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The New Museum of Old Panama

The Plaza Mayor Museum opened this past August in the Panama Viejo Historical Monument Complex. It tells the history of this territory, which began as a fishing village and later became the first city founded by the Spaniards on the Pacific coast.

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Javier Pinzón

To the east of Panama City’s skyscrapers, away from the bustle of the banking area and the wide waterfront that stretches from the Avenues of Balboa and El Chorrillo, you’ll find the country’s largest and most iconic archeological site: Panama La Vieja.

Though the current site covers just over 69 acres, during the colonial era Panama La Vieja covered almost 150 acres of land, half of which was occupied by houses, government buildings, and the Church. The ruins that remain today belonged to the political and economic elite who, because they had more resources, built buildings that were more durable than the huts constructed in the bordering neighborhoods of Malambo and Pierdevidas.

As the story goes, on August 15, 1519, Panama City became the first European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Its founder, Pedrarias Dávila, was described as an irascible, intriguing, violent, manipulative, arbitrary, and even perverse man, who, nevertheless, accomplished what the Crown asked of him: to found cities, discover key territories, exercise ironclad authority, and make Panama a starting point for explorations to other parts of the continent. As the Panamanian historian Alfredo Castillero Calvo writes in his book, Historia urbana de Panamá La Vieja (Urban History of Panama La Vieja), complaints about Dávila’s methods were continuous, but in the end, he was rewarded with the governorship of Nicaragua, where he “died old, very rich, and without experiencing the earthly punishment he deserved for his many evils.”

Well, just a few weeks ago, in this place where the original Panama City was established almost five hundred years ago, the new Plaza Mayor Museum has opened its doors. Here, you can learn about the pre-Hispanic history of the area, the development of the colonial city, and its eventual fall, through thirteen different areas. “We did a reformulation,” explains the historian Néstor Sánchez, educational coordinator of the Patronato de Panamá Vieja, the entity that has been responsible for the administration of the archeological site since 1995. “What we did was to incorporate more pieces and additional information, to better understand Panama La Vieja,” adds Sánchez, describing the new museum in relation to the previous museum, which stood in the Visitors Center.

The Plaza Mayor Museum is a two-story building that emulates a wealthy colonial house because only the wealthiest families could live near the main public area of the city: the plaza facing the Cathedral.

The tour begins with an exhibition of ceramic objects and an exploration of the daily lives of the native inhabitants of the area, indigenous people who spoke the Cueva language and engaged in fishing and agriculture. So, for example, there are arrowheads that were used for hunting or self-defense, as well as knives and pottery pieces from the old fishing village. There are other artifacts from the cultural area of Gran Coclé —near the middle of the country— which indicates that there were exchanges between different indigenous groups. The exhibition also covers various funerary practices and objects, including the shell necklace found next to “The Lady of Old Panama,” a skeleton discovered on the grounds of the Plaza Mayor. Judging by the number of skulls and objects that surrounded her, she most likely occupied an important place in the village.

The second part of the new Museum focuses on the first Spanish expeditions to the isthmus and the foundation of the city. Castillero Calvo says that in 1514, when Pedrarias arrived in Darien, where Santa María la Antigua had been founded, his compatriots had already completed several phases of exploration: Vasco Núñez de Balboa had crossed the isthmus and reached the Pacific —Balboa would later be beheaded by orders of Pedrarias; between 1514 and 1519 the Spanish explored the waters of the Gulf of Panama and the islands of the Archipelago of Las Perlas —Gaspar de Morales returned to the archipelago with an enormous cargo of pearls, leaving behind a great trail of blood; and Gaspar de Espinoza penetrated the western savannas, plundering the great chiefdoms of Natá, Escoria, and París.

Because of these previous expeditions and the difficulties faced by Acla and Santa María la Antigua de Darién, such as geographic obstacles and attacks by native peoples and escaped slaves, Pedrarias concluded that the development of the colonies must be directed towards the west. This decision caused serious conflicts with those who already had interests in the first two cities, founded in the east. But history, as mentioned earlier, played in Pedrarias’s favor.

Antonio Tello de Guzmán is thought to be the first conquistador to reach the vicinity of Panama Viejo, in 1515. The Spaniards had clear instructions from the Crown: “Explore, conquer, and populate.” The process of making conquests, founding cities, and administering lands carried with it the so-called “requirement,” a text declaring that the conquered were “required” to become vassals of the King of Spain, adopt the Catholic faith, and obey the authority of the conquerors.

The Museum exhibits pieces of some ancient buildings from this period, as well as gold objects (rings and rosaries, for example), keys, and kitchen utensils. The main area is comprised of a model of the spatial distribution of the city: the seven convents, the Royal Houses, the Cathedral, the Cabildo (City Hall), the rental house of the important merchant Pedro de Alarcón, the two shrines, and the bridges that provided access to the city, as well as an interpretation of the location of the huts of the bordering shantytowns.

The difference between this model and the one that was exhibited in the former museum, located in the Visitors Center, is that the bridge that joined the Royal Houses with the rest of the city has been eliminated because no evidence of its existence has been found. Also, an open space was added to the Convent of Santo Domingo, a type of patio next to the chapel that was discovered through the archeological excavations that have taken place in recent years. This area of the Museum includes an exhibit of religious art, with pieces that were donated by the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (National Institute of Culture).

The Museum exhibition concludes with a visit to the city of the English pirate Henry Morgan, who entered via the Puente de Matadero bridge, then passed the feeble fortress of La Natividad and settled in the Convent of La Merced. From there he planned the siege that, over several days, took over the city and its population.

Castillero Calvo mentions in his book that, during the pirate attack of January 1671, more than five hundred people died, including whites, Blacks, native people, mulattos, and mestizos; this number doesn’t include those who were wounded or taken prisoner. “The invading force entered the city in flames to pillage it mercilessly. Fighting for their lives and estates, the defenders fought to the end. They offered resistance in the fortress of La Natividad and in the trenches and barricades that were placed in the main streets, although they had few pieces of artillery.”

The city’s own governor, Juan Pérez de Guzmán, gave orders to blow up the powder keg and place barrels of gunpowder at strategic points in the city to detonate if the enemy entered, and that’s how the great fire started. The idea was to get rid of anything that the pirates could take as booty.

To escape Morgan’s attack, the nuns of La Concepción came to the city from the islands of Perico, Taboga, and Taboguilla, carrying the convent’s liturgical ornaments, gold, and silver. The women and children of the elite came seeking safety with their jewels and fortunes. They heard the first gunpowder explosions and saw the flames engulfing the city. When they realized that defeat was inevitable, they fled to Peru to escape the violence.

The last part of the Museum tour takes visitors to the “colonial house,” a space that shows what the homes of the upper class were like: upstairs are the women’s spaces, including the bedrooms, the dining room, and sewing rooms. Downstairs is the store and the backroom: the areas for men. The house also included a corridor that led to the partially covered kitchen next to the patio, and the area for the servants and slaves, called the “cañón.”

The complex is definitely worth a visit. In addition to the Museum, it’s possible to explore the ruins —all identified— at the archeological site and visit the new bookstore, Librería Panamá Viejo, which is located in the museum’s former location in the Visitor’s Center and offers more than three thousand titles.