On my recent travels I popped into Madrid’s Museum of America, a favourite of mine since I first went there a few years ago. This is an overlooked gem of a museum, located to the north-west of the city center. There are so many fascinating artefacts here that you could easily spend days looking at them all in detail. Not having quite that long to spare, I made do with a few highlights which go some way to show the sheer breadth of the collection there.
At the height of the Spanish empire, its territories on the continent of America ranged from the northernmost lands of what is now the western United States, Florida and Mexico, down through central America and the Caribbean islands, right through to nearly all of South America.* These lands, added to Spain’s other territories in Africa, Europe and the Pacific, made it one of the largest empires ever to exist and the first to be called “the empire on which the sun never sets”.
Of course, as we all know well, it all began in 1492 when Columbus** sailed the ocean (blue) and discovered… what is now known as the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti. It’s both fascinating and somewhat ironic that the man most famed for his discovery of “America” in fact barely set foot on what we would think of as America now. Instead, each of his four voyages took him and his fellow explorers back to the islands and archipelagos of central America – the smallest landmasses in the region. Of course, the expansion into the continent itself came later as a direct result of Columbus’s initial discovery but it’s strange to think back to a time when people simply didn’t know that there was a huge continent there and thought it would just be a good shortcut through to India. This opens up a whole topic in itself about how geography affects the course of history. Imagine if America hadn’t been there, or if it had only been discovered by Europeans much later. How different the world would be right now!
As you would expect, the museum has many maps and globes, some of them historical, and some of them modern interpretation aids showing the exact routes of the voyages or interesting overlays such as the extent of spoken Spanish in north and south America. There are statistics and comparisons of how technologically advanced each indigenous civilisation was in relation to Europe – usually they started off a few thousand years ahead, much like those of the Egyptians or Romans. These were advanced societies, many of them already familiar with conquest through their own expansions into each other’s territories. This is what made the Spanish conquest relatively easy in some ways, as the arriving conquistadors could exploit rivalries between factions of the native societies. In general terms, however, there was no planned ‘strategy’ in the takeover of the Americas. The conquistadors were mavericks and mercenaries, out for whatever they could get. Whilst many of them were very shrewd operators and enjoyed many successes, for the most part they were very much reacting to events rather than controlling them. Back home in the court of Spain, the King was more concerned about what was happening with Spain’s European possessions, so the Americas were both physically and politically remote and subject to the influence of whoever happened to rise to the top of the pile.
Back at the museum, the collection also includes many examples of stone, metal and pottery figures in a range of styles from different indigenous peoples of the Americas. The fascinating thing about a lot of these particular artefacts is how amazingly expressive they are for what we might take at first as “primitive” art. Many of them seem so poised that they look almost as if they are about to move of their own free will! The faces have a worldliness to them which is difficult to describe, and it can be quite mesmerising to stare at them for any length of time. The geometric patterns of the textiles are also a favourite of mine, some of them incorporating birds, faces or other motifs into the design. There are also headdresses and decorations made from feathers, exquisitely made metal jewellery and amulets, items of clothing (including a special jerkin with a circular symbol woven into it which denoted the chief of a particular community), weapons and many more things besides. Alongside these items are artefacts describing the actions and events of the Europeans, including paintings depicting arrivals in new lands, and documents with accounts from the most prominent conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro on their victorious battles and discoveries.
It’s quite moving to look into the face of one of those carved figures and imagine the person who made it looking back at you; imagining their thoughts, preoccupations and fears; trying to grasp what immense change the arriving Europeans brought to their life. This is often a thorny topic in museums, and one which some of the other patrons I observed during my visit did seem to find difficult. People often think that displaying such artefacts as those described above condones the worldview of those who took them out of their native cultures in the first place, or who thought themselves “ordained by God” to carry out the conquest and asset-stripping of those cultures.*** I disagree with that view. Certainly it was a colonisation and certainly events took place which were brutal and would now be unacceptable to us. However, the answer is neither to hide it away and pretend it didn’t happen, nor to exaggeratedly proclaim its wrongness in a self-righteous manner. The solution is to do what the Museum of America and many others do exceptionally well, which is to present the facts as straightforwardly as possible and simply say “this happened”. The curation of this collection does exactly that – it neither condemns, vindicates or excuses but simply describes, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions.
The museum is not just preoccupied with the colonial period, however. It incorporates collections which were once part of the Royal Cabinet of Natural History in the mid eighteenth century, which include important artefacts from the first archaeological excavations to be carried out in the continent of America. The building itself is also worth a look whilst you’re there, as it is modelled in the style of a monastic cloister with a central courtyard filled with interesting plant and tree species, and a neo-Baroque tower at one corner. Last year, the museum celebrated its 75th anniversary.
So, all together, a fantastic way to spend a few hours in Madrid!
* Some historians also include Brazil which, as part of the Portuguese territories, came under the power of Phillip II when he laid claim to the Portuguese throne in 1580, but others see the Spanish and Portuguese empires as distinct.
** Cristóbal Colón in Spanish, actually an Italian navigator from Genoa but carrying out the expedition under the Crown of Castile. There is a statue of him in Madrid (in modern times, alas, somewhat dwarfed by the surrounding architecture) and a museum dedicated to him in Valladolid, where he spent his last years.
*** It seems to affect collections from the pre-modern era more than those closer to our own time. Few people would argue that a museum displaying, for example, Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda was agreeing with the ideas expressed within it.