I have been living in Berlin (Germany) for more than 10 years, where I arrived to finish my doctorate History of Anthropology. Writing this article was a great opportunity for me, it not only implied to be able to "revisit" one of my favorite places in La Plata (Argentina) but it also meant to go through endearing memories of my personal and professional life. But enough of this remembrance of my present and my immediate past, it is time to dive into the hollow of deep memory.
One of my earliest memories of the Museo de La Plata is when I was 4 years old. Like anyone else who was born and lived in La Plata, the museum was one of the main (and almost obligatory) weekends’ visits for families. I remember taking its grand staircases, crossing the Corinthian columns, and standing stupefied in the central hallway, where a bust of its founder, the self-educated Argentine naturalist Francisco Moreno (1852-1919), seemed to scrutinize visitors' intentions with a denouncing gaze. Whichever hall you walked through, they all had an ethereal atmosphere, in every centimeter you could breathe the smell of old wood, they were all filled with the subtle and constant noise of sepulchral silence, the natural light that poured over the collections made them seem like objects far away in time and belonging to the imagination.
Over the years, the child’s astonishment led to the student’s concerns, however, the museum’s monumental external architecture, its internal configuration, its smells, its sounds and its atmosphere remained unchanged for more than 100 years. I invite you to walk with me through one of the more important museums and Natural Science faculty of Latin America.
On November 19, 1882, La Plata city was founded and the nationalization of various institutions, archives and historical establishments was decreed. In this context, the collections of the Archaeological and Anthropological Museum founded by Moreno in 1877 were translated to La Plata. On September 17, 1884, the project for a new museum and Moreno’s appointment as Director was approved. Like the great metropolitan museums established since the end of the 18th century in Europe, the Museo de La Plata was conceived as a space to accommodate, study and exhibit the natural resources and cultural treasures of Argentina, which, at that time, was establishing its internal and external boundaries.
The construction of the building began in 1884 and was completed 3 years later. The chosen location a largest park, almost 60 hectares, where there was also the Zoological Garden, the Astronomical Observatory and a vast lake. Its opened to the public in 1888.
The monumental architecture of neoclassical characteristics, the dominant style of La Plata’s foundational period buildings, was an idea conceived by Moreno, who was inspired by the museums he had visited in Europe. The design and construction were in charge of the Swedish architect Henrik Åberg (1841-1922) and the German engineer Karl Heynemann.
Arriving at the museum, an enormous staircase of two flights, guarded by two enormous Smilodon sculptures, leads us to a main portico composed of six Corinthian columns. Other elements of neoclassical imprint such as the facade are harmoniously combined with pre-Columbian cultures relief ornamentation. Standing on the portico, one can observe on the side walls 12 busts made by the Venetian artist Victor de Pol (1865-1925). Distributed equitable, six on each side, they represent naturalists and personalities of the 18th and 19th centuries selected by Moreno: Jacques de Perthes, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Johann Winckelmann, Johann Blumenbach, Carl Linneo, Georges Cuvier, Alexander von Humboldt, Félix de Azara, Charles Darwin, Alcide d'Orbigny, Paul Broca and August Bravard.
The entrance hall opens onto a large roundabout guarded by Moreno’s bust, bathed by the natural light provided by the upper zenithal opening. The walls are covered with large oil paintings depicting fauna, landscapes and representatives of Argentina's ancient inhabitants in imaginary scenes of daily life. The museum has a rectangular floor plan with two hemicycles that in its main axis is 135 meters and 70 meters in the minor axis. This particular elliptical shape was an idea of Moreno, who was inspired by the evolutionary ideas of the French paleontologist Albert Gaudry (1827-1908).
This "biological ring", as Moreno called it, distributed the halls in an ascending evolutionary order, which began with the mysteries of the Earth in the Geology hall and ended on the second floor with the Anthropology hall with the evolution of man and an exhibition of artistic works.
Over the years, the contents of the halls changed, taking into account the historical and social juncture and the progress made in each discipline. However, and because the museum was designated a national historic monument in 1997, the structure and interior of the rooms remain unchanged. In each of them the visitor is immersed in large spaces, illuminated by natural light thanks to the large skylights in the center of the roof and the side windows, with high ceilings that end in moldings and decorations with motifs of American cultures.
The first hall is called "The Earth: a history of changes". Through models, videos, diagrams and interactive displays, the evolution of the Universe, the main geological changes that have occurred on Earth and biological evolution are explained. Possibly one of the greatest attractions is the possibility of touching pieces of meteorites and a great variety of minerals. The first part of the hall has a full-scale reproduction of a typical 19th century naturalist cabinet, an atmosphere achieved with original furniture of the time, Moreno's work material and the Kapper meteorite, found in 1896 in the province of Chubut.
Leaving this room, one is perplexed by the imposing replica of the Diplodocus carnegii, which occupies the central space of the hall called "Time and Matter: Labyrinths of Evolution". Next to this impressive replica, there are two femurs of an Antarctosaurus, a herbivorous dinosaur approximately 80 million years old that lived in the area of Argentine Patagonia. The exhibition is completed with the display of minerals and meteorites together with a series of animal skulls through which it seeks to explain the common bases of the evolution of matter through time.
Following the tour, one enters to a large section where the public of all ages can approach and observe one of their greatest fantasies: dinosaurs. The paleontology section covers the Precambrian to the Cenozoic. The replica of a Bradysaurus, a primitive reptile, attracts us to a world where gigantism was the main characteristic of the flora and fauna. Reproductions and original parts of mollusks, marine arthropods and trilobites occupy part of the side windows, while on the opposite side there are informative giant prints. In the central section there are several original skeletons and casts of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, primitive birds such as Archaeopteryx and a giant ammonite.
At the end of the hall one can observe skeletons of the megafauna that inhabited the Pampean environments more than 10,000 years ago. Toxodonts, Glyptodonts, Macrauquenias, Glossotheres, Smilodons, and fossil horse species are accompanied by drawings that tentatively show what these animals might have looked during their lifetime. One of the great attractions of this section is the skeleton of a Megatherium, which, in an upright position, seems to act as the guardian of the museum bar’s entrance. On one side is hidden another of the great attractions of this hall, one that over the decades has provided solid elements to the imagination of both visitors and researchers: the fossilized skin of a Mylodon. Exhibited together with fossilized excrement, this skin presents an incredible quality of preservation, being able to appreciate the details of the fur that covered the body of this enormous mammal that inhabited the extreme south of Argentina and Chile.
Passing through the temporary exhibition hall, one arrives to the zoology section. The first part is devoted exclusively to invertebrates. Sponges mingle among corals of various shapes, anemones and annelids enclosed in test tubes, large marine snails of radiant colors, spiders, scorpions, crabs and a 5 meters model of an octopus that balances in perpetual equilibrium on the hall’s ceiling. This is one of the rooms that causes less attraction in the visitors, who dedicate little or almost no time to it. Possibly because of an ancestral fear of animals without skeletons, perhaps because they have previously visited the paleontology hall or because of the imposing vertebrate hall that follows.
Visitors senses, possibly lethargic before the monochrome immobility of invertebrates, are assaulted by a universe of shapes and colors. To the left is the aquatic and semi-aquatic vertebrate hall. On the side walls are skeletons of various freshwater and marine fish along with information regarding their sporting and economic importance. In the central part there are skeletons, reproductions and embalmed bodies of sea lions, turtles, penguins and elephant seals. Undoubtedly the main attractions are the skull of a sperm whale on one side and the huge blue whale skull that occupies the center of the hall. In this hall there is also the entrance to the imposing library of the museum, which in its beginnings served as an amphitheater for presentations and lessons.
Continuing the tour, one arrives at the Entomology hall, which offers numerous species of butterflies, bees, wasps and ants along with valuable information on insects of medical interest. Next, and as a final part of this half hemicycle, there is a vast collection of skeletons and dissected bodies of birds and mammals. Enclosed in the stained-glass windows, as if it were a crystalline metaphor of stopped time, representatives of native and exotic species can be observed. Many of these are arranged in dioramas of scarce square meters that recreate their natural environments. In my childhood, adolescence and adulthood I experienced the same mixture of awe and fear in this hall, a mixture of sensations that I could observe in other visitors. The eyes of large mammals such as the gorilla, the orangutan or the marsh deer seem to scrutinize visitors in search of a breath of life in order to escape from their eternal lethargy.
Towards the end, two large cetacean skeletons suspended in the air serve as the entrance to the Comparative Osteology hall, which exhibits skeletons of current vertebrates following the original design of Museo de La Plata’s first years. Stacked in the central axis are exotic mammals such as the giraffe, the rhinoceros, Asian and African elephants and a lion along with representatives of the native fauna such as the cow or the puma. From the ceiling hang the skeletons of two large cetaceans and towards the end of the tour a human skeleton is exhibited along with others of apes in order to show the evolutionary kinship.
When ascending to the second floor the visitor must make a brief pause in the central landing, which is crowned by a large triptych that reproduce decorative pieces from the upper valley of Mexico. Once in the second floor, one arrives to a central circle that connects the two remaining sections. Statues and other material objects from the Jesuit missions are distributed, along with oil paintings.
One of the sections contains the ethnography and biological anthropology halls, which have been modified in recent years to reflect the cultural and biological diversity of human beings, overcoming the old racist and colonialist paradigm that for decades shaped the objects and the way in which they were exhibited.
The Ethnographic hall, called "Cultural Mirrors" and inaugurated in 2007, presents the cultural richness of Argentina and South America’s pueblos originarios (native peoples). More than 300 ethnographic objects, including some historical pieces such as the armor of a Chocorí chief and an Araucanian chief or the huge canoes, are harmoniously intermingled with a carnival costume from Oruro or a display that show a current and urban ethnography through the exhibition of mates, radios and magazine photos.
Next to it is the "Being and Belonging" hall, dedicated to Biological Anthropology. As a result of the claims of the pueblos originarios for their ancestors remains, in 2006 the human remains and mummified bodies of American origin that for decades were part of the exhibition were removed. Replicas of fossil primates, the skeleton of a chimpanzee and a Homo sapiens, videos and diagrams show the diversity of human evolution in its diversity.
The last three halls are dedicated to Archaeology. The first focuses on Latin America. Here one needs a lot of time to appreciate the details of the hundreds of ceramics from the Nazca, Moche or Inca cultures. Drawings of animals, anthropomorphic beings and individuals are expressed with precise lines of autumnal colors. Some metal objects and wooden vessels complete the exhibition, which has as its main protagonist a replica of the Sun Gate, part of the ceremonial center of Tiahuanaco (Bolivia). Ceramics are repeated in the next room, dedicated to the archeology of northwestern Argentina. Here we have too an object that accumulates the largest number of photographs, the reproduction of the Lafone Quevedo disk. Used as the emblem of the museum, this bronze plaque represents typical elements of the Aguada Culture: an anthropomorphic figure, ornaments such as necklaces and earrings, two felines on its shoulders and two snakes at the bottom.
The last hall, and possibly the most fascinating, is the one dedicated to Egypt. Compared to the other halls, this one does not exhibit a large number of objects, however, two doors with hieroglyphic inscriptions, two stelae, a couple of ceramics and two sarcophagi are enough to feed the visitors' fantasies.
When leaving the museum, the timeless gaze of the Smilodontes can also be seen in the visitors’ eyes, who return home confident that they have penetrated the mysteries of the Universe, Nature and Man. Almost 36 years separate me from that child who first set foot in this temple of the muses nestled in the middle of the city forest. The fascination for the unfathomable enigmas of life still beats in me. Maybe it is time to visit the museum again
Visit https://www.museo.fcnym.unlp.edu.ar/ in order to find more information regarding
(Almost all the information is in Spanish)
* * *
Diego Ballestero is an Argentinean Anthropologist and Doctor on Natural Sciences by the National University of La Plata (Argentina) His Ph.D. analyzed the conditions which enabled anthropological practices in Argentina towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Since 2010 he lives in Berlin and research on decolonial theory, provenance research, history of Anthropology/Museums and the construction and representation of ethnic identity in museal context. Since 2017 he is lecturer and researcher at the Department Anthropology of the Americas (University of Bonn, Germany)