A.M. Costa Rica
The Museo Nacional
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Jo Stuart
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San José, Costa Rica, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2002, Vol. 2, No. 26
A.M. Costa Rica photos
Tourists get a great view to the west from the main parade ground of the former fortress.
Former fortress is great place for National Museum
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff

The Museo Nacional de Costa Rica is 114 years old, but the current facilities look even older.

Who has not noticed the turrets and the castle-type walls that dominate downtown San José to the east. If you look closely, you will see bullet holes carefully maintained as relics of the 1948 civil war that led to the abolishment of the army.

With the Costa Rican military gone, there was no need for what was called in those day the Bella Vista Fortress. So on Dec. 1, 1948, José Figueres Ferrer, then the president of the provisional junta, presented the keys to the former military headquarters to museum officials. The museum moved in the next year.

In truth the fortress isnít really that old. The structure had been built in the early part of the 20th century on land that had been occupied by a residence. The basement of the museum is now devoted to recounting the story of the structure that is the museum itself and the role it played in the 1948 civil war. Nevertheless, the Colonial architecture gives the impression that the fort loomed over the city from shortly after the Spanish conquest.

Other permanent exhibits at the museum include an east wing filled with pre-Colombian artifacts with dioramas of Indian life combined with actual burial sites and ceremonial "metates" or corn grinding stones. The highly ornate metates never were used for food preparation but represent a religious use of a household object. Ceramics from the three major indigenous cultures fill case after case.

A display of pre-Colombian gold in the northeast tower does not rival the holdings of the Banco de Costa Rica in its gold museum several blocks away, but the presentation is clear and done in an ethnological context.

Two north rooms celebrate the Colonial period with a heavy emphasis on the Catholic faith. Another room represents a typical Colonial bedroom.

The west wing encompasses the last 200 years: the arrival of printing in 1830, the development of agriculture and the documents and personages of the civil war. That wing leads to a balcony with a clear view of the city and over the Plaza de la Democracia a few feet below. 

A guard's reflection is caught in the highly waxed corridor that gives a Colonial feel to the museum. The antique furniture furthers the image.

The altar decorates from Colonial times.

Two Pre-Colombian artistic traditions: 
clay and gold

The south wing contains two rooms for rotating exhibits. The rooms housed part of the Costa Rican Jade Museum collection while that location in the building of the Instituto Nacional de Seguros was being refurbished. Now the rooms hold an exhibit, "Between light and shadow," that shows the consequences of pollution and waste on the environmentally important wetlands of Costa Rica.

The museum is entered from Calle 17 that is now the pedestrian walkway from Parque Nacional to the court buildings. Avenida 2 runs to the south and Avenida Principal runs along the north wall. Across the street to the north is the National Assembly complex.

The museum also boasts a full-size sugar cane mill or "trapiche," where sugar was produced in those circular forms that still are used today. The tiled roof and waxed tiled floors give the whole complex a Colonial feeling.

The grounds hold field guns used up until 1948 and some older cannons that date from the early part of the 19th century. They are set in the lavish gardens that are a highpoint of the museum.

The part of the museum the public sees is less than half the story. Much of the museumís holdings are used for research and investigations into natural history, archaeology, ethnology, entomology, ornithology, botany and national history. There are specialized libraries and field work. The museum also puts on workshops for children.

The museum is closed Mondays, but open all other  days except national holidays.

A tourist shoots a traditional Costa Rican oxcart at the museum that also has a full-size sugar mill on outside display. Plus the grounds are full of lush vegetation.

What we published earlier: