Sunday, 24 August 2014

Human Remains at Spanish National Anthropology Museum

Studying the Open University course A151 "Making Sense of Things: An Introduction to Material Culture has made me aware of the issues surrounding the objects in museums and other places that were once living people. We've also studied the origin and evolution of museums, from the Rensaissance cabinets of curiosities up to contemporary museums and shrines.

Remembering from a previous visit to the Spanish National Anthropology Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropología) that there was a skeleton there, I decided to investigate in more detail in the light of my newly-acquired knowledge.

The museum is located on a corner just across from the Atocha railway station and next to the Ministry of Agriculture and the botanic gardens, just down the street from the Prado Museum. Being the holiday season, I was one of very few visitors. I suspect that it comes well downpeople's list of priorities when they're visiting Madrid.
The main façade of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Madrid
As I remembered, the room with the skeleton was just off the main hall, to the left as you enter the building. The room is designated "Origins of the Museum," and a plaque explains that the museum was founded by Dr Pedro González Velasco, a nineteenth century pioneer of anatomy and professor at Madrid University, and called the "Museum of Anatomy," but was popularly known as the Anthropological Museum. it opened in 1875. The scope of the collection was natural history in general (animal, vegetable and mineral). Dr Velasco spent all his money on building the museum and was ruined financially, and when he died, his widow sold it to the government. After many changes of name and of government department, in 2004 the museum began a renovation programme starting with the Africa Room, then moving on to the Asia Room, and the Physical Anthropology Room, which is where the skeletons are. The renovation was completed in 2008.

The Physical Anthropology Room, is an attempt to recreate an example of the cabinets of natural history that were popular until the beginning of the 20th century, with examples from the museum's collection (most of the specimens of which are in storage). Each exhibit is chosen to represent features, normal anatomical variations, pathologies, injuries, and ethnic differences. The picture below shows an interesting collection of death masks of people of different ethnic groups.

The "Origins of the Museum" Room
The centrepiece of the room is the skeleton of the "Giant of Extremadura." This person, whose name was Agustín Luengo, was born in 1849 and due to his unusual physical features (he was 2.35 metres tall) went to work from an early age in a circus, of which he was one of the main attractions. Dr González visited him and they signed an agreement that the Professor paid him a sum of money in return for his consent to use his body for scientific research post-mortem. Agustín died in Madrid in 1875, aged only 26. Dr Velasco performed a public dissection, made a plaster cast and preserved the skeleton, which is today on display in the museum.
Plaster cast of the "Giant of Extremadura"
Skeleton of the "Giant of Extremadura"

I was also struck by the mummified naked body of a woman laying in a glass case, with no name. The label begins "the earliest record of the presence of the mummy appears in the correspondence of..." This person was a "Guanche," one of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands. What she would think about being exposed in this way one can wonder at.

Mummy of a Guanche Woman


To see the catalogue page for the skeleton incredibly, there's no stable URL, so go to the catalogue search form and type CE5417 in the "Inventario" field (CE3332 for the mummy).

Mora, C., Antropología física. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Madrid, 1993.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Sand Lily on Calpe Beach

I discovered this flower as I was walking along the Playa del Boll beach at Calpe. Consulting my book about Calpe I found that it's Pancratium maritimum. Friends have told me it's quite widespread around the Mediterranean. 

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Fridge well stocked for summer

Now that it looks like the weather is finally going to warm up I'm here in Madrid glad I've got my refrigerator stocked with traditional Spanish chilled soups. The picture shows the three main ones I eat: Salmorejo, Gazapacho and Ajoblanco. Gazapacho is made from tomatoes, green peppers, cucumber, onions, and olive oil, all put into a blender for a whiz and then chilled, and often served with ice, and it's pretty irresistible when I arrive home somewhere at around 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Salmorejo has a similar list of ingredients, but it also has soggy white bread blended in, which gives that are very thick consistency. The name Ajoblanco is derived from the two words "white" and "garlic," and it's made from almonds ground to a paste with garlic. It's rather more refined, more expensive and difficult to find in the shops, even though it's made by one of the major brands. I like it for dinner. On the other hand gazapacho is difficult to resist drinking it directly out of the carton at any time of day. If the picture doesn't fit in the width of the page you can click it to see it full size.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Attic Pots at National Archaeological Museum

As follow-up to our work on classifying objects in Open University course A151 "Making Sense of Things: An Introduction to Material Culture I made a flying visit to this newly reorganised and rebuilt National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, to see what there is on show in the way of Greek red and black figure pots. I found a couple in the ancient Greece and Rome section on the top floor. More surprisingly there were quite a number in the section on the Ibero (pre-Roman Iberian) culture. I knew that these pots were imported into Etruria but I had no idea that the pre-Roman inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula were also avid collectors.
Photograph of three red-figure pots, a krater and two small kylix.
Greek red-figure pots excavated in Spain
 I thought it wasn't allowed to take photographs, but other people were doing so and the guards weren't saying saying anything, so I took a couple myself.
Afterwards we went on and to have an African lunch at what I think must be my favourite  restaurant, Kim Bu Mbu.