Lima’s Museum of the Nation in San Borja is home to limited collections featuring pre-Columbian ceramics, photos from Peru’s armed conflict with the Shining Path and the splendid costumes from operas and plays held at the Grand National Theater.
The museum used to be Peru’s most important, but it has been cleared out in recent years as Peru’s state culture ministry which manages it seems to be working on new plans. As you can see, their main galleries have little to do with each other and many halls are empty. So for now, we don’t recommend this museum unless you’re an aficionado for theater costumes.
I went alone on a Wednesday afternoon to fight my way through herds of school kids. The main building is impressive and I felt more like a diplomat entering an international peace conference going up the huge steps than a layman about to visit a museum.
On entering you find yourself staring up at giant photos of indigenous women clad in traditional colored garments almost spanning the height of six floors. Cultural facts are thrown at you from walls and up from the floor, including the fact that 47 languages are spoken in Peru. One is spoken by only one really old lady in the highlands.
After signing in and waving my ID I headed for the first exhibit. It is two floors of mostly pre-Columbian pottery and a few colonial art pieces which have been repatriated with the help of Interpol and restored by Peru’s culture ministry, which runs the museum.
The pre-Columbian art is almost entirely repatriated items from abroad. It is interesting to ponder how each of these ancient relics was smuggled out of the country, and how many more are sitting in rich people’s private galleries in North America, Europe and beyond. Above is pottery from the Moche culture.
This is from the Lambayeque culture.
These are Indian flutes made from bones. They were confiscated and repatriated by Argentina.
This is one of the famous Paracas textiles.
Above is a Cuzco School painting depicting Tubalcain, the Old Testament character who builds iron tools. This was confiscated from somebody trying to sneak it past the Chilean border.
The second floor features some colonial artwork including dressers which reflected the trend at the time to even design your furniture in honor of the Church.
The pre-Columbian art at the Museum of the Nation is not very good compared to the amazing collections at the Larco Museum, MALI and the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru. The armed-conflict gallery is nothing like the brand-new Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion. So what sets the museum apart is the third floor, home to an exhibition of stage costumes used in operas and plays at the Grand National Theater, which is located next door.
The costumes vary from elaborate and sequined takes on traditional clothing to the outright bizarre, terrifying forms of what I took to be elements or mythical beasts.
The theater was putting on a production of Alice in Wonderland. These costumes actually tone down the story’s psychedelia.
The theater also hosts some of Peru’s best folk music acts, so just about every genre of Peruvian music is represented in dress.
Going back to ground floor you can find elevators to take you to the sixth floor for a photo exhibition of Peru’s armed conflict with the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA).
It began in 1980 and the rebels or Shining Path weren’t fully quashed until 2000, spanning 20 years in which nearly 70,000 people died.
The exhibition runs through more than 20 small rooms with each depicting a specific event. Though the main explanation for each room has an English translation, the smaller photos do not.
The parts I found most interesting were the depictions of activist Maria Elena Moyano who was murdered by the Shining Path. And the shocking treatment of indigenous communities in Ayacucho, where the uprising started.
The final rooms show mug shots of the worst perpetrators as well as of many who are still missing. Radio messages play below each photo giving greater context and it is really quite harrowing.
The final room’s walls are painted with inspirational quotes from writers and activists such as Nobel Laureate Mario Vargos Llosa. And I don’t know how intentional it is, but it’s set up for you to sit in front of a full open view of Lima, the poorer districts, barrios, all of it. You can sit there and really get a feel of what this city has been through.
Location and info
The museum’s convenient location in San Borja at the intersection of Javier Prado and Aviacion avenues makes it easily accessible by public transportation. The La Cultura Metro station is at the same intersection and the Javier Prado Metropolitano station is just 1.5 miles west.
Museo de la Nacion
Av. Javier Prado Este 2465, San Borja
It is located in Peru’s top convention area and makes up part of a complex featuring the Great National Theater, Lima Convention Center, the culture ministry and the National Library. The government uses all of these building to host world-class conventions such as the World Bank-IMF meetings of 2015 and the current APEC Summit.