Essays

How a Museum Wields Its Power in Crafting a National Identity

A look at the contradictions in how the Honduras Museum of National Identity pursues its mission.

The museum facade (all images courtesy the Honduras Museum of National Identity)

TEGUCIGALPA — The Honduras Museum of National Identity is located in downtown Tegucigalpa, at the end of a pedestrian street lined with phone stores, bakeries, and fast food restaurants. It’s housed in a two-story building that looks like an elegant iced cupcake, what with its orange-crème walls and white decorative piping. An art gallery, cultural space, and anthropology museum rolled into one, the institution was founded in 2006, but the building has been around since 1880, when Tegus, as the city is colloquially known, became the capital city. Though by then Honduras had already been independent from Spain for roughly 60 years, the architecture carries echoes of colonial style. All the rooms face inward onto a large courtyard, giving the museum the surreal sense of a self-contained universe with little connection to the outside world. What does this place have to do with how Hondurans see themselves? National museums are storytelling vessels of the state — tangible ways for countries to create a narrative about who they were, are, and want to be. But they are also ways of defining social reality.

The museum devotes roughly half its rooms to temporary exhibitions, which at the time of my visit included a gallery of Picasso drawings, many of them quite erotic. On the ground floor, an exhibition showcases works by contemporary Honduran artists, including past winners of local biennials across painting and sculpture. The museum also devotes a significant amount of space in its permanent exhibitions to Mayan culture, with rooms throughout the historical section on the upper floor filled with glass cabinets lined with Mayan clay figurines. It is as if the Mayans constitute the only culture to ever occupy pre-colonial Honduras, even though they were present only in the western fringes of the modern state. The centerpiece of this section is a theater which plays a 25-minute film about Copán, the ruins of a large Mayan city close to the Guatemalan border, and perhaps the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History’s biggest source of income.

Museum interior

Historian Darío A. Euraque, director of the IHAH just before the 2009 coup, critiques this as the “Mayanization” of Honduras. This policy dates back to the 1940s dictatorship of General Tiburcio Carías Andino, who wanted to position Hondurans as the inheritors of the Mayan legacy. Carías founded the country’s first fine arts academy, the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes, in Tegucigalpa. Together with the school’s first director, the Copán-born and Cuban- and French-trained artist Arturo López Rodezno, Andino advanced an agenda of incorporating mythical Maya motifs into the country’s art and architecture. This legacy is evident in the walls of the theater, which feature stucco replicas of Mayan nahual figurines; it even has doors fashioned to look like those of a temple. But Honduras, both then and now, is polyethnic and multicultural. Nearly 20% of the population identify as indigenous or a minority, including the Lenca, Miskito, Garífuna, and Maya Ch’orti’ communities.

This approach to history underscores the disconnect between an artistic construct of a country and the lived experience of the majority of its citizens. Interactive screens detail the broad history of Honduras, and VR sets let visitors swim along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef by Roatán, painting a sunny picture. But in the last financial year, over 250,000 Hondurans have left the country, more than 120,000 have contracted dengue, and many have been injured protesting the erosion of the systems meant to protect them.

The 3D theater

When I visited the museum in June, these protests were in full swing; people across the country would burn tires, blocking highways as a form of direct action. In some ways, protests have become part of the Honduran landscape. Though their reasons have varied, people have been protesting for over ten years since the coup. But historian Dana Frank writes that out of these events sprang a “new national culture with its own heroes, martyrs, collective memory, and sense of its own powers” — a “culture of resistance,” as she calls it.

Indeed, on the upper floor of the museum, a small temporary exhibition showcased emerging female artists from the sixth edition of the festival Mujeres Nuevas Historias. María Tróchez’s photo of a man wearing a 1950s-style sweetheart dress, titled “Roles de Género: El Hombre Ideal,” felt radical. Catta Matute’s “Caminata Incierta,” a painting of a woman migrating with her two children, alluding to the “La Bestia” train people sometimes take to go north, felt like a refreshing acknowledgement of the realities many Hondurans face. It was a sharp contrast with the elevator music version of Honduran society the permanent exhibitions presented.

An educational touchscreen

In his dissertation for the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, Honduran art historian Gustavo Larach wrote about how art could — and should — challenge the “convenient version of national reality” as told by the state. “I perceive in both artists and publics … much opposition to the widespread misconstructions and misrepresentations that seek to perpetuate our dominant yet dysfunctional social institutions … The question that remains open is how will artistic production emancipate itself from the institutional frames that allow for it.”

comments (0)