National Museum Digs Up Its Own Dirt

August 14, 2009

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Some say every barracks in Costa Rica’s principalcities had passages leading to the place where the most politically influentialplayer in the region lived.

The passageway allowed quick, easy and undetectablemovement – and, more importantly, communication – between the two interconnectedpowers.

The central barracks, originally called theCuartel Bellavista, in the nation’s capital of San José would have been connectedto the most powerful player of all: the president of the republic. At least, sosays Myrna Rojas, director of the anthropology and history department at theNational Museum, which now occupies the former Cuartel Bellavista.

“It’s said there is a connection between thebarracks, when it was used for the military, and the Casa Presidencial, whichwas in a building that’s now part of the property of the Legislative Assembly,”Rojas said. “As a matter of fact, they say that on the barracks’ side (of theold Casa Presidencial) there were markings like we have here for an entrance tothe tunnel.”

Almost since the National Museum took controlof the building in 1950, there has been speculation about the presence of a systemof tunnels below the beautiful central courtyard that used to be lined withsoldiers in exercise, and is now lined with well-trimmed hedges and pleasantflowers.

It wasn’t until the last week of July thatanyone knew for sure, however. While restoring the impressive and elegant main entranceto the museum, a group of workers installing a wheelchair ramp broke enough groundto reveal something they didn’t recognize. And when that happens in the country’smost recognizable historic landmark, you might as well call an early lunch.

“It was difficult to really say for sureif (the tunnels) were there or weren’t there, because they existed only in someof the blueprints of (original architect José María) Barrantes,” but notothers, Rojas said.

“When they cleaned the area, we realized (atunnel) was there,” she said. They stopped (remodeling) and we continued withthe excavation.”

What was eventually unearthed was a tunnel,about 80 centimeters wide and two meters high, leading away from the barracks’ holdingcells, which were mostly used to hold political prisoners, Rojas said.

Though only a small amount of the tunnelhas been revealed, Rojas said she estimates that its entirety runs about 300 metersacross the long section of the rectangular courtyard, and probably intersects withthree to four others along the way.

Two shirt buttons, two fragments from thebutts of rifles, a collection of artillery casings and bullets, and a few otherfragments of metal they haven’t been able to identify were all found in thedig.

Very little is known about the tunnels, becausethey were closed off before the museum took control of the barracks. Most likely,they were used to transport soldiers to the different defensive points of thefort and to move prisoners without having them be seen, Rojas said. The fortwas first commissioned in the late 19th century, started construction in 1915and was finished by 1930, according to Rojas.

In 1948, a civil war broke out between thearmy, which supported the unpopular President Teodoro Picado, and the majority ofthe people, said Iván Molina, a history professor with the University of CostaRica.

“For the army, the only way of gaining powerwas by force,” he said.

Unfortunately for them, the opposition hadbeen well armed by Guatemala with guns from World War II. The Costa Rican military,on the other hand, had been weakened by presidential candidates investing in infrastructure,education and public health instead of in arms – a novel idea.

“It was an army in decline,” Molina said. “Itwas a very small, weak army without new weapons.”

By December of the same year, the militaryhad been abolished, and the Cuartel Bellavista was soon to be in need of newtenants. But before they handed maintenance of the grounds over to the museum’spersonnel, the military covered up the tunnels and sealed off their entrancesfrom the inside; however, some of the filled-in entrances were left slightlyrecessed in the walls, leaving hints as to what lay behind.

With the tunnels sealed, awful tales soon emergedabout what might be cemented off and hidden in them – “really dark stories,” Rojassaid.

She recounted one: “There were people after1948 who … I don’t know if they killed them or they put them in the tunnel. Butyou would suppose there are bodies of people down there – or the bones, atleast.”

Another story has it that someone later snuckin and found a decomposed body chained to the wall.

What the excavation will eventually turn upis still to be seen and won’t be discovered for a while, as further work hasbeen halted to maintain the well-manicured courtyard of the museum. But Rojassaid she expects work will be done in the future and hopes the tunnels willeventually become a part of the museum’s exhibits.

The National Museum is on Calle 17, betweenAvenida Central and Avenida 2, adjacent to downtown San José’s Plaza de laDemocracia. Exhibit rooms are open Tuesday to Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admissioncosts $6 for adults, $3 for students with ID and ¢1,000 for Costa Ricans.

For information, call 2257-1433 or visit www.museocostarica.go.cr.

 

Pre-Columbian Room Reopens Kid-Friendlier

A revamped exhibit displaying Costa Rica’spre-Columbian past reopened in the National Museum last week after being closedfor nearly a year.

The museum’s Pre-Columbian History Roomwas redesigned to “invite boys and girls – and adults, too – to learn andobserve” the cultures and beliefs of peoples preceding the arrival of theSpanish, said National Museum archeologist Minor Castro.

After the museum invested more than$160,000 in the project, the room reopened with a new, engaging design and25,000 copies of an interactive booklet to help interest children in learningabout the country’s pre- Columbian past. Before the redesign, the exhibit was “tooformal,” and “kids, especially, got bored,” Castro said.

The room takes up a long corridor of theNational Museum, which used to be a military barracks before Costa Ricaabolished its army in 1948 (see story starting on Page W1).

The exhibit begins, surprisingly, withmammoth jawbones and a number of other bones reflecting the last ice age, whenCosta Rica wasn’t the tropical paradise it is today.

The first inhabitants came to the areabetween 10,000 and 8,000 B.C. and lived a nomadic lifestyle. The first peopleto cultivate crops lived a millennium or two before Christ.

While the miniature models andillustrations of the types of villages and housing used at the time provide a beautifulway of spurring the imagination, the museum’s director, Rocío Fernández, saidit goes far beyond looks.

“We can’t think only about the beautyand aesthetics,” she said. “We think about the manner it’s presented and whatit represents – like a didactic guide” through the nation’s early history.

While the redesign is also directed atadults, it is the interest of children that the museum is really aiming tocapture.

“We have to prepare the next generationto identify and preserve their heritage,” said Culture Minister María ElenaCarballo. “I’ve seen how kids always play with the masks of the mummies and getclose with the Egyptian culture. … (We) wanted to do that with the culture here.”

The interactive booklets describe thejob of archeologists and the importance of the different cultures that lived inCosta Rica, and include various activities, such as cutting out parts of thebook to make a pre-Columbian house.

–Daniel Shea

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