Playa del Carmen Xibalbá Museum
Quintana Roo, Mexico
The name of the museum is MUXI (Museum of Xibalbá).
Xibalbá is the Maya word for the Underworld. The entire exhibition is devoted to the rituals, legends and secrets that exist about the culture of death in Mexico and other parts of the world.
There are 10 thematic rooms with components made by artists and set designers. The museum was open on 27 October 2018, for the celebrations of the Day of the Dead. It is a private museum (not run by the city). The visitors can walk about or go with a guide in groups. I came here the day after the official opening, with my husband Rhod. We had the guide to ourselves. He was very personable and we had long chats. I found the museum rather pricey (see below) but was willing to pay as I was eager to hear some interesting stories about the Maya underworld. Sadly, there were none. Here is what to expect.
The PeopLe: The mummies
Be prepared to see replicas of mummified bodies found in Mexico, Italy, Egypt, Argentina and the Alps. Better not to bring small children as they can find them scary.
The mummies can be seen across a number of rooms. For me, the Guanajato mummies were very impressive. They are natural mummies, unlike those from Egypt, also on display here, where artificial mummification was used, removing the organs and using chemicals to preserve the bodies.
In Guanajato it all started in 1833, during the cholera outbreak. During that time, a local tax was in place requiring a fee to be paid for permanent burials. Some bodies for which the tax was not paid were disinterred and stored in a nearby building. The climate of Guanajuato provides an environment which can lead to a type of natural mummification, although scientific studies later revealed that some bodies had been at least partially embalmed. By the 1900s the mummies began to attract tourists. Cemetery workers began charging people a few pesos to enter the building where the bones and mummies were stored. In the end, the city opened the Museum of the Mummies.
Equally impressive are the mummies (replicas) from Palermo in Sicily, from the monastery catacombs. Originally the catacombs were intended only for the dead friars. With time, it became a status symbol to be entombed in the Capuchin catacombs. The bodies were dehydrated on racks of ceramic pipes and sometimes later washed with vinegar (good old vinegar, so useful for everything!).
Ötzi, also called the Iceman, is the well-preserved natural mummy of a man who lived between 3400-3100 BC in the Ötztal Alps.
The original is displayed in Bolzano (Italy). Here it is a replica, like all the mummies. Because the body was covered in ice shortly after his death, it had only partially deteriorated.
In 2009, a CAT scan revealed that the stomach had shifted upward to where his lower lung area would normally be. Apparently, he ate ibex, the meat of a wild goat in South Tyrol, less than two hours before his death.
The FOCUS: The Underworld Room
The Underworld Room, which the museum is named after, is the entry room. In all honesty, I was disappointed. I read a lot about Xibalbá and its nine layers, each presided over by a wicked lord. When a deceased person gets to the underworld, these evil lords play tricks on them. The idea is to defeat them and then continue the journey of resurrection of your soul to heaven. The entire Maya mythology is based on this story, because the first Maya people, twin brothers, did just that. They went to the Underworld to play a ball game with the wicked lords, and they lost their lives. The sons of one of them, also twin brothers, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, did the same as their father did but they were successful in defeating the evil lords. Since then, the Maya played the ball game as a ritual and worshipped these twin brothers, wore their costumes, performed ritual dances to them at each king's coronation etc. In other words, a cult of the twins and the underworld has developed through time.
But nothing of that story is portrayed here. The entrance to Xibalbá is a cave, a cenote, and that is portrayed rather well. The surface waters of a cenote can be seen in a ceiling, above you, in the room called the Council House of the Underworld, with skulls on the walls. But there are no sculptures or mannequins of the Xibalbá lords, such as Yum Cimil, the God of the Dead, a skeleton with bulging eyes, with empty eye sockets all over his body.
As a matter of fact, when entering a cave, one should request permission from this god. Don't forget to apply it next time you go to a cave cenote in Yucatán.
The artists could have created other wicked lords, such a missed opportunity, in my view. Instead, you will have to try and imagine them. Try at least a few, because there were nine layers of the underworld (while the Maya Upperworld had 13 layers). The first one that comes to my mind is Camazotz, the Bat god, or try Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) or Xiquiripat (Flying Scab). No end to imagination, not utilised by the museum.
What is present is the tree of life, ceiba (kapok) and two Aluxes. Normally the alux sprite or spirit is invisible, but here we can see him. They can play tricks on you, if you are a traveller or a farmer, so it is best to leave them an offering, to appease them, although it is not easy to do so in a museum.
The Mystery: reincarnation
The Maya were ritualistic people, who paid great respect to the destructive nature of their gods. The deceased were believed to go to the Underworld, where they had to take difficult tests from the lords of death, before they could be reincarnated. People who died by suicide, sacrifice, complications of childbirth and in battle were thought to be transported directly into the Upperworld (heaven). There were many death rituals, which are mysterious, but none of that entire culture of death is portrayed in the museum so it is not appropriate for me to comment by myself. The mystery is why the creators did not incorporate the journey of their ancestors through the Underworld to the Upperworld, if nothing else.
Instead, there is a room with examples of different burials across Mexico and an altar that the people build for the Day of the Dead. Again, a missed opportunity. When we stepped outside the museum, the celebrations of the Day of the Dead were fully on. Here are a few photos to show how it looks in reality.
Don't miss: Memento Mori
For me the most powerful part of the exhibition was the Memento Mori photos, a photo display of people who took photos of themselves with their deceased children, in their laps. I found it rather disturbing. I did not know until this visit that such a practice existed but apparently post-mortem photography was widespread in Europe (in Victorian Britain) and America. Today, I believe, they do it only for police and pathology work.
How to get there:
The museum is located inside Plaza Pelícanos, on the Tenth Avenue, between 8th and 10th street. The ticket office is shared with the 3D Museum of Wonders in the same building. It is open 10am to 10pm daily.
The entry fee is pricey. 600 pesos for foreigners (and 500 for their children), 499 pesos for adult nationals (399 pesos for the minors), 199 pesos for residents of Quintana Roo, with local ID (99 pesos for their children).
MIX and Match
If nature is your call, go to one of the beaches in Playa del Carmen. If it is a rainy day, try Frida Kahlo Museum.