dedicated to modern Mexico on the second floor – was a product of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s floor plan.

Designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca, the Museo Nacional de Antropología is a sprawling, minimalist building © directphoto.bz / Alamy Stock Photo

As a result, the National Anthropology Museum was criticized by Mexican diplomat and Nobel Prize-winning author Octavio Paz. In his 1970 essay, “Critique of the Pyramid,” Paz condemns the museum as inciting a false sense of nationalism that links the PRI’s uninterrupted 71-year reign directly back to Aztec culture. That said, now that the PRI’s reign is over, many locals now appreciate having a collection of indigenous artefacts and hope for more modern inclusions going forward. Today, the National Anthropology Museum is a popular attraction and critical success that draws around two million visitors annually.

The exhibits

Famed for hosting a range of historically and culturally important artefacts from Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past, the 23 exhibition rooms of the Museo Nacional de Antropología cover everything from the Toltecs and Zapotecs to the Maya and Aztecs. Some of the most famous exhibits on display include the supposed ceremonial headdress of Aztec emperor Moctezuma, as well as the iconic Aztec Calendar Stone, dating from 1521, 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. And if you can’t make it to Mexico to see them in person, you can take a virtual tour of the exhibitions online, thanks to the Google Art Project.

Some of the most famous exhibits include the supposed ceremonial headdress of Moctezuma, as well as the iconic Aztec Calendar Stone © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

The architecture

Similar to New York’s Guggenheim Museum, MNA is an architectural feat in its own right, a work of art as integral as the contents inside. Designed by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, Jorge Campuzano and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca, the sprawling minimalist building centers on a courtyard dominated by El Paraguas (The Umbrella), a towering water feature. In fact, many of the architectural elements cleverly echo or feature subtle references to pre-Hispanic Mexican cultures, from Iker Larrauri’s bronze snail that emits sounds of pre-Hispanic instruments, to the building materials that give the illusion of a grand pre-Hispanic temple. There are also murals from artists Leonora Carrington and Rufino Tamayo.

Much of the architecture outside cleverly echos subtle references to pre-Hispanic Mexican cultures © Inge Johnsson / Alamy Stock Photo

Alex Wexelman contributed additional reporting to this article.