Frida Kahlo dolls at the Toy Museum in San Miguel de Allende // © 2014 Janice Mucalov
Feature image above: The Mummy Museum displays more than 100 well-preserved mummies. // © 2014 Janice Mucalov
Museums showcasing human mummies, toy trains and death masks? You bet. The twin towns of San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato are fabled for their art, culture and architecture. But these colonial cities are also home to several fascinating museums.
The Other Face of Mexico
Tucked behind inconspicuous doors in San Miguel de Allende, this remarkable museum is devoted to some 500 colorful and bizarre ceremonial masks from ethnic tribes across Mexico. Visiting the Other Face of Mexico is by appointment and includes meeting the non-profit museum’s owner, Bill Le Vasseur. A self-taught ethnographer, Le Vasseur has spent years traveling across rural Mexico, collecting masks used by rarely-visited native communities in their traditional dances, rituals and feast celebrations.
We saw masks shaped like boars’ heads, adorned with bristles and animal teeth; other ruby red masks were carved as devil figures. The masks give visitors a glimpse into indigenous Mexican subcultures, which Le Vasseur brings to life as he guides you through the museum. The nominal entrance fee supports a local charity.
Clients can get in touch with their inner child at the whimsical Toy Museum (Museo La Esquina), also in San Miguel de Allende. Four rooms display more than 2,000 beautiful toys from all over Mexico, handcrafted from vegetable fibers, paper, metal, wood and ceramic. One room contains a collection of toys representing public transport — the airplanes made from Coke cans are quite amusing. Another room displays toy Ferris wheels and carnival rides found at traditional Mexican fairs.
It may be macabre, but this famous museum by a cemetery in Guanajuato draws throngs of visitors. It showcases more than 100 well-preserved mummies, many still wearing their shoes, socks and remnants of clothing. The mummies are the bodies of local people who were buried in the cemetery and later dug up, starting in 1865, when cemetery space was short.
It’s said that relatives had to pay an annual tax to keep their loved ones buried — when they couldn’t pay, the bodies were disinterred. The bodies, mummified by the soil’s mineral content, were set aside in a tunnel until the Mummy Museum was built in 1970. One of the most horrifying mummies is that of a woman believed to have been accidentally buried alive while ill. Her mouth is wide open in what looks like a terrified scream. There’s also a “chamber of death” with a coffin containing a mummy pierced by spikes.
Diego Rivera Museum
Guanajuato is the birthplace of famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera. His childhood home is now open as the Diego Rivera Museum. Several rooms on the first floor of the restored stone house — built around a courtyard with a fountain — display period furnishings showing how the wealthy Rivera family lived, including the brass bed on which he was born in 1886.
Upper floors display Rivera’s early oil paintings, landscape watercolors and sketches of his later murals. Keep an eye out for a black-and-white nude sketch of his wife Frida Kahlo. A new section features works by other artists as well.