One of the world's four museums dedicated to exhibiting pre-Columbian gold, The Gold Museum in San Josť, recently reopened after undergoing an extensive, five-year remodeling.
The new exhibit is an impressive work. The curators designed an informative layout in order to more completely put the gold in context within the indigenous communities that shaped and used the gold pieces. The museum answers the questions of who these people were, how they lived, and why they manufactured these pieces.
Research and design took six years, and included national and international advisors and extensive dialogues with the Costa Rican indigenous communities in the Southern Zone and the Atlantic slope of this country, where the majority of the pieces originate.
Patricia Fernandez, the archeology curator of the museum, headed the research for the project.
We aimed to broaden the information about the metal working technologies of the period, the formal use of the objects and how symbolism played into the early indigenous societies, she said.
Over 1,600 pieces are incorporated into the new display, dating from 500 to 1500 AD. Six years of interviews, national and international investigation, and dedicated study have painstakingly brought the project to fruition.
If you have an excellent base of research [in a museum] but poor design, it's not worth that much. You need to speak to the visitors.
This exhibit does just that. Care was taken in every aspect of the design, with thought extending down to the colors of text and displays.
Even the colors selected are proven to help facilitate learning, Fernandez explained.
The thematic displays are well written in English and Spanish, detailing the gold and other artifacts. Ceramics and other indigenous pieces show the relation to the politico-religious characteristics of the societies.
We look at the specific functions of the gold. It had a reason to be there. The gold is a pretext to talk about the complex socio-political context of the people, elaborated Fernandez.
Gold's symbolism is also emphasized. Warriors in the complex societies that developed after 700 AD wore gold renderings of jaguars and terrifying birds, seeking to represent themselves in animals of great strength, stealth, speed and endurance. This correlation is evident in the gold figures.
Shamans, too, expressed their social standing through gold renderings of animals. Animals of the water, land, and air, informs one placard, were used by shamans as mediators of auxiliary spirits. They symbolized the positive and negative forces present in the different realities to which the shaman had access.
The museum's new versatility will appeal to both those seeking exquisite gold pieces and an educational setting placing the pieces in historical context.
You can see the pieces as beautiful works of art. And they are. But if you want to go beyond the artistic standpoint, you can. We see the human being behind the art. There is a beginning, development, and end to this period. We look at the entire process, added FernŠndez.
The difference in Costa Rica's indigenous societies from those of other nations was that Costa Rica conserved very little of her native populations. Other places, such as Guatemala or Peru, have seen their native cultures continue to live and produce.
In Costa Rica, however, the population was quickly devastated by disease or shipped out to the sliver mines of Bolivia. As Spanish colonization ruptured the social and political processes of the indigenous population, then, artisan traditions weren't necessary to illustrate one's power and rank. So the traditions disappeared.
The memory lives on, though, well studied and wonderfully presented in downtown San Josť.