A Visit to Two Great Museums in Cuenca

07/Junio/2012 | 10:45

A Visit to the Museum of Aboriginal Culture

By David Morrill

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Cuenca's Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes, or Museum of Aboriginal Culture, is not your typical roadside attraction. Despite the fact that it's relatively small and privately owned, many consider it one of Ecuador's best archeology museums.

Operated by La Fundacion Cultural Cordero, the museum displays the private collection of Juan Cordero Iñiguez, historian, professor, former provincial governor and former director of Cuenca's Banco Central Museum.

"My father has researched Ecuador's pre-history all of his life. He taught the subject in universities and has written many books and articles about it," says Cordero's daughter, Carmen Lucia Cordero, who is director of the museum. "This museum is his personal passion and his mission and that is what makes the exhibits so good,"

Located in a modest colonial house on Calle Larga, opposite Iglesia Todo Santos, the museum exhibits more than 7,000 specimens, with thousands more in storage.

The collection is divided into 13 display areas, organized chronologically and by the region where the artifacts were produced.

The first exhibit area includes fossils predating human habitation, providing a record of early vegetation and animal life. The first human artifacts date to 13,000 years ago when the first people took up residence in what is present-day Ecuador. The earliest artifacts include obsidian and flint arrow heads, stone tools, necklaces and mortars and pestles. Some of these are from the area east and north of Cuenca.

Particularly notable is the high quality of the artifacts, many of them intact, and the intricacy of design. Among the artifacts from the early years, produced by the Las Vegas, Valdivia, Machalilla, Narrio, Quitis, Bahia and Cañari cultures, are jewelry, cooking pots and utensils, ceremonial drinking cups, masks and funerary urns.

"This is an extraordinary exhibit, especially considering that it was collected by a private individual," says Sven Hansson, a Swedish archeologist who has conducted excavations in Ecuador and Peru and has visited the museum on several occasions. "The overall condition of the pieces is excellent."

Like others, Hansson is especially impressed by the design and artistry of the artifacts. "Even the oldest pieces show a high degree of creative thought. In the evolution of artifacts, it is accepted among archeologists that function precedes art. This collection and others in the Andes region show that decoration and function seemed to develop almost simultaneously."

Many of the pieces are representations of bird and animal life, while representation of human figures often show a sense of humor. Facial features of many of the human figurines are highly stylized and several bear an uncanny resemblance to cartoon star Bart Simpson.

There were obviously no qualms about representing human sexuality among Ecuador's early artisans and many statues graphically depict human lovemaking. Others show pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing.

According to Hansson, the Cordero collection serves another important mission, dispelling the common notion that the Incans represented the high-water mark of creativity in early Latin American. "What we discover is that the civilizations that preceded the Inca, in both Ecuador and Peru, were highly advanced and that the Incan empire inherited much of what we credit to it."

In addition to the artifacts collection, the museum maintains a library of 36,000 books and manuscripts, which has proven popular with researchers.

If you visit the museum, don't miss the gift shop: It is one of the best in Cuenca, offering an excellent collection of local crafts, books and postcards. Most impressive is the large assortment of replica artifacts in various sizes. Prices for the replicas begin at $6.

Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes is located at Calle Larga 5-24, between Calles Hermano Miguel and Mariano Cueva.  Hours: Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tel. 283-9181; email [email protected]. Admission is $2. Guided tours are available in Spanish and English.

Touring the Central Bank Museum

By Deke Castleman

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From portraits to ponchos, old coins to shrunken heads, Cuenca's most extensive and impressive artistic, historical, cultural, and ethnological exhibits are housed on three floors in the Central Bank Museum.

I recently signed in at the front desk, and took a walk through the chapters of Ecuadorian history – more of a topical tour, than a chronological one.

Fine art was on display just off the lobby on the middle level of the museum.  I wondered through three rooms, the first dedicated to exquisite sacred and religious art.  The next was full of portraits of heroes of Ecuador and Cuenca - fun and instructive to see the namesakes of some of the busy streets in Cuenca's El Centro.  And in the last of the lobby rooms I found landscape paintings of Cotapaxi, Tungurahua, and the Oriente, scenes of indigenous people and customs, and vividly colorful folk art.

Art is not the only lens through which to view the story of Ecuador.  This is a country that has battled one economic cycle after another and the evolution of its money tells part of the story on the lower level where you find a currency collection.

Pre-colombian natives used shells and beads for trading among themselves. The first coins of the Spanish era, irregularly shaped chunks of flat silver, date back to the mid-1600s. But the first Ecuadorian money was introduced in the 1830s, following independence and numerous samples of the currency of the young republic are on display.

The era of paper money was launched in the late 1800s with the emergence of a more centrally managed fiscal system. On display are early sucres and a chronology of the ever-increasing denominations of their currency until the death knoll sounded for the sucre in 2000, when local money was replaced by the U.S. dollar.  At which point the numismatic exhibit ends.


The Ethnographic Exhibits

History is often best told through the eyes of different people and Ecuadorian culture has 22 indigenous cultures, all of which have a space on the upper floor, one of the most interesting of which is the Shuar exhibit.

This wing of the floor is special for two reasons. One, it boasts the only bilingual information; plastic signs have a faceplate that slides over the Spanish, revealing the English. And second, the shrunken heads.

The decapitation of enemy dead and various uses of the heads have been common throughout history. But the practice of shrinking them is unique to the Amazon's northwestern rain forest and the Shuar were its main practitioners. Their word for it was "tsantsa."

The Shuar took heads, then put them through the shrinking process. When the practice began is lost in the mists of history, but it's known that it was a ritual to harness the spirit of the enemy, an extreme ritual in which it was believed the enemy's soul would be prevented from avenging its death.

The Rest of the Museum

The upper floor also houses exhibits of the other native Ecuadorians, the Cofan, Saraguros, Cañaris, Chimbos, Otovaleños, Montuvios, and Chachi Cayapas among them.  To have a chance at grasping it all multiple visits are required. 

There is also a temporary exhibit at the museum in a small room beyond the staircase on the upper level.  On the third floor is the research library where you can sit at tables in front of big picture windows and look out over the Cañari ruins of Pumapungo. There is also a small gift shop where you can buy Spanish-language books on history, architecture, art, politics, finance, and botanica, along with a few souvenirs.

Museum Pumpapungo  is located at the east end of Calle Larga on the corner of Huayna Capac; open Mon.-Fri. 8-5:30, Sat. 9-1, Sunday, closed; free.


Ciudad Cuenca

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