The Museo del Oro in Bogota is a magical place. It boasts a wealth of gold objects and other artefacts made from precious metals, sea shells and jade, as well as a number of fantastic pottery pieces. If its amazing that the gold pieces have survived the onslaught of several centuries of European greed in the Americas, the survival of clay pieces is almost as wondrous.
Its not just the brilliance of the items on display, or the fact that there are over fifty thousand of them; its not just that the displays are inventive and beautifully presented, or that the information that accompanies them is intriguing and informative. It is the combination of all of this that brings pre-Hispanic history and culture alive and makes Bogota’s Museo del Oro one of the finest, if not the finest, museum in the Americas.
I doubt there is a museum anywhere on the continent that can boast such a wealth of artefacts and information on the pre-Hispanic cultures that existed before the Spanish arrival in the Americas. The most fascinating part was the direct connection between the artefacts and the belief systems of the indigenous tribes that they represent. I’ve not come across such a comprehensive description of pre-Hispanic cultures before.
The tribes that lived in this part of the Americas held the natural world in awe. There was a strong belief in the ability of transformations or transmutations into beings that were part animal and part human. In part this was achieved through hallucinogens that induced a trance-like state, but also by the use of gold ornaments with images of animals on them.
Decorating yourself in these ornaments helped you observe the world through the eyes of the jaguar, crocodile, bat, bird, spirits or ancestors. Essentially, society for Amerindians is viewed as being united with nature – plants, animals, spirits and humans all forming a cosmic society split into three tiers. Birds represent the upper world; humans, jaguars and deer represent the intermediate world; while bats, snakes and crocodiles represent the lower world.
The upper and lower worlds have opposing but complementary elements: light and dark, dry and wet, male and female. The intermediate world where humans live combines elements of both. Gods, dead ancestors and spirits inhabit both the upper and lower worlds.
One gallery deals with the role that powerful hallucinogens played in aiding transformations between the human and animal realms. An hallucinogenic powder called Yopo was frequently used for religious rites and was inhaled using a a small spoon or through the bones of small birds. Humanity hasn’t changed all that much really.
One of the final displays is like being in an immersion tank: you enter a darkened circular room, the doors close around you and music starts to play. As the music peaks and troughs sections of the walls, floor and ceiling are illuminated to highlight huge displays of golden objects. It is an impressive way to end your time in the museum, and it highlights again just how much cultural heritage has been lost since Europeans arrived in the Americas.