By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: David Mesa
Now, at the peak of the dry season, ¬is the ideal time to visit Panama City. Enjoy the sun and trade winds that permeate this tropical land as well as the capital city’s increasingly varied selection of museums.
From a button museum to those celebrating the richness of the Guna molas or focusing on human rights, Panama City’s museums are, for the most part, small enough to be visited in a couple of hours, but packed with wonder, drama, beauty, and fun.
Here we offer a peek at nine museums to help you map your own route and learn a little more about Panama’s history, art, and culture.
Museo de la Mola
Quite close to Plaza Herrera is the Museo de la Mola (MUMO is its Spanish acronym), one of the city’s newest museums. The MUMO offers visitors a deeper understanding of this article of clothing worn by the women of the Guna, one of fifteen Indigenous groups who speak the Chibcha language.
At the museum you’ll learn, for example, that 97% of the Gunas live in Panama and the other 3% live on indigenous reserves in Colombia’s Gulf of Urabá; the mola is the Guna people’s most important manifestation of cultural identity.
Museum displays contain examples of women’s clothing and show how it has changed over time. The exhibits explain how molas are made and what the different designs mean, as well as the mola’s relationship with the community’s worldview.
Tuesday to Friday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm
Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Tel. + 507 383 1227
Museo de La Merced
Two blocks from La Mola, located on the Casco Viejo’s main avenue, La Merced church is worth admiring for its colonial architecture, but also because its facade was transferred here from its original location, in what is known today as Panama La Vieja, and rebuilt stone by stone. The frontispiece we see today is from the original building, built at the end of the 16th century.
The museum’s entrance opens into an inner courtyard that displays, among other objects, a column carved from níspero, or loquat wood, which had to be removed when it could no longer support the ceiling, and the old church bells, one dating back to 1232 and the other two from 1670 and 1761, which were replaced after they became too worn and cracked.
Museo de La Merced exhibits mostly religious and liturgical objects but it also contains unique documents, such as sacramental books from colonial days and the period when Panama was still part of Colombia, and diaries narrating landmark events in the country’s history, such as the Battle of Calidonia Bridge (1900) and the U.S. invasion of Panama (1989).
Open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
The Biomuseo’s eight exhibition halls explain how the emergence of the Panamanian isthmus changed the world three million years ago, affecting the climate, marine currents, and biodiversity. Architect Frank Gehry designed the building, which is located in the Amador Causeway. Gehry surrounded it with a garden that is, perhaps, the best way to understand –if you have the patience to observe and listen– biodiversity and the interrelationships that exist between human beings, animals, and plants.
Tuesday to Friday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Museo de Arte Religioso
Located next to the Arco Chato (the Flat Arch), which marks the site of the old Santo Domingo Convent, this museum contains works of religious importance, primarily from the 18th-century. Even the building housing the museum is interesting, as it was the chapel of the old convent. During your visit, ask about the Panamanian Writer’s Library and take the opportunity to purchase some of its publications, including works by winners of the Ricardo Miró Prize, the country’s most important literary accolade.
De martes a viernes de 9:00 a.m. a 5:00 p.m.
Sábados y domingos de 10:00 a.m. a 6:00 p.m.
Tel. + 507 228 3986
Museo de Panamá Viejo
The Plaza Mayor Museum, part of the Historic Monumental Complex of Panama Viejo, tells the story of how a small fishing village became the first city founded by the Spanish conquerors on the American Pacific coast.
The tour begins with an exhibition of small models portraying the daily lives of the original inhabitants and goes on to narrate the first Spanish expeditions on the isthmus, the founding of the city in 1519, and its subsequent fall in 1671. The Museum building emulates the homes of the colonial elite in old Panama City and includes displays of artifacts used in everyday life. And don’t forget to visit the Panama Viejo Bookstore!
Tuesday to Sunday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
Museo de la Libertad
The first building in Museo de la Libertad’s three-building complex contains a series of exhibition halls focusing on human rights issues. In the first of these halls, a timeline shows a history of human rights, comparing progress made throughout the world with events in Panama. The second hall defines human rights and explains why they are important, presenting several historical local and international examples of human rights violations. The final hall highlights the work of a number of human rights defenders.
Museo de la Libertad is located in Amador, an important historical site itself. Ask the guides about the importance of the spatial context.
Tuesday to Friday from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm
Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
City of Knowledge Interpretation Center
The Center is located in an area containing some of Panama City’s most valued scenery, heritage, and history. A U.S. military base that operated here from 1903 to 1999 provides an example of the early 20th-century architecture used by Americans in the former Canal Zone. The Center tells the story of how the Clayton neighborhood and the City of Knowledge were born, providing context to the development of the transit route, the Canal Zone, and Panama’s stormy relations with the United States.
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm
Tels. +507 306 3787 / 3788
Museo de Botones Destro
Visiting the Destro Button Museum is a chance to journey in time and pause to appreciate details. The museum’s collection recalls historical moments and events. The details on every button tell incredible stories, from the old-world European preoccupation with hiding body odors (given the belief that bathing was unhealthy) to the ways in which shortages caused by economic recessions, the rise of plastics, and climate have affected the manufacturing of this everyday object.
Tel +507 230 1974
Museo del Canal
A visit to this museum, which focuses on the origins and development of the transit route, is essential to any real understanding of Panama.
The Canal Museum’s permanent exhibitions narrate the history of the route, from pre-Columbian times to the construction of the Canal, highlighting the isthmus’ role in exchange between indigenous groups and during Spanish colonization. It then covers the French attempt to build the Canal and, finally, the U.S. presence, first during the construction of the railway and then during the construction of the Panama Canal.
A visit to the museum will help you understand how the very heart of the nation was torn open to unite the two seas in a feat that required all the science available at the time and thousands of immigrant workers from all parts of the world and especially from the nearby Caribbean islands.
Tuesday to Sunday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm