"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

A World-class museum
This is a special article about a special place; a place so visual in its impact that only photos can possibly tell the story - and even then, there is so much left unsaid; (or unpictured)

A detail salvaged from the original convent of Santo Domingo graces one side of the main entrance to the newly refurbished Oaxaca Cultural Center and Regional Museum.

In August of 1998, amid much official fanfare and festivities, and after four years of restricted access and outright closings, what was the "Regional Museum" reopened as the Oaxaca Cultural Center. Located in the ex-convent of the Church of Santo Domingo, the new museum has been designed to be a multi-use municipal building housing, among other things, a reading room, extensive gardens complete with orchards, a cactus garden, a collection of artifacts gathered from Oaxaca's history from colonial to contemporary eras (including the desk and chair upon which Benito Juarez edited the proposed Constitution for a new democratic Mexico), an art gallery, and a fabulous collection of objects recovered from nearby archeological digs, including the gold artifacts taken from tomb seven at Monte Alban.

The cactus garden, still under construction, encompasses only about one fourth of the vast grounds within the walls of the Santo Domingo complex.

A vast and sprawling complex, the Center constantly surprises the visitor, with hallways inside of hallways, windows with magnificent views of the mountains, the surrounding neighborhood, the gardens and the interior courtyard. Until 1992, the ex-convent was used as an army base. It reverted to the city when the army moved to new, larger quarters.

Until a year ago, we lived a block away from the ex-convento, and the tick-tick-tick of masonry hammers were the music of our days and nights, as hundreds of workers labored around the clock shaping stones, some as big as sofas.

Only the fountain itself and the leftmost column remain from the original, but like everything else in this magnificent building, the others were built by hand using tools thought to have been used to make the originals. Plays of light and shadow in this photo give the false impression that the columns are crooked. They are not.

It is hard to compass the vastness of the available space, only a small portion of which is presently being used, leaving a large number of rooms, locked away behind closed doors, in reserve for future projects.

This doorway is an example of the grandness and fine attention to detail that can be seen in the restored hallways. The door is closed, keeping secret the nature of the room behind it.

With such a magnificent structure to use as a physical plant, it is a bit disappointing that the artifacts on view within are on the whole poorly displayed. Mostly, it is a matter of the placement and intensity of the lighting that is being used. The display cases themselves are very impressive; simple, colonial in flavor, and well tagged in Spanish. Placards with more detailed descriptions of what is on display are available in every room, adding to the richness of the experience. Flash photos are not allowed (which is why we have only "natural light" pictures).

A closeup of a small domed ceiling at the intersection of a couple of passageways gives a clue as to the opulence of the original building

The Burgoa Library, named after one of Oaxaca's most famous educators, houses a large collection of 18th and 19th century texts. Researchers are combing this vast collection for whatever knowledge of Oaxaca's history it may contain.

Construction and reconstruction continue, and probably will for some years. This is a huge project, and a wonderful addition to the lives of Oaxacans, whether permanent residents or tourists.

( February, 1998)

 

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