Mexico City has many claims to fame: world-renowned historic sites, diverse architecture and a dizzying array of local and international cuisines, to name just a few. But arguably, the city’s most impressive assets are its 150-plus museums—among the most of any city in the world. Well-travelled, well-documented edifices filled with Aztec masks, Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits and the masterpieces of Mexican Muralism are easy to find, but entire spaces dedicated to lesser-known, lesser-hyped artisans and artifacts equally abound across the city.
Among the megalopolis’ impressive array of museums is an art deco fire house teeming with fantastical papier-mâché creatures, and crumbling residential buildings crammed with antique toys. As diverse as the displays are, from folk art and commercial packaging to religious charms and Lucha Libre masks, they all make up the multi-faceted kaleidoscope that is Mexican culture.
While they may not have the fame of their big institutional relatives, these three niche museums consists of utterly unique, if at times bizarre, hidden gems, each evoking Mexico City’s endlessly enchanting energy.
With its mix of street art and grand colonial architecture, Mexico City’s vibrant Centro Histórico unfolds like one big outdoor museum. Although, not looking beyond the ancient façades could mean missing out on a one-of-a-kind destination that revels in the unexpected.
Just a couple of blocks from the renowned Palacio de Bellas Artes, an ornate cultural centre in the city centre, lies the Museo de Arte Popular (MAP). Worlds away from the downtown frenzy, it exhibits a colourful cross-section of Mexican folk art through the centuries, showcasing everything from simple palm-leaf baskets to sacred Tree of Life sculptures. “Many of the objects exhibited at MAP have followed, and will continue to follow, Mexicans from birth to death,” explains Walther Boelsterly, the museum’s general director. “We’d like to promote and preserve the handcrafts, traditions and customs that symbolize the essence of our culture.”
Indeed, the collection includes items such as silk bridal sashes that are hand-embroidered with exotic orchids and hummingbirds, Indigenous masks decorated with monstrous monkey-like beasts and Oaxacan Mezcal bowls featuring skull carvings as a reminder of death. Perhaps most interesting to visitors is witnessing how Mexican craftspeople connect the living world to whimsical—oftentimes nightmarish—representations of death. Several rooms at MAP are dedicated to the rituals and crafts around the Day of the Dead celebrations. The museum’s central atrium is inhabited by dozens of enormous papier-mâché Alebrije (brightly coloured folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures) and other rooms are filled with opulent miniature altars and life-sized skeleton figures.
Whether it’s the artifacts of an entire nation, or the private collection of one individual, common objects are testaments to history in the making, telling the tales of the people and times that produced them. Such is the belief of Bruno Newman, whose 150,000 or so flea market trinkets, vintage advertising posters, 200-year-old cosmetic tubes and other finds from almost 50 years of collecting, lay the foundation of the Museo del Objeto del Objeto (MODO) in Roma Norte.
The roster of temporary exhibitions at MODO is based on the idea that seemingly ordinary knick-knacks become museum-worthy when grouped together and presented under relevant themes—spanning the entertaining (rock music), to the provocative (eroticism) and the political (propaganda). A recent show on Mexican football transformed the museum’s three floors into a hall of fame for the nation’s best-loved sport: jerseys and treasured trophies were gathered along with fan paraphernalia, pictures of chubby mascots and newspaper clippings idolizing the players and their legendary victories.
“Every few months we dive into a different world,” says Paulina Newman, the general director of MODO. “It reflects Bruno’s approach. He tends to get obsessed with one thing and then compulsively collects everything around it. But not all items make the cut, he has a discerning eye and he knows exactly what he’s already got.”
In time for this year’s Mexican elections (July 1), MODO is holding an exhibition on democracy that combines community involvement with documents from, among other places, the largest political propaganda archive in Mexico—kept by no less than Bruno himself.
“Every few months we dive into a different world.” —Paulina Newman
Tucked away in an unassuming apartment block in the gritty Doctores neighbourhood, Roberto Shimizu’s eccentric collection of vintage toys in the Museo del Juguete Antiguo documents a life spent roaming Mexico’s flea markets and antique dealers for playroom curiosities. Shimizu, whose fascination started when he was given his first Matchbox car at age 10, was born into a family of Japanese immigrants who kept a flourishing toyshop in the same building that now houses the museum.
Little seems to have changed from the 1960s. Every nook and cranny of the four-floor building is stuffed to the brim with an odd mix of retro robots, faded board games, hand-stitched teddy bears and anything else that predates the made-in-China era.
With the museum’s completely random layout, it all feels a bit like a cross between the unbridled imagination of a child and a horror movie set: one moment you’ll be freaked out by a Jack-in-the-Box clown jumping out of an old-school metal tin, and the next you’ll be giggling at the sight of a Lucha Libre wrestler figure holding hands with a one-limbed doll.
“Not one thing was bought from the Internet,” says Shimizu, as he flicks through a handwritten file of the thousands of toys he owns. “The joy lies in the search.”
The same could be said for Mexico City’s quirky museums. Go a little out of your way and you’ll surely be rewarded with unconventional experiences no traditional institution can offer.
“The joy lies in the search.” —Roberto Shimizu