29 Mar Visit the Best Museums of Oaxaca
The museums of Oaxaca City are fantastic. The cultural richness, the range of languages, the traditional textiles and designs passed down through generations, the cutting edge art, music, all speak to the abundance of the region. With so much to showcase, it’s no wonder why Oaxaca has a wide array of fascinating museums.
From converted convents to mind-tickling research libraries with adjoining exhibition halls, from art centers focused on eco-friendly techniques to community spaces that encourage collaboration, from modern art to localized subjects in a range of mediums, they all exist in the museums of Oaxaca City.
Oaxaca is one of the most iconic states in Mexico. The epicenter of Mexican indigenous culture, Oaxaca is known for its world-famous gastronomy and rich cultural legacy. There are 22 indigenous languages spoken in the state, though Spanish and Náhuatl are the official language. Once home to the mighty Zapotec empire, today it is a bastion of culture – culinary, artistic, and counter. A bohemian underground keeps Oaxaca City pulsing with life, creating street art based in political protest, fueling music and art, and expression.
Oaxaca is important because it isn’t a show for tourists. People value their cultural heritage and create incredible art to celebrate it. One of the amazing ways you can learn about Oaxaca’s storied past and vibrant present is to visit their museums.
Centro Cultural de Santo Domingo
Considered one of the best restoration works in Latin America, the ex-convent of Santo Domingo, and its adjoining Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (botanical gardens of native Oaxacan flora), is one of the most exquisite spaces I’ve ever explored. Walk into an expansive courtyard with regal columns, wall-frescos and a fountain in the center. Wander through stone passageways with vaulted ceilings and cupolas, letting light in from windows that feel like picture frames, still-lives of the buzzing activity in the anachronistic city below.
In the rooms, the museum charts the cultural trajectory of Oaxaca, displaying pre-Colombian artifacts from Monte Albán, information about daily life from different periods of history, into the Spanish conquest with its religious relics, and concludes with relevant information about modern life and culture. One of the most interesting sections, in my opinion, is the cultural map of the state of Oaxaca, showing 22 different cultural regions and languages.
Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (MACO)
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MACO), located in the Casa de Cortés, is one of the most historic buildings in the city. Oddly named, as Cortes was never actually in Oaxaca, the building consists of two stories of Andalusian architecture with wrought iron railings, adorned by courtyards, and populated with revolving Contemporary collections.
The last collection that I saw there explored the technological future of an indigenous race that hadn’t been conquered by the Spanish. The artist used modern technology and robotics, as well as traditional gods, to re-vision art and modernity through futurist indigenous eyes.
The Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños (MUPO)
A small but important museum, the Museum of Oaxacan Painters can be found in an 18th Century hacienda on Avenida Independencia, in the heart of centro. As its name suggests, it exclusively exhibits the work of some of Oaxaca’s greatest visual artists, like Felipe Morales, Rodolfo Nieto, Alejandro Santiago and Francisco Toledo. The museum is dedicated to Rodolfo Morales and his magic realism is on permanent display. It’s a must for the museums of Oaxaca.
Museo de la Filatelia (MUFI)
The Museo de la Filatelia is, in fact, a stamp museum. Yes, like the kind put on snail mail that collectors once upon a time gathered in the scrap books of yore …and it’s awesome. Originally when I heard of it, it was through a friend’s recommendation, and I was skeptical. She couldn’t say enough about the MUFI but I completely dismissed it (sorry Sara!). Later, I saw photographs of the museum itself and swooned. It was all white, complimented by arches, tunnels, communal garden spaces and colorful stamps that stood out against the clean, minimalist background.
It was so pretty, that I had to go in person. Upon arriving, I was immediately drawn in by a large world map with dates and stamps, and I took my time examining the many moments in history that it marked. Beyond that, a festively-decorated VW bug played host to the inner courtyard, and room by room I found myself crawling deeper and deeper into the time warp of memories, of stories lost in space and time.
We stumbled into a courtyard cafe where people were studying, drawing, sipping beverages and enjoying the sunny sitting area. Finally we found our way to the back patio. It was startlingly white and wide open, with a wooden plank pathway through a tunnel to another garden. It was love at first sight.
This museum is quirky and worth a visit.
Centro Cultural San Pablo – Museo Textil de Oaxaca (MTO) & Juan de Córdova Library
More of a complex than a single museum, this academic and cultural space houses a research library, a textile museum, historic photography exhibition, a children’s center, a concert hall, a cafe and a large, peaceful garden. Located in one of Oaxaca’s oldest buildings, the Ex-Convent of Saint Paul built in 1529 that once held religious services in Nahuatl, Zapotec and Mixtec. Its current mission focuses on cultural research, exhibitions, and events that aim to preserve and celebrate cultural heritage.
The building itself offers exquisite architecture, tranquil sitting spaces full of natural light, colonial old world stone work and stained glass accents. The elegant, minimalist library is primarily wooden, encased in glass. Seen through the arches of the opposing side, it’s quite beautiful to behold. A geometric red clay accent wall runs the full height of the ample space, providing an eye-catching piece of art built into the construction itself.
As part of the cultural center, the Textile Museum of Oaxaca (MTO) curates collections of textile designs and techniques from Oaxaca, with many historic examples on display. Additionally, they hold conferences and workshops to share knowledge about the elaboration of textiles in Oaxaca, Mexico and abroad. Beyond that, the cultural center is eco-friendly with a water capture system and solar panels.
Instituto de Artes Graficas (IAGO) & El Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo (CFMAB)
While this isn’t technically a museum, the Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca curates one of the most important graphic arts collections in Latin America. You could easily spend days there, reading and discovering. Founded by Zapotec artist and Oaxacan National Francisco Toledo, the library focuses on graphic design, as well as pre-Colombian art work.
Three library rooms, five exhibition spaces with rotating international exhibits, a lovely courtyard and cafe make up the IAGO. On one visit, I was thrilled to see an exhibition of Toledo, displaying works from different moments in time. His pieces about Zapotec culture and language were my favorite. On another visit, provocative Japanese images inspired and enthralled me. Next time, I might just spend my whole trip there.
Between the impressive library and art exhibitions, the Center also works with a national sound archive project (Fonoteca), film project (Cineclub), and photography exhibition space (El Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo). The IAGO is located on Malcedonia Alcala, while CFMAB is located on the corner of Bravo and Garcia Vigil. We also really enjoyed the CFMAB, a center which focuses on the preservation of the visual record and inspires photographers of Oaxaca through courses, exhibitions, and by curating an extensive photographic library. While small, the CFMAB’s exhibits offer a window into other times and places, transforming the creative space into a portal. Be forewarned, you may be transported to another reality. Just kidding, but FYI, it’s closed on Tuesdays.
San Agustin Etla and CaSa
About 45 minutes outside of Oaxaca city proper lies the beautiful town of San Agustin Etla. CaSa, Centro de Las Artes San Agustin, is the first ecological art center in all of Latin America. Famous Oaxacan artist, Francisco Toledo, was central in its creation. It has exhibitions, workshops and a variety of unique spaces dedicated to eco-friendly artistic processes. Read our blog on San Agustin Etla to learn more.
The museums of Oaxaca provide cultural and artistic spaces to celebrate their traditions, inform visitors, and share artistic endeavors. It also provides innumerable benefits to the community, including collaborative artistic spaces, libraries for learning and research, and workshops teaching new techniques, such as eco-friendly ones, for the next generation.
Ready to visit the museums of Oaxaca? Maybe we’ll see you there! We take every opportunity we can to spend time in the city, learning and appreciating.
And while we adore the capital city, the state is so much more than that. Extremely diverse both culturally and topographically, we’ve written blogs about the beach and day trips form Oaxaca. Take a look here if you’re interested in branching out from the city.