I know calling something ‘fascinating’ immediately makes it sound worthy and probably not much fun, but the Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose really was fascinating…and I found it fun.
Gold museums seem to have spread far and wide in this part of the world. It amazes me that there were enough gold and silver objects left after the Spanish finished looting the civilisations they colonised in the Americas to warrant building even one Museo de Oro, but I’ve already been to three and they have all been wonderful.
Perhaps it is testimony to the wealth of gold objects that pre-Hispanic civilisations created as symbols of authority or religion, or, perhaps, the fascination most of us have with this shiny and valuable metal, but the gold museums of Colombia and Costa Rica are some of the most interesting museums I’ve visited.
The Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose is excellent, justifying its US$12 entrance fee…although to be fair the entrance ticket also gives you access to two other museums and a special exhibition of paintings by Lola Fernandez. Its housed (and owned) by the Banco Nacional, and is home to some of the most important and priceless gold objects that survived the Spanish colonisation.
Thanks to vast trade routes connecting Central America to the Incan, Aztec and Mayan civilisations, there are many similarities with gold objects I saw in Cartagena and Santa Maria. Some of the pieces, however, are truly unique. I loved the representations of sea creatures, which I’d not seen before. There are representations of all the animals that played a key role in the life of Central American cultures prior to the arrival of the Spanish: frogs, bats, crocodiles, jaguars and a host of birds.
One of the advantages of visiting the Museo de Oro Precolombino is that there is a detailed explanation of how many of the objects were made. This involved creating a wax model, forming a clay mould around the wax, melting the wax and then pouring the gold/silver/alloy into the clay mould. It was an amazingly advanced artistic method that required skilled execution if the objects weren’t to be ruined.
One of the features of many of the more recent (i.e. 600 -800 years old) items is that the gold was mixed with copper to create an alloy that had very different visual properties to a solid gold item. This shows that gold wasn’t valued in-and-of-itself, and that Central American metallurgists were experimenting to create new and unique items for use as religious and political symbols.
There is also a fabulous short film about the cultures that created the items you’re viewing, which really helps understand the cultural significance of the objects.