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Museo del Oro (Bogota, Colombia)

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      04.06.2011 13:24
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      Gold everything

      The Gold Museum is Bogota's best known museum but though it has a nice central location AND its own Transmilenio stop, it doesn't look like much from the outside. While other museums here are housed in former palaces, or at the very least nice colonial houses, this one barely stands out from the surrounding office blocks and government buildings. I first went on a Sunday when it is free, but it was heaving with families getting their bit of zero-cost culture and hard to enjoy, so I recently went back on a Friday, paying $3000 (£1) for the privilege of a more personal and private visit.

      The museum spans a whopping 7 floors, and 3 of these are intriguingly below ground. As you enter, you pass through a security checkpoint (they nosy in bags and occasionally pat you down) and get a ticket - even on free days - and then your choice is stairs or lift. If you choose the latter you can attack the floors in any order, but climb up the stairs and you will be 'encouraged' to follow the exhibitions in what they deem to be the correct order. This means starting on the 1st floor (which they call Piso 2, being American in their floor labelling) with the Metallurgy rooms (or, as they call them, "Working of Metals"). This starts off rather sparsely, and you quickly come to realise how they have managed to fill those 7 floors as there is a lot of unused space. I'm not sure whether it's always like this, or they're in the process of changing things, but on my last visit the first room looked a bit grotty, with the walls stripped down to what seemed to be lining paper.

      Here, as in the other displays, there are a surprising number of gold-themed but not gold-coloured items on show. In this particular one it's tools for metal work, like chisels and hammers, which is understandable, but later on its random statues or jewellery made from teeth which seem a slightly less good fit. Every single item on show is labelled in both English and Spanish, though the dates tend to be only in the latter - confusingly, AC is for years BC, while DC is those AD. With items dating from 2100 BC, those dates crop up quite a bit.

      From here you move on to another display on the opposite side of the floor. Upstairs there are two more separately themed spaces, while the top floor is just one, the "Exploratoria". This is, and I quote "because we love active visitors" but I was disappointed by it. Far from being a nice hands-on zone á la Launchpad, it is quite boring. There are lots of things painted on the floor, and you can walk over these and also step on the embedded TV screens, but with no levers to pull or buttons to press, it's hardly what I would call interactive and what's more, there's not a SINGLE gold thing up there. It's almost as if they decided to tag it on because such a space is 'what all famous museums need'.

      That wasn't the only place I thought this. As I wandered, I was struck by how every feature of every museum I've ever been to seemed to be incorporated here and rather than stick to one way of displaying things, it was all a bit schizophrenic with simple wall displays and fancy curved 'step in' installations and middle-of-the-floor jewellery shop style glass pillars and murals and world maps and so on. Though there's lots of writing on and near the displays, it often seems to stop half way through. For example one part talks about how Gold artefacts were important and revered for their meaning and the stories attached to them, as much as for their monetary value, but no examples of these stories are given. Another pillar randomly talks of the "plants of knowledge - tobacco, coca, yopa" but is completely unrelated to the display case alongside.

      Not all of the rooms have as obvious a connection to the metal as the initial one. For example, "Cosmology and Symbolism" seemed a bit more random though did produce such gems as "The cosmos was fertilised by priests". Across from here was "The Offering" which sounded like a B-list horror movie certain people on here might review.

      One room has a massive timeline tracking from 15000 BC through to the present, with different levels for different continents, though the link to the Gold is quite tenuous if at all - one square states than "the earliest evidence of corn being grown in Mexico" dates from 5000 BC, for example. I enjoyed seeing the Jaguar Man statues from archaeological sites near the Colombian coast (somewhere I'm unlikely to get to in person, as it's highly inaccessible) but again there were descriptions but no real explanations as to how they fitted in to a Gold Museum.

      Most of the rooms are simple artefact displays, though a few also have small video screens showing films on loops - these are kept quiet so as not to disturb other visitors, and there are subtitles to help you figure out what's going on, but they weren't interesting to me and after a few moments I moved on. The exception is up on the 2nd floor (Piso 3) where they have a bizarre thing going on. There is a round room which you can only enter in waves, with the doors locking in between. The room looks a bit boring when you first go in, and I fully expected a film to play on the ceiling or something, though I was confused that there was nowhere to sit. Instead, when your group has gone in and the doors are shut, the lights go off (and of course everyone goes 'Ooooooh') and then the walls illuminate, showing hundreds of small gold objects. There's also a sort of well in the middle of the floor, which uses mirrors to make you think it's deeper and holding a lot more than it is. It's an interesting addition to the visit, but I'm not sure why they do it on a timer and lock you in there, when surely they could keep the lights low anyway, and just let people walk round in their own time.

      Colombia has a lot of gold and a lot of history, and the museum harps on about both of these, with whole sections dedicated to the various indigenous groups. The Muiscas feature but sadly the display is quite boring for a people known for filling fields with willy statues taller than me. Again, it didn't seem to tie up as neatly as I had thought it would - there was nothing on the various groups' specific contributions to or uses of gold for example. Some of the displays are more interesting than others - for example a few times you see a sort of adult shadow on a wall, with gold accessories strung up in place to show how they would be worn together - earrings, necklace, other chains and so on.

      Something I wasn't a huge fan of was the rambling, wordy introductions to some of the sections which often made little to no sense in the English translations they used, for example "the combinations of birds, frogs, quadrupeds and humans show how important the idea of transformation was in their symbolic thought". I mean, huh? In the end I gave up reading these, and instead stuck to glancing at the shorter descriptions next to particular items I liked the look of. Most of them were obvious, but occasionally you'd discover something was in fact a ritual fertility statue, and not the wall hanging / place mat / large pendant you thought it was.

      With a collection of over 55 000 pieces, you might imagine that there's a tremendous range of items on display, and you wouldn't be wrong. From funeral masks to crowns, jewellery to kitchenware, there is a lot to see. At the same time, there is clear evidence of repetition. One case that stood out to me had over 50 items in - all virtual identical copies of each other. Sure, they were arranged prettily, but it almost seemed like they were going for quantity over quality, and trying to show off how much they had amassed whereas my opinion was that when you'd seen one little engraved fan, you'd seen them all. Some of the cases, on the other hand, include only 2, 3, 4 items at a time which seemed like a colossal waste of space since they were so tiny - I would guestimate that more than half of the items being displayed throughout the museum could fit in the palm of your hand.

      I was super impressed by the unusual shininess of the Gold, though. While I understand that, as a metal, its colour and intense shine contributed to it being associated with the sun, I was still amazed by quite how shiny the pieces on display were and it made me wonder how often some poor soul was sent in to polish each one by hand. The lighting and shine, and the way they were displayed, kept making me feel like I was in a jewellers looking to buy, rather than in a museum, but at the same time these pieces were much brighter than any you'd see in H Samuels or Ernest Jones.

      Below ground there is an auditorium, and several temporary exhibition spaces though only one is currently in use. I went down for a nosy (and to see what Bogota is like 3 floors below ground - answer: not that different) but the current installation is not that different from the main galleries several floors above, and had very little gold in. What it did have just seemed a bit familiar and didn't, in my mind, warrant an exhibition of its own. Several of the items from the main collection had be reallocated to the temporary one (signs stated this on the upper floors) which also seemed a bit of a con. It's worth noting that temporary exhibits have explanations in Spanish only, but you're not missing much if you go and don't read it (or don't go at all).

      The museum has a shop that sells some fabulous but prohibitively expensive things, not many of them gold (it's more handicrafts). There is a cafe below ground, but this is more of a small coffee stand than anything else. I went instead to the restaurant which is clearly a popular place given how long I had to wait for a table. I had nosed at the menu online and found a few unusual things to try so had been meaning to go for a while. Unfortunately, it was not the experience I was expecting. The service was shocking, not just slow but also quite rude and unprofessional, and though the food was good, I'm not sure I'd recommend it as it's overpriced (without the ambience to match) and not the laid back setting I had anticipated. But if you do go, try their Pay de Limon as it's superb. You can go to the restaurant (or shop) without a ticket - and could probably sneak in to the exhibits too as the lift is by the restaurant, and no one checked tickets on the upper floors- but for £1 I wouldn't risk it.

      The whole museum is accessible, with lifts and ramps, and no uneven surfaces (they favour polished floorboards over stone floors). There are loos on several levels, and though it only has 3 above ground floors, there's a decent view over the square outside as you go up.

      This is perhaps rather oddly not one I would recommend on their free Sundays, simply because they don't believe in limiting numbers and it sometimes feels like the whole city is jostling for space at the display cases. My experience was completely different when I finally paid to go, and given the low price, if you are interested in seeing excessive amounts of gold, doing it this way would be my recommendation. It is worth a visit, but in my opinion there are several other museums in the city which are just as worthy of a visit - if you believed the hype, the Gold Museum is the only one, the best thing here, an absolute must-do. If you choose to believe me instead, I'd say it's good...but not that good.

      You can find details of the museum's opening times and tariff (which haven't gone from last year's prices, they're keen to tell you) on their English language website here:

      http://www.banrep.gov.co/museo/eng/home.htm

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