Finding Earlier Latin America: A London Museum Trail

| 25 August 2006
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drawing shows mesoamerican figure

A close up from the 'codex Zouche Nuttall' - a Mixtec manuscript. A facsimile is on display in Room 27 of the British Museum. Image courtesy of the British Museum.

Most permanent exhibitions on Latin American history in London deal with the earliest history of the continent - objects and stories from before the Spanish conquest, or traditions which survived it. We explore some of the places where you can find these histories.

During September we'll be looking at where to find more recent Latin American stories in the capital: from the founding fathers of the independent states who stayed in London, to oral histories of Latin American Londoners today.

Search Latin American History events in London

Mexico At The British Museum

The British Museum has particularly strong collections on the history of Mesoamerica before the coming of the Spaniards. The whole of Room 27 is devoted to these objects. Many are made of elaborately carved stone, but the museum also holds a rare surviving book made by the Mixtecs. The codex on display in the far case of Room 27 is a copy of an original too fragile to display. The books are painted on deerskin: there used to be thousands of them, but now only 20 survive.

The pictures have a hieroglyphical feel and tell complex stories about Mixtec royal lineage and life events. Some Mixtec books relate disasters and important events:a dead body covered in dots signifyies the coming of smallpox to Latin America. Images underscored by wavy lines indicate earth tremors.

drawing shows

The Codex contains two narratives: one side of the document relates the history of important centres in the Mixtec region, while the other, starting at the opposite end, records the genealogy, marriages and political and military feats of the Mixtec ruler, Eight Deer Jaguar-Claw. This ruler is depicted at top centre, next to his calendric name (8 circles and a deer's head). Dated 1200 - 1521AD. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Meanwhile in the Gallery of Living And Dying (Room 24) you can see the elaborate festival costumes worn by present-day Bolivians from the town of Oruro. The festival's origins echo the coming of the Spanish. A costumed 'devil of the mines' recalls the time when the Spanish sent enslaved Bolivians into the silver and tin mines to do perilous work.

The museum also provides online trails of Native cultures of Patagonia in the far south of the continent, and Peruvian Nasca culture allowing you to explore some of the objects that are not on display in the museum itself.

photo shows three painted masks with dragon like faces

Venezuelan carnival masks. Courtesy of the Horniman museum

The Horniman Museum has collected a large number of painted masks from across the continent including Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Bolivia and Mexico which you can find in the Centenary Gallery.

Their exhibition Amazon to Caribbean, describes the life of the Amerindian culture which stretched from mainland South America across the Caribbean, particularly concentrating on the culture of Guyana. The exhibition has been so popular that it's now running until January 2007. There are activities for children in the corners of the exhibition.

photo shows a miniature voodoo shrine with skulls and virgin mary figures

A voodoo shrine. Courtesy of the Horniman Museum.

Their African Worlds Gallery also looks at the influence of Africa on Latin America - a consequence of the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the continent.

Voodoo altars originally came from Africa, but can now be found widely in Latin America. The Horniman Museum has three: recreated with the help of priests in Benin, Brazil and Haiti. Each one is the expression of the deep philosophical ideas and intense spirituality that is shared between Africa and African-derived cultures on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite the repressions of the slave trade, Africans still managed to pursue their own beliefs, often disguised as Christian worship. 'Vodou' means spirit. It allows believers access to healing powers and connection to friends and relatives who have died.

The last country in Latin America to abolish slavery was Brazil in 1888. One of the men most deeply involved in its abolition was Joaquim Nabuco de Araujo. He lived in London for many years - in voluntary exile from Brazil so he could campaign and speak freely. His book Minha formação (my formation) describes what slavery was like in Brazil. There is a plaque to Nabuco de Araujo at 52 Cornwall Gardens SW7.

photo shows bowl with carvings inside

Photo shows bowl from Guyana. Dated 1839 - 40 it was brough to London by the explorer Robert Schomburgk for the 'Guiana' exhibition of 1840. Afterwards it was auctioned. Courtesy of the Cuming Museum.

V&A

There's little on display at the V&A relating to Latin America, but their collections include very early Peruvian textiles, some dating back to 500 - 100BC. Many of these are grave goods, explaining their survival over such a long period. Sadly they have not been on display for many years, but you can see two fabrics online: this cloak panel was made from the feathers of tropical birds. This textile dates back to the 12th century.

The Cuming Museum

The Cuming Museum is briefly closed at the moment, but is opening again in October with disabled access. It has a scattering of objects from South America, especially from Guyana. Only a few of these are on display - but you can see more here. The Cuming Museum is about five minutes walk from Elephant and Castle, which sits at the heart of Latin American life in London today.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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