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Understanding Panama through its Museums

Since its geological formation some two million years ago, Panama has been—and it always will be—a crossroads where stories converge, species intermingle, and great men and women change the course of history. May is Museum Month and the folks at Panorama of the Americas present their readers with a combination of Panamanian museums perfect for understanding how Panama’s crossroads location has made it a unique place where continents, oceans, and cultures converge to rewrite history.

Panama’s Biomuseo: Bridge of Life

Text and photos: Javier Pinzón

Seventy million years ago, an ocean divided the American continent until tectonic movements pushed submerged mountains to the surface. They slowly became islands and, through sedimentation, eventually fused together. The Isthmus of Panama was a fundamental part of this process; as it emerged –some two million years ago– it became the final piece of land uniting North and South America and separating the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans forever.

Biomuseo uses design, architecture, and science to explain the global implications of this separation. The museum, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry with interior design by Bruce Mau, draws on the natural history of Panama and its ecosystems to create an experience that encompasses the visitor’s five senses. The museum has five permanent galleries, one of which is open to the public free of charge.

Visitors to the museum discover the different meanings of the word biodiversity and its important effects on the day-to-day lives of all those who share this planet. There’s also a virtual reality tour through Panama’s forests, mountains, and reefs. Data and numbers are used to explain Dr. Steven Stanley’s magnificent theory in which the origin of the human species is closely related to planetary climate changes resulting from the separation of the oceans.

For Museum Month, Biomuseo has prepared a temporary exhibition on the vast amounts of plastic in our oceans. The exhibition, entitled “En tus manos” (“In Your Hands”), is designed to draw attention to this major environmental problem and inform the public of the many ways we can all help eliminate waste through moderate and rational use of this material.

 

Interoceanic Canal Museum: A Meeting of the Seas

Since its geological beginning, Panama has rewritten history, linking the north with the south, while separating the east from the west. Two million years after it began, Panama and its inhabitants decided to change the course of history yet again by reuniting the oceans with a canal. The Interoceanic Canal Museum narrates the adventures of the French, Americans, Chinese, Afro-Antilleans, and Panamanians who made possible this great union between the two oceans. A total of 30,000 objects and amazing graphic resources illustrate each step in the planning, construction, and operation of the Panama Canal.

Dr. Ángeles Ramos Baquero, the museum’s executive director and chief curator, explains that the story begins with the emergence of the Isthmus of Panama from the bottom of the sea and continues on into the present; the construction of the canal, far from being an isolated event, is part of Panama’s never-ending history. For this reason, the different galleries focus on pre-Hispanic cultures, contact between the two worlds, Panama’s political history, and the French attempt to unite the oceans, in addition to Panama’s separation from Colombia, the arrival of the North Americans, and the sanitation campaign aimed at ending the mass deaths of workers due to tropical diseases. The museum also explores life in the Canal Zone, the Panamanians’ first claims to their territory, Operación Soberanía (Operation Sovereignty), the events of April 9, 1964 (including the original flag that triggered the events of that historic day), the Canal in Panamanian hands, and its expansion.

In addition to its permanent exhibits, the museum currently offers a look at “Avant-garde Art in Coco Chanel’s Paris” and in May, Museum Month, it will also host a special exhibition on “Fortified Seas and Globalization,” which includes an international seminar on maritime routes.

The museum is located in the city’s historic district, in the building where the first offices of the Universal Company of the Interoceanic Canal operated at the end of the 19th century. The institution is a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the American Alliance of Museums (AMM). It was the first non-U.S. institution affiliated with the Smithsonian.

 

Museo de la Plaza Mayor: Where Continents Meet

By Ana Benjamín
Photos: Javier A. Pinzón

The Museum of the Plaza Mayor reopened in August 2017, in a new building located a few steps from the archaeological site’s iconic tower. It’s the ideal place to learn about Panama’s pre-Hispanic history, its development as a colonial city, and its fall in the midst of a confrontation between Spanish and English pirates.

A visit to the museum begins with a display of ceramic objects used in the daily lives of the city’s original inhabitants, indigenous fishermen and farmers who spoke the Cueva language. The next gallery explores the Spanish expeditions throughout the isthmus, the city’s foundation, and the attack by pirate Henry Morgan. Finally, the visit ends with the “colonial house,” which offers a look at the homes of the well-to-do during the period.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, a selection of antique maps of Panama will be on display in the Visitors Center through July 15. This exhibition, “Panama’s Colonial Cartography: A Look at the Isthmus through Antique Maps,” narrates the country’s history through the eyes of the cartographers and navigators who explored the territory between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries, interpreting its geography through observation and adaptation of existing data.

One of the doors at the entrance to the exhibition displays a text that perfectly describes the experience of looking at a map: “One’s first instinct (…) is to slide one’s finger across its face to search for known places, admire its accuracy, or draw attention to its inaccuracy…” And Hernán Araúz Torres, curator, career diplomat, cultural guide, and passionate historian, does just that as he explains a few of the sixty maps on loan from Panamanian collector Luis Varela for the exhibition. Running his right index finger over every line, place, place name, and label, he narrates and relives the history in each of the ancient documents.

There is, for example, a map created in 1503 by Bartholomew Columbus, Christopher’s brother, which includes—for the first time—the territories of what would later be called Panama: Bastimento, Bel Porto, Veragnia… But Christopher and Bartholomew believed that they were in Asia, which explains why they drew the China Sea on the other side of these territories. On other maps, we see the first presentations of the Novus Mundus; navigators and cartographers had realized that this was not Asia, but a new world. They began to use the word “America” and hint at the existence of a new sea.

Such is the case of one map drawn in 1507 by German geographer and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, which includes a passage through what would become Central America. This is particularly interesting since it was drawn several years before Vasco Núñez de Balboa announced the existence of the “South Sea” in 1513. Most relevant to Panama, however, is the fact that Waldseemüller’s map shows the Chilean coast as already having been explored. “What this map tells us is that Balboa was not the first European to reach the Pacific,” points out Araúz Torres.

Also of particular interest are the “south-up” map (with the south at the top) drawn by Bartolomé Ruiz de Estrada in 1526, where the name of the Pacific Ocean appears for the first time, replacing what until then was referred to as the South Sea; a map drawn in 1574, on which the Isthmus of Panama makes its first-ever appearance, making this the oldest map of the country; and another map from 1579 showing the great trade routes that emerged following the conquest of America: Magallanes’s route and that of the Isthmus of Panama, the first to signal Panama as a passage. This document is even more interesting because it was made by Flemish geographer and cartographer Abraham Ortelius, known as the “sixteenth-century Ptolemy,” who was the author of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, considered the first modern atlas.

The exhibition provides a wonderfully worthwhile look at the development of cartography during this period of conquest and colonization, helping visitors understand the Isthmus’s role as a Central American passageway (you’ll want to go on to visit the Canal to appreciate in situ the tangible consequences of all this cartographic history). Viewers of the exhibit will discover, for example, that Portobelo was Panama’s most “mapped” site prior to construction of the canal and that the amputated ear of a man named Jenkins was responsible for starting a war.

The book that inspired this exhibition, Los mapas antiguos de Panamá y Darién (1503-1879) (The Antique Maps of Panama and Darien), can be found at the Librería de Panamá Viejo. It’s the product of a seven-month investigation carried out by Araúz Torres at the United States Library of Congress while on a fellowship from the Kislak Foundation.

The Panama Viejo Archaeological Site is located southeast of Panama City, on the Via Cincuentenario. Open Tuesday through Sunday, from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, the entrance fee is ten dollars for Panamanians, fifteen dollars for international visitors, and five dollars for students. The fee includes admission to the archaeological park, the Museum of the Plaza Mayor, and the Mirador de la Catedral. Admission to the antique map collection costs three dollars.