Campeche’s city center is circumscribed by the remains of a hexagonal wall built by the Spanish between 1686-1704 to defend the colonial seaport from pirate attack (UNESCO). Remarkably, much of the early fortification, including its eight bastions (baluartes), still exists. These bulwarks are now historical attractions in their own right, protected as part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a few have been turned into small museums to showcase other highlights of the region. Baluarte de Santiago, for instance, is now home to the Xmuch’haltun botanical garden of subtropical plants, while Baluarte de la Soledad houses the Museum of Maya Architecture with a small but impactful collection of Maya ceramics and useful information on nearby sites, including Calakmul, Hochob, and Hormiguero.
Whether you’re into automata; infinity rooms; female grotesques; pan-Asian decorative arts; antique guns; circuses; scrimshaw; sea monsters; stained glass; heavily carpeted surfaces; discordant music; winged, semi-nude mannequins; pseudo-Victorian street scenes; or carousels of dolls riding bug-eyed ponies, the House on the Rock has something for you. Dark, convoluted, and often flat-out creepy, the three-part complex located in the forests of southwestern Wisconsin is a call to imagination, a celebration of fakery, and a product of the extreme “eccentricity” of its designer, Alex Jordan, Jr. (1914–1989). Making one’s way past the indiscriminate jumbles of stuff that fill the multitude of tiny nooks and massive, elaborately constructed vignettes can feel like a journey through the mind of a mad man, but one that is as fascinating and surprising as it is exhausting and disturbing.
Jordan opened the original house in 1959 and built the more carnivalesque second and third sections over the next three decades before selling the complex in the late 1980s. The newer owners have continued to expand on the original site, adding an aviation exhibit and, in 2008, opening a welcome center and museum dedicated to Jordan’s life.
I owe particular thanks to Joshua Albers for this post, whose camera and low-light photography skills did laps around mine. Whenever possible, I’ve used his photos from our visit and supplemented the group with my own. All videos are his.
Having spent the morning at Dzibilchaltún and the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, we returned to Mérida’s city center to drop off the car and take a short break at the hotel before walking to our next destination, the Canton Palace Museum. Also known as the Museo Regional de Antropología, the mansion-turned-museum blends early 20th century opulence with archaeological artifacts and, sometimes, more contemporary art. During our visit, the downstairs was closed for installation, but the upstairs hosted an exhibition on Puuc architecture that included relief details from Uxmal and other related sites, as well as quite a few illustrative photographs and explanatory text. Although visually the exhibition could not, of course, compare with seeing the works in situ, the written content was extremely informative, with clearer explanations for the development and significance of Puuc architecture than I have seen elsewhere.
Our visit was brief—around 30 minutes—and I remember being disappointed in the museum on the whole. Our guidebooks had been rather gushing in their praise for its collection, and the reality felt significantly less impressive, especially after having just seen the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. It also didn’t help that we were nearing the end of a day spent in nearly relentless heat, including a long walk through the congested (if sometimes scenic) sidewalks of Mérida to get there. Looking back, however, I primarily think of the quality of the scholarship and the beauty of the mansion itself. We also appreciated the exhibition more when we went to Uxmal just two days later and were able to mentally place some of the architectural details we had seen in the Canton Palace on the buildings from which they are now missing.
Highly subjective personal rating: 6.5/10 [probably 7/10 or higher when both levels are open]
Between Dzibilchaltún and Mérida’s city center sits the strikingly contemporary building of the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya. Built in 2012 in the shape of an abstracted ceiba tree (which in Maya mythology unites the three levels of the world), the museum expertly combines a vast collection of artifacts with up-to-date technology and display techniques, including immersive, multi-channel animations.
The Gran Museo divides its gallery spaces into two physically separated sections. During our visit, the first held an exhibition that was both innovative and straight-up weird. We never did figure out exactly what the thesis of the show was supposed to be (something related to evolution or extinction or how different cultures interpret the natural world?), but it included information on meteors as well as living, imagined, and extinct animals using geological fragments, fossils, European Renaissance prints, replicas of Maya artifacts, and a life-size installation representing the extinction and evolution of dinosaurs. Despite the jumble of ideas apparent throughout this section, most of the actual objects were interesting, while the unusual juxtapositions between seemingly unrelated items kept us engaged as well as confused.
Even so, I will admit to being relieved when we entered the second section, dedicated to Maya history and the museum’s permanent collection of artifacts. These galleries alone are well worth a visit to the Gran Museo, as they include a plethora of fascinating objects, many of which diverge significantly from what you can find in textbooks or even specialist publications on Maya cultures. Also refreshing were the explanatory texts, many of which appear in Spanish, Mayan, and English and reflect a perspective that somehow feels both personal and scholarly.
Highly subjective personal rating: 8.5/10 [strongly recommended]
Discreetly located north of downtown in an elegant lakeside townhouse, the International Museum of Surgical Science is one of Chicago’s more hidden attractions. Although the Gold Coast mansion itself may be enough to draw the casual attention of commuters and tourists making their way along Lake Shore Drive, no large signs or neighborhood flags will alert passersby to the structure’s varied (and variably disturbing) contents. Yet, for those with an interest in medical history, Chicago architecture, museology, or the drily macabre, the museum is worth seeking out.
As befitting its subject matter, the exhibits tend to be object-based, low-tech, and straightforwardly displayed in ways that make clever use of the pre-existing historic space, often utilizing art for both illustrative and dramatic purposes. It’s a fun—or at least fun-ish—destination for a half-day visit, even if the entrance fee ($15 at the time of writing, no AAM membership accepted) felt a little steep.
Leo Villareal, Buckyball, 2012. Aluminum tubing clad with LED lights atop aluminum plinth. 30 ft. x 144 in. x 144 in. (914.4 x 365.8 x 365.8 cm). Installed at Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR. Loaned courtesy of the Madison Square Park Conservancy, Gering & Lopez Gallery, and Leo Villareal.
All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, November 28, 2014.