The Museo Nacional del las Culturas de Oaxaca is the city’s finest museum. Housed in the former monastery of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the museum is dedicated to the preservation of Oaxaca's cultural and historical heritage, exhibiting many of the state's most important objects of art, artifact, and antiquity, spanning the pre-Columbian to the modern eras.
Among the museum’s extensive collection of exhibits are the priceless Mixtec artifacts of gold and jewelry excavated from Tomb 7 of Monte Albán, considered one of the most important archeological discoveries in México. Another important collection is the Francisco Burgoa Library, an archive of 23,000 historical books and documents dating back to 1484. All the descriptions of the exhibits are in Spanish, although an excellent audio guide in English can be rented for Mex$50 (Spanish Mex$40).
Even if the museum’s exhibits hold no interest for you, the architectural and artistic beauty of the early 17th-century ex-monastery housing them is reason enough to visit. Just north of the main entrance to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, the ex-monastery’s long, tunnel-like main portal opens to a spacious cloister, two stories high, ringed with arcades fronting walks covered with thick, sturdy rib vault ceilings, a robust fountain at its center. On the north side of the cloister, a wide double staircase leads up a vestibule, its surfaces covered in painted reliefs and gilded stucco ornamentation, while upstairs, next to the entrance to the Iglesia de Santo Domingo’s choir loft, the dome and walls of the old friars chapel are covered in painted reliefs and gilded stucco ornamentation as well.
- Northeast corner of Alcalá & Gurrión, north of the Iglesia de Santo Domingo; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Tue - Sun 10 am - 6:15 pm; Mex$51, free for children, students, seniors; Sundays and holidays free for everyone; phone 951-516-2991, 951-516-3721.
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca • Museum, Colonial Mansion • (K)
Exhibiting collections from contemporary artists of local, national, and even international renown, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, or MACO for short, is housed in a stunning 18th-century colonial mansion, named La Casa de Cortés for the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés, even though he never lived here. The quality of the exhibits here is usually high, but because they rotate, it's hit or miss.
- Alcalá 202, half block north of Morelos; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Wed - Mon 10:30 am - 8 pm, closed Tue; Mex$20, Sundays & holidays free; phone 951-514-2228, 951-514-1055; www.museomaco.com.
Museo de Arte Prehispánico de México Rufino Tamayo • Museum, Colonial Mansion • (J)
Renowned Oaxacan abstract painter Rufino Tamayo founded this museum — a cultural highlight of the city — in 1975 to house his private collection of pre-Hispanic Méxcian art, which he donated to the state and people of Oaxaca before his death in 1991. The museum is installed in a beautiful 18th-century colonial mansion, La Casa de Villaraza, named for Francisco Antonio Villaraza, a prominent Spanish official at the time. Unlike most museums, which treat and exhibit pre-colonial works of art as artifacts, with an emphasis on the archeological, each piece here is treated and exhibited as an object of creative expression, with an emphasis on the aesthetic.
- Morelos 503, west of Porfirio Díaz; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Mon, Wed - Sat, 10 am – 2 pm & 4 – 7 pm, Sun 10 am – 3 pm, closed Tue; Mex$35; phone 951-516-4750, 951-516-7617.
Museo Textil de Oaxaca • Museum • (C)
Set in a nicely restored 18th-century colonial monastery, this small but delightful museum, recently opened in 2008, is dedicated to the study and preservation of the textiles of Oaxaca and México, exhibiting rotating collections of mostly hand-woven rugs and clothing from local, national, and even international weavers. There’s also a modest library with books about textiles and weaving, as well as a small retail shop selling quality hand-woven textiles, both open daily from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 4 - 8 p.m.
- Hidalgo 917, corner of Fiallo; South of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Tue - Mon 10 am - 8 pm, closed Mon; free; phone 951-501-1104; www.museotextildeoaxaca.org.mx; email@example.com.
Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños • Museum • (L)
Set in a lovingly restored late 17th-century colonial mansion, the museum exhibits, against bright white walls and shiny hardwood floors, the rotating works of some of the region’s finest artists, usually displaying only a couple of artists at a time.
- Independencia 607, corner of García Vigil; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Tue - Sat 10 am - 8 pm, Sun 10 am - 6pm; Mex$20; phone 951-516-5645.
Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo • Museum, Library • (M)
The renowned Oaxacan graphic artist Francisco Toledo founded the center to promote the art of photography and to support aspiring photographers in the state, dedicating it to the acclaimed Méxican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. To these ends, the center, installed in yet another beautifully restored colonial mansion, exhibits the work of prominent and emerging photographers, supports an extensive collection of books on photography, and conducts seminars in photography.
- Bravo 116, corner of Garcia Vigil; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Wed - Mon 9:30 am - 8 pm, closed Tue; free; phone 951-516-9800; cfmab.blogspot.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca • Library, Museum • (N)
Founded in 1988 by the renowned Oaxacan graphic artist Francisco Toledo, the institute exhibits the work of talented artists from throughout the state and country, as well as housing one of the most extensive libraries of art books in México.
- Alcalá 507, north of Allende; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Gallery open Wed - Mon 9 am - 8 pm, closed Tue; library open Mon - Sat 9 am - 8 pm, closed Sun; free; phone 951-516-6980, 951-516-2045; www.biblioiago.blogspot.com.
Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca • Museum • (O)
Set in a beautifully restored colonial mansion, the museum houses, somewhat inexplicably, the largest public collection of stamps in México, with printings dating back as far as the 1830s, as well as an assortment of postal paraphernalia on permanent display and a library full of books about stamps and all things postal. Even the not so philatelically inclined will probably enjoy this place.
- Reforma 504, half block north of Constitución; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Daily 10 am - 8 pm; free; phone/fax 951-516-8028, 951-514-2366, 951-514-2375; www.mufi.org.mx; email@example.com.
Museo Casa de Juárez • Museum • (P)
The modest colonial home where Benito Juárez lived from 1818 to 1828 has been restored and turned into this small museum. The story of Juárez’s life and his place in México’s history is an impressive one. He was born on March 21, 1806 in the small Zapotecan village of San Pablo Guelatao in the mountains north of the city of Oaxaca. His parents, who were poor peasants, died when he was only three years old. His grandparents took him in, but they both died soon after. He then went to live with an uncle and spent most of the rest of his preteen years working in the cornfields and as a shepherd.
And then, at the age of twelve, illiterate and speaking only Zapotecan, Juárez walked down out of the mountains and into the city of Oaxaca to live with his older sister, who was working for a family as a cook. He soon found work and residence with Antonio Salanueva, a bookbinder and lay Franciscan. Salanueva and a local teacher taught Juárez to read and write in Spanish, which he took to quickly. Impressed with Juárez’s intelligence, Salanueva, by then acting more as a benefactor and less as an employer, arranged for Juárez’s study in a seminary.
After graduating from the seminary in 1827, Juárez decided against becoming a priest, opting instead for law school. That fateful decision would put him on a path to becoming the nation's first indigenous president and the leader of the Liberal movement, which defeated the country’s Conservative forces in a protracted and bloody civil war, 1857–1861, and expelled the opportunistic French occupiers a few years later, 1861–1867.
With all that in mind, other than the modest colonial home of Antonio Salanueva — which, by the way, is nicely restored — there really isn’t much to see here. This may leave some visitors feeling disappointed, having expected so much more from a museum in Juárez’s name. (Indeed, that was this writer’s first reaction). But on further reflection, it’s clear that this simple museum was never meant to encompass or pay tribute to his entire life. Rather, it was meant to capture the period of time when he worked as a domestic servant and studied for the seminary, the period of his life when he transformed himself from an illiterate peasant boy into an educated young man who would go on to become the nation’s most important historical figure. And so, on second thought, maybe this simple museum gets it just about right.
- García Vigil 609, north of Carranza; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Tues - Sun 10 am - 7 pm, closed Mon; Mex$35; phone 951-516-1860.
Museo Belber Jiménez • Museum • (Q)
Founded in 2008 by Ellen Belber and Fredrico Jiménez, the museum exhibits the couple’s impressive collection of Méxican gold and silver pieces, jewelry, textiles, and popular art, which spans the three major eras of México’s history — pre-Columbian, colonial, and Independence. But the piece on display that usually excites visitors the most is the necklace that Frida Kahlo wore when she died, a gift from her husband, Diego Rivera.
- Matamoros 307, corner of Tinoco y Palacios; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Mon - Fri 10 am - 2 pm & 4 - 6 pm, Sat 10 am - 2 pm, closed Sun; Mex$20; phone 951-514-5095.
Museo de la Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad • Museum • (S)
Over the centuries, a large following of devotees has grown up around the Virgin of the Solitude, the patron saint of Oaxaca, her image embodied in the rigid, triangular statue residing in the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. And over these centuries, many of the faithful have brought ex-votos, or offerings, to her — which include a wide-ranging assortment of small treasures, strange concoctions, and worthless rubbish — some of which have been saved and exhibited in the small museum located behind the Basilica. A visit to the museum is definitely worth it, if only to get a sense of the oddity and the variety of the offerings.
- Independencia 107, behind (west of) the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Fri - Wed 8 am - 2 pm & 4 - 7 pm, Thu 10 am - 2 pm, closed Mon; Mex$10 donation.
Casa de la Ciudad • Museum, Library • (T)
Installed in a beautifully restored 18th-century colonial mansion, the museum is dedicated to the research, preservation, and promotion of the architectural heritage of the state of Oaxaca. To these ends, it displays permanent and rotating exhibits, supports independent research, hosts conferences, and houses an extensive library of books and papers on the subject, including the forty thousand volume personal collection of the Oaxacan writer and politician Andrés Henestrosa. Be sure to view the aerial photos contrasting the Centro Histórico of today with fifty years ago.
- Porfirio Díaz 115, corner of Morelos; North of Independencia, Centro Histórico; Daily 9 am - 8 pm; free; phone 951-516-9647, 951-516-9648; library 951-516-9750, 951-516-9715.
Museo del Palacio Universum • Neoclassical Architecture, Museum • (B)
Even though the neoclassical former governor’s palace housing this museum was built in 1884, long after the waves of extravagant baroque construction had receded from the city, it is still one of the most elegant and impressive buildings in the city. Facing north, the front of the museum, which is lined with arches, spans the entire southern edge of the Zócalo, a full city block wide. Three large courtyards, also lined with arches, fill the interior, about half a city block deep. Lively murals cover the walls of the center and eastern stairwells, painted by Arturo García Bustos in the 1980s, the murals celebrations of México’s Independence and the Zapotec, Mixtec, and Aztec cultures.
Today, the museum hosts the occasional special event and a modest collection of rotating art exhibits. Set aside in a small corner of the western most of the three courtyards, the exhibits are dwarfed by the immense building surrounding them, making the moniker of museum something of a stretch. More so than the exhibits, the architectural beauty of the building itself and the two murals tucked away in the staircases are what makes this place worthy of a visit.
- South side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Tue - Sun 10 am - 7 pm, closed Mon.
Antigua Estación del Ferrocarril • Museum • (D)
Originally constructed in 1892, Oaxaca’s old train station in México’s now defunct national passenger rail system has recently been renovated and turned into a modest museum in honor of that bygone era. The renovation of the station building itself was nicely done, although there is little to see here in the way of exhibits, except for a few of the tools of the trade, along with a couple of refurbished boxcars converted into playrooms for kids.
The admission is free, and there is a large grassy field behind the station, so the folks in the neighborhood seem to have decided to make this place their very own local park. No harm there. The evenings and weekends seem to be the busiest, especially when there's a special event, such as live music, a market, or an art exhibit. Also on the premises, about a hundred meters northwest of the main entrance, just past the warehouse, is an ancient Montezuma Cypress tree, the same species as El Tule, the second stoutest tree in the world. This specimen, although estimated to be over five hundred years old, is nowhere near as wide or healthy looking as El Tule. Actually, it’s looking pretty worn out, like it’s barely hanging on.
It’s clear that whoever put this modest museum together had little money to work with. It’s also clear that their hearts were in the right place when they did so. So it’s kind of hard to slam them for their modest efforts. It’s just that none of this adds up to much of a reason to make the long schlep out here from the Centro, unless, of course, you or one of your kids is really into trains, or maybe if you’re just looking for an excuse to take a long walk through some neighborhoods most tourist never get around to seeing. The museum is located a couple of kilometers (a little over a mile) northwest of the Zócalo on the south side of busy Francisco Madero highway.
- Calzada Francisco I. Madero 511, west of the Centro; Barrio del Ex. Marquesado.