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National Museum of Colombia: exploring history and culture

Front facade of National Museum of Colombia
Lucía Carbonell

Lucía Carbonell

I'm Lucía, although I prefer to be called Lou. I’m an anthropologist and currently studying for a masters degree in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution. I enjoy creative writing –every now and then I write little stories, mostly for myself, but sometimes for others too–, going to the cinema, theater, and concerts. My camera is my partner occasionally as I know a bit about photography. I also love getting to know places through art, and especially through street art. And last but no least, I am crazy about tattoos and my dog Janis.

If you are looking to get closer to Colombia’s culture, the National Museum is the perfect place for you. The museum, located in a building with enough history on its own, has been renovated to offer you an interactive experience to Colombia’s cultural diversity. Keep reading this article to find out the many experiences you can have in a place that has become much more than a museum. 

El Panóptico (the Panopticon): the building

The National Museum is located in Centro Internacional, one of the greatest business areas in downtown Bogotá. It is placed right on Carrera Séptima, one of Bogotá’s main avenues; a road that has huge historical, cultural, and commercial importance. You will recognize it from a distance as its huge rock walls and columns will draw your attention immediately, and once you enter the front door, you know the building itself is a structure full of history. Until the 1930s the structure used to be the Prison of Cundinamarca, better known as “The Panopticon.” This penitentiary was built in the nineteenth century and over the years became infamous for the great number of political prisoners, dreadful living conditions, and mechanisms of torture. Nowadays, walking through the renewed building, you can still find some remains from the building’s dark past: iron bars, cells, and, if you pay close attention, even drawings on walls and the ceiling made by some of the prisoners. In addition, you can learn more about the history of the structure in some of the museum halls.  

An atypical museum: the exhibitions

“Memoria y Nación” hall
© Photograph by Lucía Carbonell

The National Museum of Colombia’s name refers to Colombia as a Nation, so you might think straight away this will be a history museum regarding the creation and development of the nation. This is not completely inaccurate, but it can raise false expectations of what’s inside this building. You probably expect that a typical history museum will lead you chronologically throughout the most important historical events from a specific place. But, what I like most about this museum is that it gives you a whole different perspective on Colombia’s history. A few years ago, the museum started a renovation process that created halls to explore history through topics instead of periods of time. Besides that, the museum has integrated audiovisual material and interactive facilities to complement paintings, photographs, historical objects, and archeological remains. 

For example, the hall “Memoria y Nación,” is an amazing space that reunites a series of pieces that show some views of the memories that have shaped the nation. Multiple voices and images of the different populations that are part of Colombia, including indigenous peoples, cities, families of all kinds, women, and Afro-descendants have a place in this room to remind us of the country’s cultural diversity and how the memories have built this country. 

You can find also a hall that shows the different ways Colombian populations have related to their territory and a hall dedicated to social movements, social and political conflicts, and revolutions. This hall is intended to highlight social transformation and the process of getting closer to the confirmation of a multicultural and pluralist nation. Finally, there is a room created for the understanding of pre-hispanic people, but what I found the most interesting about this exhibition is that it also displays works of art from contemporary periods, creating a dialogue between different epochs and demonstrating the similarities and contrasts between the human groups that have inhabited Colombian territory. This hall also allows you to interact with replicas form pre-hispanic pieces, an interesting opportunity you don’t have in many museums.

 More than a museum: events and activities

“Mirada panóptica al arte” hall.
© Photograph by Lucía Carbonell

Apart from the permanent exhibitions I talked about before, the National Museum of Colombia offers many temporary exhibitions and activities that are constantly changing. Nowadays, the museum opens its doors for more than the museum displays, so it becomes more like a cultural center where you can appreciate concerts, art workshops, and talks or lectures about literature, art, and history. This is why it’s not a place to visit just once, and you can check out the events and activities on the museum’s website

I hope with this article you will want to have a unique experience in a building that was once a cold and dark place in Colombia’s history but has since been transformed into a space for creation, memories, and diversity. If you would like to know about other museums you can check out my article, “Museums in Bogota” here

Would you like to read more about places you can visit in Bogotá? Visit our website and check out other articles about this amazing city. If you also want to share your experience with the National Museum or any others, we would love to read it!

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