Merida City Museum
The City Museum of Mérida sits in the lovely building of the old Post Office, which in itself is worth seeing. While I found no 'sparkle' inside, it is the only place where you can find artifacts from its ancient city called T’Hó.
So what to expect from this museum? A traditional display and a few interesting exhibits. Entry is free. And it is right near the municipal market. In fact, it is surrounded on all sides by the market.
I visited this museum in 2018. I was mainly interested in the city of T’Hó and there are indeed a few artefacts here on display. Not many, as not much is left of the city of T’Hó. There are other museums in Mérida dealing with ancient history: Mayan World Museum, which exhibits Maya artefacts from the nearby ruins, such as Ek' Balam and Chichén Itzá, and Cantón Palace, which is devoted to Aztec history. But if you want local history, this is the place to go.
The building was inaugurated in 1908 by Governor Enrique Muñoz Aristegui as a post office during the presidency of General Porfirio Díaz. In 2007 Mérida moved its city museum there. The museum is air-conditioned.
The main exhibition downstairs has two large rooms displaying the city's historical heritage from pre-Hispanic times until the arrival of Francisco de Montejo. There are also a few pieces from 19th and early 20th century Mérida, related to the economical boom, the development of the city, and the henequén haciendas. A little bit of everything. In all honesty, it felt at times like all the exhibits were clumped together without any particular order or theme.
The first floor is dedicated to the temporary exhibitions; it basically serves as an art gallery. The Museum also has a collection of specialised books and periodicals on the second floor of the Museum. We did not visit this.
My reporting about the museum's treasures is not room by room. I always cherry-pick and describe them in my usual pattern: The People, The Focus, The Mystery and Don't Miss.
The exhibits relate to three main historic periods of the city: ancient times, colonial times and current times. I deal with the ancient people of the city of T’Hó in the Focus section. This section is devoted to more recent times.
The Spanish built Mérida from scratch. Well not quite, they were using the stones of the ancient Maya buildings. Upon the arrival of the Spaniards, in 1541, T'Hó is believed to have been an independent decentralised political entity and not subordinated to any capital. It was in the Mayan jurisdiction called Chakán, one of the 16 provinces (kuchkabales) of the Yucatán Peninsula. They were created after the dissolution of the Mayapán League in the middle of the 15th century.
Francisco de Montejo the Younger followed the instructions of his father to found the city here, as a Spanish bastion. The foundations were laid on January 6, 1542. The first name of the city was 'Carolina' in honour of the Spanish king Carlos V. Later it was named after the Spanish town of Mérida in Extremadura. Montejo decided to found Mérida between the five hills of T'Hó: two small ones to the north of La Mejorada, San Antón, on 50th Street, San Benito and Blakumchan. He built his residence right on the main square (between 1542-1549) although the museum does not mention this at all. It was standard practice of the colonisers to destroy the religious and administrative centres of the Maya cities and build their own buildings of power in their place. It is estimated that about 300 to 400 Maya were used to construct the Montejo mansion from the stone of the T'Hó pyramids and temples.
The construction of religious buildings began through the Franciscan Friars, who were the only regular order authorised by the Spanish Crown for the Christianisation of these lands. The first enclosure built in Mérida was the Convent of the Assumption of Our Lady (in 1547), also known as the Monastery of San Francisco. There are a few artefacts from the colonial architecture on display in the west room.
I was intrigued by the statue called Fernando VII, El Monifato (left). It used to be on the corner of a colonial building in Mérida (at the corner of streets 65 and 42). The replica is still there but the original is now in the museum. King Ferdinand VII of Spain was known to his supporters as 'the Desired' (el Deseado) and to his detractors as the 'Felon King' (el Rey Felón). He replaced his father on the throne in 1808 (a complicated story). Under his rule, Spain lost nearly all of its American possessions, and the country entered into civil war on his death. I was amused that he is called here El Monifato, 'The Puppet'. Legend has it that the artisans in charge of the work were friends of independence and did not see Spanish royalty in a good light. That is perhaps why the statue was given certain features that are not very flattering.
I was expecting to find out more about the postal services during colonial times, given that the museum is in the former post office. How did the postal services work then? Or any other aspects of colonial life, for that matter. No luck. No stories. There are a few displays of money: some paper banknotes from recent times, some coins that haciendas produced (such coins were issued by the hacienda owners to pay workers, but could only be exchanged for goods in the hacienda shops, not outside). Generally speaking, not much narrative in this museum.
Last but not least, the museum's east wing displays Mérida's contemporary famous citizens, such as the playwright and poet Antonio Mediz Bolio or the sport champion Carlos Jesús Torre Repetto.
The FOCUS: the ancient T'Hó city
It is possible that the ancient city of T'Hó was built by the indigenous tribe of Itzáes, who after inhabiting Bacalar (today in Quintana Roo) emigrated westward to found Chichén Itzá, Izamal, Motul and the city of T'Hó, around the year 550 AD.
The museum information board, however, claims that the town was founded in the 13th century by the cacique Ah-Chan-Caan, of the lineage of the Itzá. This is indeed confusing. For example, you can see in the museum stone decorations in the shape of the letter X. This was an ancient symbol of the sky, or deity (if worn on a headdress) or kingship (if worn on the waist belt). Such motifs are in abundance at the Maya sites on the Puuc Route, such as Uxmal, Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná. These geometric motifs were applied in those cities during their peak, in the 9th century. If Mérida was founded only in the 13th century, the ruler Ah-Chan-Caan would not have applied such iconography. And then the museum contradicts itself further, by stating that T'Hó was indeed influenced by the architecture and iconography of the Puuc region, between the years 600-900 AD. I will go by common sense and consider T'Hó an ancient city from around 550 AD (at least).
Maya texts from early colonial times refer to the ancient city as Noh Cah Ti Hoo, the Great Town of T’Hó (Tihoo). The museum label indicated that T’Hó means in Mayan 'Right'. The city is sometimes also referred to as Ichcaanzihó, the City of Five Hills (a reference to the number of pyramids), although some scientists argue that Ichcaanzihó is today's Dzibilchaltún (to the north of Mérida). Apart from T’Hó, there were certainly other sites on the territory of today's Mérida, such as Dzoyilá, and ChenHó, located in the Eastern Recreation Park. No mention in the museum, though.
The city was built on several avenues towards the four cardinal points, facing the chiefdoms that dominated the region before the arrival of the Spaniards. In the south direction it was Kin Pech (Campeche) and Chakán Putum (Champotón). Two great temples were built in honour of the gods Bak Luum Cha'an and H'Chuum Ca'an. Around them were the palaces of the priests, the cacique and the other dignitaries. These stones from ancient T’Hó were widely used to build the Spanish colonial buildings. There was also an astronomical observatory and huge squares for civil and religious festivities, and many residential areas around the ceremonial centre.
The Mystery: Where are the ruins?
So where are the ruins of the ancient city of T’Hó? And can we see them today?
I don't think we can see them but at least we can try and understand where they were in the past and where they might be hidden. The City Museum has a model of T’Hó's pyramids but it does not give a clear answer on their location (under which buildings) so we need a closer look at other sources. In my search I found a handy map, which shows central Mérida's archaeological remains in green. The historic downtown area was built over the elevated natural terrain (levels 4, 5 and 6 on the map).
The urban design of the city of Mérida may serve as evidence of the urbanisation of T’hó. There are hypotheses that the geometric anomalies in the regular colonial grid are probably remains of Maya avenues and squares. For instance, the blind streets probably happened because of the presence of something in their way at the time, such as monumental constructions, ancient roads or sinkholes.
The monastery San Francisco was built in 1547 atop a temple known as Pocobtok (Shining Flint Knife). The monastery incorporated the ancient Maya cobalt vault from this temple. With time, the monastery deteriorated, serving first as a military barracks and then as an infamous prison, called La Ciudadela de San Benito. When the American traveller John Lloyd Stephens came to the monastery in 1843 (in search of the ruins), it was already in a deplorable state. The ruins of the former monastery and the underlying Mayan pyramid were eventually taken apart piece by piece to provide building stone for the municipal market (Mercado Grande: Great Market Lucas de Gálvez) and the post office in which the city museum is now located.
The second complex was where the city's Cathedral stands now (San Ildefonso, the oldest in Mexico: 1562-1567). Apparently the conqueror Francisco Montejo stayed in this ancient complex for a year (while he was building his residence?). This complex was dedicated to Maya divinity Bak Luum Cha'an (Phallus of the Earth in Plain Sight).
The third complex was to the east of the Main Plaza, an immense embankment that supported three buildings, one of which was dedicated to the deity H'Chuum Ca'an (Centre of the Sky).
Don't miss: The art gallery
The gallery is on the first floor. At the time of our visit there were two temporary exhibitions of the works of Miguel Carillo and Jorge Marín.
Miguel Carillo's paintings reminded me of Michelangelo. Well, a mixture of classic atmosphere with a touch of avant-garde. Different backgrounds used by the artist frame the bodies that emerge from the walls and the emphasis is on the aesthetics of the body. For me it somehow creates a feeling of infinity. And sure enough, his exhibition is called Corpus Aeternum (Body Forever).
Jorge Marín is a sculptor and his exhibition was called Bóreas, el Viento del Norte (The Wind of the North). It comes from Greek mythology, and projects the struggle of warriors. Again, mixed with contemporary themes. His human figures and horses are made of bronze and to me they looked like athletes and acrobats. You can nearly feel the wind when you walk around his sculptures, fittingly titled, in my view.
How to get there:
The museum is open Tuesday to Friday, 9am to 8pm. On Saturdays and Sundays 9am to 2pm. Entry is free.
It is located very centrally, three blocks east and one south of the Zócalo (main plaza), at the corner of streets 65 and 56, by Eulogio Rosado Park (Alameda of Mérida).
MIX and Match
The museum is surrounded by Lucas de Gálvez market, so it is very handy to combine with some local shopping.