The Museums of Oaxaca: Mexico's New Cultural Hotspot

| © Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
Ellie Ross

Oaxaca is well known for its incredible food, colonial-style buildings and cultural heritage. Not only is it becoming the new cultural hotspot in Mexico, but with the introduction of Thomasina Miers’ Wahaca chain of restaurants, building on the influence of Oaxacan cuisine, flavours of Oaxaca are going international. We check out the ten best galleries and museums in Oaxaca in which to learn more about this fascinating region.

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Arquetopia is a nonprofit, award-winning foundation for visual arts and music. A cultural and educational organization run exclusively by artists, it aims to make art more accessible to a wider audience and has a large collaborative network of partners, exhibitions and workspaces – including the Museo Imagina Interactivo and the Museo de Arte Ex Convento de Santa Mónica. Visiting members of the public can view an extensive range of galleries, research and photography centers.

Basílica de la Soledad

The Basilica de la Soledad is beautifully laid out in the shape of a Latin cross. The Basilica was built between 1682-1686 in the Baroque style and is part of the historic cultural centre of Oaxaca, so is part of the UNESCO world heritage site. The church is built with low, yet still impressively soaring spires, built to withstand earthquakes.

Biblioteca de investigacion Juan de Cordova

Formerly the Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo, the centre is now the Biblioteca de investigación Juan de Cordova. Located in an absolutely stunning ex-16th Century Dominican Convent, the centre exists to promote the culture of Oaxaca. Like its predecessor the library promotes information about the lives and culture of the traditional Oaxacan population. The museum also puts on events and information evenings about how to preserve academic and cultural texts and items. The audio library has a wonderful selection of indigenous music to accompany any lazy day of cultural research in the library.

Galeria Alejandro Santiago

Dedicated to contemporary artist Alejandro Santiago, this gallery is located in the centre of Oaxaca. It displays some of his modern art pieces and Santiago’s most famous work – his installation 2501 migrantes. This Gormley-esque installation shows 2501 Oaxacan migrants who had left their mountain homes for economic reasons, completely sculpted out of clay. Since his death in 2013, the gallery has become even more significant, hosting cultural evening events and exhibitions.

Templo de Santo Domingo

Add a stop at the Iglesia de Santo Domingo to your La Serena itinerary

Dripping with gold and ornately carved stone and woodwork, the Templo de Santo Domingo is a shrine to excess. Dating from the 18th century, the church’s enormously decorative interior is covered in gold – the interior includes more than 60,000 sheets of 23.5 carat gold leaf. Outside, in front of the church, is a large plaza used by local theatre and dance troupes for entertaining tourists, making this ancient Templo a modern day Oaxacan cultural hub.

La Curtiduria

Whilst not technically a museum, La Curtiduria is the beating heart of Oaxaca’s cultural scene, thanks to its dedication to staging the arts. It was founded by artist Demian Flores Cortes in an old tannery building and runs classes, community courses, films, dance and live music. The centre runs an artist-in-residence programme which is a great chance to see what themes drive young Mexican artists in their work today.

Museo de las Culturas

Housed in monastery buildings adjoining the Templo de Santa Domingo, the Museo de las Culturas has been voted one of Mexico’s best according to Trip Advisor. It’s the setting of the museum as much as its contents that make it particularly stand out – the exhibition on the Spanish conquistadors of 1519 will really open your eyes to the impact of colonisation on the region. The hoard of Mixtec treasure will probably tug on your purse strings too, as you admire the glittering stacks of jewellery.

Museo Casa de Juarez

A visit to the contemporary drawing exhibition, showing during 2014 at Museo Casa de Juarez, is an absolute must. The museum is situated in a simple local house, which adds to the evocative and fascinating displays. Set around a courtyard house with a fountain and shaded seating, the house used to be the home of Antonia Salaneuva, who supported the Mexican leader Benito Juarez during his youth. Between 1984 and 1988, photographer Carlos Blanco conducted an extensive and detailed record of images that account for many aspects of social life in Oaxaca and these images are on display in this beautiful adobe house.

Museum of Contemporary Art

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO) is founded on the belief that you can merge global contemporary art with traditional, local art, and that is the premise MACO is based on. Housed in a colonial mansion dating from the 17th century, the building is one of the oldest in Oaxaca. The museum has permanent exhibitions with displays showing Oaxacan painters including Rufino Tamayo, Rodolfo Morales and Francisco Toledo. Toledo is best known for graphic art, but also works in weaving, sculpture, pottery and painting.

Museo Textil de Oaxaca

Weaving, making traditional Japanese textiles

‘A cotton thread: the path to freedom’ is one of the exhibitions currently on display at Museo Textil de Oaxaca which houses a selection of traditional Oaxacan crafts and textiles. The exhibition displays pieces created by the San Sebastian Rio Hondo, Zapotec community, who were inspired by the textiles of Mahatma Gandhi and eastern philosophies. The museum is housed in the heart of the city and offers guided tours at 5pm on Wednesday and Friday around its collections. Conservation is a massive part of the museum, as some of the materials in the archives are nearly 5000 years old.

Palacio de Gobierno

Palacio de Gobierno is another space displaying Oaxacan high-culture – built in the 19th Century the palace is really a wonder of murals, stonework and marble all the while also acting as the state capital of the region. Within the palace is the Museo del Palacio which houses exhibitions on geology, the traditional Mexican ritual of the ball game, and, most strangely, a tortilla that weighs 300kg and is engraved with the history of Mexico. (Yes, really.) The palace is also covered in murals and frescos, one of which was designed by Arturo Garcia Bustos in 1988 which includes the apoela tree, the tree which, according to Mixtec tradition bore the fruit from which life was created.
By Ellie Ross

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