El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya

We spent the morning at the El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, a rollicking cab ride away on the road to Progreso – much further afield than we’ve been before and quite the surprising journey. As you leave the European inspired Paseo de Montejo, the ‘Champs-Élysées’ of the Yucatan (that’s not me suggesting the moniker, but the Mérida tourist board!), you emerge into a very American street-scape – where mega malls such as Walmart, Sears, Costco, Sam’s Club etc line up for kilometres (Amongst of course many American fast-food joints including McDonalds – home of the Pollo McCrispy y Papas Grandes). You could be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to Southern California or, maybe over-the-border to Tijuana. It’s this part of Mérida I don’t recognise at all from our last visit some 30 years ago – I guess a lot can happen to a place over that period of time. Shame that it’s mostly Americanisation. 

I love that cab drivers here are seemingly into dance music – that’s two in a row (both in their forties if not fifties) who happily bobbed along to the thumping grind. It was a reasonably long cab ride that cost all of AUD$6 and it was all very edifying – Champs Elysées on the outward journey, fascinating neighbourhood barrios on the way back NOTE: In cabs there’s never any AC and you’re lucky to get a seatbelt. Always negotiate price before setting off. But, no offence, they’re used to being asked, it’s how it works.

El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is an impressive ultra-modern structure on the outside (like a green-swathed version of the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing) and a seemingly cavernous building on the inside, but the museum itself was disappointingly just on one level and not the four we had anticipated, given the vastness of the structure. So unfortunately the collection was a touch underwhelming, though still fascinating in its insights into early colonisation and the integration of cultures (especially religions) and gobsmacking Mayan achievements in number systems, writing systems, their understanding of the stars, and art. The museum did hold some incredible objects. However, it was more dimly lit, slightly twee tableaux and dioramas than the display of pre-Colombian artefacts we had expected in abundance. It didn’t help that some of the set pieces in the exhibition (and the museum shop!) were closed (or as the information desk said, ‘it’s broken’), possibly due to COVID restrictions. 

I guess we’ve been spoilt from multiple visits to the marvellous Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City which has pretty much everything pre-Colombian you’d ever want to see, and then some. One of the great museums of the world. 

Pre-Colombian history is fascinating to us, particularly I guess the Aztec and Mayan cultures and we plan to spend a lot of time exploring Mayan life, given that we’re in a living Mayan environment (30% of Yucatenos speak Mayan and it is Mexico’s third most spoken language).

Some of the objects that got our attention in the collection include the famous Chac Mool (Red Claw), which we’ve always directly associated with Chichén Itzá. It’s a stone carving of a reclining individual, raised on his elbows, knees bent and his hands placed on his belly – the flat surface created in the belly was for sacrificial offerings which could consist of anything from tamales and tortillas to colourful feathers and even human sacrifice – often involving a ripped out beating heart.  

Yep, Mayan life was not for the faint-hearted. 

We love the characterful, amusingly captured stone and terracotta figurines with their quizzical faces, fat bellies and ornate comical attire. Some of the larger stone carvings depict detailed clothing and, unsurprisingly, rather tortured faces. 

The Mayan Codices (facsimiles presented here – the few remaining examples are in foreign museums apparently undergoing extensive research to crack their code) are fascinating folding books written in hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican bark paper which, even today, remain largely undecipherable. They contain predictions for each day of the Mayan tzolkin calendar and determine the days propitious for certain activities such as hunting jaguars, beekeeping, weaving etc This almanac is, in essence, an illustrated book to explain ways of perceiving the world. And then there’s the Mayan 52 year calendar cycle. I won’t bore you with details but if you’re interested in knowing more, perhaps check out this site. 

https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/mayan.html

Our other favourite object was the Máscara antropomorfa circa 600-900 AD, part of the funerary trappings of Mayan rulers – blending the individual’s features with the attributes of an animal. This particular example is made of jadeite, shell and obsidian cut into a mosaic. 

Finally, it’s not often you meet a pet pig named Lily, in a museum no less…. she’s 1 year old. 

I struggled with saying ‘nice pig’ in Spanish in case I used the word for pork but it turns out it is the same word, but in this case feminine ‘buena cerda’. I wonder how big Lily will get and what her ultimate fate might be, given that this is a pork loving culture! 

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