The Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) is the national art museum of Mexico, located in Mexico City. Represented in its large collection are Mexican and international artworks from the sixteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century.
The museum is situated in the old Palace of Communications, a neoclassical building designed in the early twentieth century by the government-hired Italian architect Silvio Contri and built on the former site of the hospitals of San Andres and Gonzalez Echeverria in a modernismo architectural style. Art museums have always been compared to older ceremonial monuments such as palaces or temples and from the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, they were deliberately designed to resemble them. The Reception Hall, decorated with allegorical murals, was the preferred place for President Porfirio Diaz to perform public declarations and take part in official ceremonies. The museum arrived at its present location in 1979 and was founded in 1982. In its recent history, it underwent a long process of remodeling and technical upgrades, referred to as Project MUNAL and was reopened in 2000 to the public.
The MUNAL is a subdivision of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Institute of Fine Arts), the cultural agency of the Mexican government responsible for promoting the arts and arts education, created by presidential decree in 1946. As a part of this organization, the MUNAL is involved in projects concerning the conservation, exhibition, and study of the fine arts of Mexico, also offering workshops, publications and other outreaches to the public.
The museum’s permanent collection of over three thousand pieces is designed to give a broad view of the development of the fine arts in Mexico from the early colonial period to the mid-twentieth century. The artwork is subdivided into three craniological periods. The first covers the colonial period from 1550 to 1821, entitled “Asimilación de Occidente” (Assimilation of the West). This collection demonstrates how western-style painting transferred over and became hybridized within Mexican aesthetic, eventually leading to the establishment of Mexico’s own fine arts institution, the Academy of San Carlos, the first of its kind in the Americas.
The second covers the first century after Independence, within the years 1810 and 1910, entitled “La construcción de la Nación” (Construction of a Nation). Coinciding with the Romanticism period, most paintings have themes such as Mexican customs and landscapes with the purpose of defining a Mexican identity. As well, there is also a small collection of early Mexican photography.
The third period covers the period after the Mexican Revolution to the 1950s, entitled “Estrategías plásticas para un México moderno” (Strategies for the fine arts in Modern Mexico). Historically, this period takes place after the end of the Mexican Revolution when questions of modernity and nationalism were crucial. This time also coincides with the development of the Mexican muralist and Estridentismo (Stridentism) movements and as such, many works within these aesthetics are included. Between 1936 and 1942, many refugee artists from the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War arrived in Mexico. As such, artists such as Leonora Carrington Alice Rahon fit into this category and while they were not Latin American, they remain a strong part of the MUNAL’s collection. Diego Rivera is also a noteworthy artist represented in the museum’s collection. As the museum was not built for contemporary works of art, any works created after the mid-twentieth century are usually on display at a number of other museums, including the Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art).
The exterior property is made recognizable by Manuel Tolsa’s large equestrian statue of Charles IV of Spain, the monarch before Mexico gained its independence. It is entitled El Caballito and was sculpted in 1796. It was relocated and renamed on three occasions as various regimes after independence either distanced themselves from colonial symbolism or alternatively sought to reemphasize a European heritage. Public equestrian memorials were seen as a way to secure the person’s place in history, erected in public places to reinterpret or influence public memory.
In the 1970s, a pedestrian plaza, now called Plaza Tolza after the artist, was being redesigned outside of the national museum, with El Caballito to be the only outside exhibiting, keeping it in a public and highly visible area. By placing the statue in front of the MUNAL, the emphasis is placed on the sculptor and the artistic beauty of the work, not the history or the monarch being memorialized.
In the museum, there is a permanent exhibit designed to teach the visitors about various principles involved in creating works of art, such as balance, volume, proportion and scale. To illustrate these principles, El Caballito is used as the ideal example of artistic perfection, justifying the display of it in a post-colonial Mexico.
Since its establishment, the MUNAL has become a rich site of cultural activity. Latin American museums speak of memories of journeys and connections to icons, about resilience and endurance, and most passionately about cultural traditions, historical accomplishments and ethnic pride. The sources of new national ethnic identity in the twentieth century lie in the colonial past of the sixteenth century and so the MUNAL’s collection provides the groundwork in which the Mexican identity is constructed. It exists as an important venue to assist its citizens form impressions of their identity, as the museum is committed to the representation and fostering of their cultural heritage.
The museum remains a significant factor in attracting tourists to Mexico City and, therefore, is instrumental in supporting the local economy, providing local people employment. Additionally, by having a national museum, Mexico becomes recognized as a cultural nation. It is given a large role in research programs in the country and stands as an unrivalled wealth of information and resources. While it may not be as globally known as the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MUNAL acts both as a functional and symbolic establishment that represents Mexico’s past and future.
Alexander, Edward P.. Museums in motion: An introduction to the history and functions of museums. Barcelona-Espana: Altamira, 1996.
Cabera, Rosa M. “Beyond dust, memories and preservation: Roles of ethnic museums in shaping community ethnic identities”. PhD diss., University of Illinois at Chicago, 2008
Dixon, Seth. ” Mobile Monumental Landscapes: Shifting Cultural Identities in Mexico City’s “El Caballito.” Historical Geography 37, no. 1 (2009): 71 – 91.
Herreman, Yani. “University and museum in Mexico: a historical partnership.” Museum International52, no. 2 (2000): 33 – 48.
Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. “MUNAL.” Museo Nacional de Arte. http://www.munal.com.mx/ (accessed October 12, 2011).
Nash, June C.. “Mexican Museums in the Creation of a National Image in World Tourism.” In Crafts in the world market: the impact of global exchange on Middle American artisans. Albany, New York: State University Of New York Press, 1993. 103 – 126.
Reber, Vera Blinn. “Art as a Source for the Study of Central America, 1945-1975: An Exploratory Essay.”Latin American Research Review 13, no. 1 (1987): 39 – 64.
Sullivan, Edward J.. Latin American art in the twentieth century. London: Phaidon Press, 1996.
Thomas, Benjamin. La Revolución Mexico’s great revolution as memory, myth & history. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.
Image credits and permissions: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MUNAL.jpg