February 3, 2022

World : Mummies & Idealists

When it comes to museums (and most things), I value smaller spaces with a narrow focus. I get overwhelmed by large buildings packed with items. I also like following the narrative of intimate, themed museums, like Boston's JFK Library and the Anne Frank House where through small pieces you traverse the trajectories of one person's life (and how that one life impacted so many others). And generally, I like collections that I can see in an hour or a little more. Santa Fe has re-ignited my interest in these spaces because it's full of cozy galleries and museums.  The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian generally has just four exhibits. The New Mexico Museum of Art, while broader in scope, is still relatively small given the size of this state. I find that I can more deeply remember several single images from these places because of the intense, compact time I spend there.

When I was in Guanajuato Mexico by myself for a couple weeks, I had a lot of free time. After Spanish class in the morning, the rest of the day was unplanned and unstructured. So I went to a bunch of museums. I visited the Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the Museo de Los Momias de Guanajuanto, Alhondiga de Granaditas, Museo Iconográfico del Quijote, and the Museo Palacio de los Poderes.  My favorites were definitely the Don Quijote museum and the Museo de Los Momias (mummies), neither of which I thought I would especially enjoy, both of which left me with images that will linger (I think, forever).

**A heads up here that if you are uncomfortable with the idea or image of death and deceased bodies (though I don't post any images here) you can scroll past this to the happier images of Don Quijote as seen through many different mediums of art. 

The Museum of Mummies contains bodies that were naturally mummified that were buried during a cholera outbreak in Guanajuato in the 1800s. Apparently the climate makes for an ideal natural environment to preserve bodies without embalming. I'm not squeamish about these sorts of things, but the experience hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. The museum contains a little over a hundred mummies. Before seeing them, I wasn't sure it that would feel like a lot or a little. It turned out that the number didn't matter so much, because the museum did an exceptional job of emphasizing the individual, and giving glimpses into each person's story (as much as could be abstracted from concrete details). The exhibits posted cards next to the mummies with narratives written in the first person, imagining the lives lived by these preserved people. I was particularly struck by a collection of three mummies who died by accident (Muertas Trágicas) - one that was mistakenly buried alive, another who drowned, and another whose body was pierced by some sort of spear or tool. Their means of death were determined by abnormalities in their body position and lung volume.  Probably the most universally poignant, disturbing, and vivid exhibit is that of a mother and her unborn child, the smallest and youngest mummy known to exist in the world. It's thought that poor nutrition contributed to the premature deaths of mother and child.

In reading descriptions of the museum, people reasonably call it "gruesome" and "horrific." For me personally it doesn't feel appropriate to label any natural process that way. It is definitely strange, and incredible, to be able to see people long after they are alive. I'm not sure how I feel about the lack of permission, but I don't think the museum capitalizes on the sensational aspect at all. It's more concerned with the way in which death can bring life into blur or focus. It reminds me too that our lives can reach beyond the boundaries of days lived, whether intended or not. One could argue that this sentiment is just part of the natural hope we all have against nihilism. But it is also a very real phenomenon when seeing the body of someone who lived almost 200 years ago makes me consider how I want to live my life. Seeing our visceral future makes me think that everything means something, and also that nothing means anything. I suppose that for me, living is the fulcrum and spectrum between these philosophies. Feeling the full weight of both ends makes it easier for me to ground myself in the middle.

I was similarly moved by the Don Quijote Museum, which is quite different on paper and in actuality to the Mummy Museum but gave me the same sense of wonder at how much one story can find its way into so many other narratives. I was staying right next to this museum, so it was one of the very first things I noticed in the city. I didn't think it would be particularly interesting, but it was so close and free on Tuesdays. This museum contains over 700 pieces of art inspired by the fictional story of Don Quijote, a man who is born of the lowest class but aspires to become a knight. The themes of the value of idealism, individual conviction that clashes with societal structure, and the falsity of assigning people to classes have spoken to so many different people in so many cultures and generations. This universal impact is palpable when seeing the shear amount of art depicting Don Quijote fighting against windmills. The art is so diverse, because the people absorbing his story are so diverse. I loved seeing the story shaped by different hands over time, like a game of telephone. And it's a comfort in these times (and all times) that so many people through time and place believe in "su idealismo porque él puede salvar el razo humana."

I love the childlike nature of these:

The powerful chaos of these:

The epic grandeur of this room, emanating from the source of just one small figure:

The dimensionality of these mediums:

The darkness of these:


The colors in these, that surround him but seem to not quite make it into him:

And the cross culturing of these:

Maybe in the same way that I realized we're all just turtles crawling into the new year, this museum impressed upon me that Don Quijote is unique and we can't all be Don Quijotes in the way we inspire and impact others. But the point of Don Quijote is that really, we are all like him, believing in universes unseen and spaces bigger than those we occupy. I love discovering that vastness in these tiny corners of the world, and taking it home with me. 

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