Mexico City, Mexico. Anahuacalli. The “museum” concept began when “private” collections were first opened to the public. The collector was the original curator and his estate was the building. Private collections are often an impersonal experience, a show case of riches for the poor to admire. What makes a private collection “personal'‘ to a visitor? Beyond quirky eccentricities, a thoughtful private collection is an invitation to enter into someone’s intimate meaning-making. I first discovered this at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I saw it in a whole new way at Diego Rivera’s Anahuacalli.
Anahuacalli is Rivera’s temple to his “idolaje,” 2,000 pieces of Pre-Columbian art from his personal collection of 45,000. It was envisioned as a “Ciudad de Artes” including a plaza for traditional celebrations and small side buildings, focused on ancient and contemporary arts.
Located near the erruption of Xitle volcano, it is built of black crusty volcanic rock. Rivera designed every aspect of the experience to reflect his own devotion to pre-columbian cosmology and his vision of it’s relationship to modern art. The architecture is a journey from the underworld upwards toward the light. The darkness of the narrow entry is reverent. The heavy lowest floor is the darkest, with dim sunlight filtering through translucent stone windows.
Rivera’s ceiling mosaics appear first in black & white images in the underworld, as major deities in each corner.
Narrow stairways lead up to a spacious central room flooded with natural light on one side.
On this level stone disappears from the window slits and color begins to appear in the ceiling mosaics
Up through smaller galleries, the narrow stairways eventually lead to the open sky and landscape.
Boxy vitrines are built into the walls
Many objects are exposed (and dusty), on thick stone shelves, sills, rocks, or the floor. Lighting is either there, or not at all, leaving many pieces in the dark.
Rivera’s choices and arrangements are based on his passions and aesthetics, not on archeological principles. His love for each piece is palpable in the space. There are no labels. The groupings, transitions and themes seem to emerge intuitively for the visitors to understand in their own way. A few dark area signs seem to be an addition, and because there are so few, they seem obligatory to read, a distraction that takes away from the mysterious intention of the museum.
Use of empty space.
The energy of uneven placement and negative space.
Other arrangements feel like homey, affectionate displays you might create in your own house.
These are not the best museum conditions, but the figurines seem happy to be here, agitated with a strange freedom.
Today, museums that are the sole vision of a private collector may be considered “renogade.” Museum protocol and best practices are ignored in intriguing ways. Sometimes there’s a deep organic connection between space, content, and personal meaning. A complex narrative, or a unique mood impossible to achieve by committee.