Discovering the Past in Central Santiago

Discovering the Past in Central Santiago
By Auriole Fontaine

A true journey of discovery through Chile’s history awaits visitors to three of Santiago’s top museums.

The Natural History Museum in Quinta Normal Park features a considerable collection of Pre-Columbian archeological artifacts. Ceramics, textiles and weapons on display show the diversity of cultures that lived through the ages in what is now Chile.

Fossils and a botanical exhibition of the prehistoric Andean area convey the evolution of early flora and fauna and well as people. Perhaps the most interesting is the Mapuche collection, which portrays the important changes that occurred with the Inca contact starting in the late 1400s and then the Spanish contact after 1541. The displays also do a good job of portraying how the past and the rituals of this most important Chilean indigenous group have survived to the present day.

A particularly fascinating exhibit in this museum is the body of an eight-year-old Inca prince who was preserved in permafrost and survives to this day due to the dry climate. He gives the impression of a sleeping individual capable of awaking at any moment.

The Casa Colorado (at Merced 860 just east of the Plaza de Armas in downtown Santiago) was built in 1769 and is historically significant not only for its architecture but because its owner, Don Mateo De Toro, the last Spanish Governor of Chile, was involved in the Chilean Declaration of Independence.

The house is one of the few buildings in downtown Santiago that dates from the colonial era. Its Baroque, two-story architecture, painted red with a brick entrance, is also more substantial than the mostly adobe homes of the era.

The museum of the city of Santiago inside covers the history of area from the 9th to the 20th century in three main rooms, pre-Hispanic (the Aconcagua culture, approximately 900 to 1500, and then the Inca influence), the founding of Santiago and then the colonial settlement. In the first room there are scenes showing the early people who dwelled in the Mapocho Valley, living in houses made from reeds and the characteristic pottery incorporates black, red, and orange hues.

The Incas came from the north and dominated Chile starting in the late 15th century to as far south as the Maule River. Casa Colorado shows the resulting cultural transformation from the use of wool to cotton clothes, the construction of canals, the agricultural changes including maize production, the use of stone to strengthen housing, novel forms of ceramics and the culture of the sun and the moon.

Moving to the early stage of Spanish conquest, the slow but gradual development of Santiago is shown, including the inauguration of the Santa Lucia Hill, the planting of some 1,000 trees, the old tram system in the Plaza de Armas and remnants of music, dance and other forms of entertainment.

According to guide Luis Fuentes, «The museum takes us to the roots of our past: our Hispanic and Inca origins through stone, Alpaca, and wool, then the importance of the Spanish influence and later the German impact through the dairy and cured and smoked meat we see today, as well as the forests and use of wood in housing which comes from the Mapuches.»

Lastly, the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art is the result of the vision and adventurous spirit of architect Sergio Larrain, who in the latter half of the 20th century supported avant-garde architectural trends. Appalled by the universal ignorance of America’s past, he developed a passion for collecting pre-Columbian objects in order to link that world to our modern art and culture and help define «what is America.» The building that houses the museum is the old Royal Customs House, completed in 1807 in a pure neoclassic style inspired by the Moneda Palace.

Here the visitor is taken on an expedition through America as a whole, beginning with the arrival of human and ending with the European invasion. One can take in the territorial expansionism, magic religious symbolism and the evolution of technical and scientific knowledge, and we are challenged to decipher messages in paintings and textiles.

With a focus on the cultures of the Yamaho, Nasca, Taino and La Tolita cultures through jewelry, feathers and metallurgy one can also see that, luckily, many monuments of the Inca, Mayan and Aztec empires have been preserved. We see their tombs, where sacred and precious objects were buried together with the deceased.

The museum «fills a vacuum for the young people of America to recognize each other as brothers, knowing themselves to be the inheritors of a beautiful past,» says Larrain, who still lives a stone’s throw away from the museum.

El Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Quinta Normal is at Av. Matucana at Catedral at the western edge of Barrio Brasil, open Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 5:30 pm, Sundays noon to 5:30 pm., phone 681-4095.

Casa Colorado and el Museo de Santiago is at Merced 860 just east of the Plaza de Armas in downtown Santiago, open Tuesday through Friday 10 am-6 pm, Saturday 10 am-5 pm, Sunday 11 am-2 pm, 633-0723.

El Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino is at Bandera 361 just west of the Plaza de Armas in downtown Santiago, open Tuesday- Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday 10 am-4 pm, 695-3625.