Feather and Thread: Bolivia’s National Ethnology and Folklore Museum

Feather and Thread: Bolivia’s National Ethnology and Folklore Museum

Sara Shahriari

Bolivia's National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore (MUSEF) sits on a narrow street in downtown La Paz. Easy to find and centrally located, it is one of La Paz's best museums, and a great way to spend an afternoon learning about Bolivian culture via displays that include weavings, masks and headdresses.

Bolivia is home to 36 indigenous groups recognized in the country's constitution.  While the MUSEF does not focus exclusively on indigenous peoples, the fact that the majority of Bolivia's citizens self-identify as indigenous means most offerings revolve around both historic and modern indigenous cultures.

Leaving the noisy, busy La Paz streets outside, visitors to the MUSEF enter the courtyard of a home built in the 1700s. The museum's first permanent display is a large room filled with both ancient and modern textiles woven by indigenous peoples throughout the region. The vivid weavings show the artistry of their makers, but wether they are fragments hundreds of years old or new works, most served practical purposes as clothing or a form of folded cloth bag called an aguayo. Made of sheep or llama wool that is painstakingly dyed and then mounted on wooden hand looms, the weavings' brilliant colors and minute representations of Andean animals such as the condor and the chinchilla make them extraordinary artworks.

Nearby is a darkened room filled with masks. Masks are used in a wide range of celebrations across Bolivia, but many focus around Carnaval, an annual celebration that takes place in February or March. Some, like the Aña mask of the indigenous Guarani people of southeastern Bolivia, represent ancestors walking the earth during community celebrations. Others are lessons in Bolivian history: the wild white face of a Spanish invader, an anguished African slave brought by the Spanish to work in Bolivia's immensely rich silver mines, wide-eyed angels angels and elaborate, menacing devils all tell parts of the the story of colonization.

All of the signage in MUSEF is in Spanish, which makes appreciating the museum in detail a challenge for anyone who doesn't speak the language. However, Milton Eyzaguirre Morales, the museum's outreach director, says projects are underway to offer information in more languages.

Another main exhibit revolves around feathers. In the tropical Bolivian lowlands plumes from parrots and other local birds have practical and ceremonial purposes, from trimming mighty 4-foot arrows to feather headdresses for war and celebrations. One eye-catching headpiece at the MUSEF, worn by the Amazonian Moxeño people during traditional dances, is made of long feathers in the shape of the rising sun that fan out around the head.

The museum also hosts temporary exhibits, and Eyzaguirre Morales hopes it will soon mount a traveling display of historic photographs from its collections.

There are just about 10 million people living in all Bolivia, fewer than in the State of Ohio. But within that relatively small population, which lives scattered from high Andean glaciers to the tropical Amazon, and from large cities to remote villages, is a tremendous diversity of peoples and cultures. Despite the challenges the MUSEF presents to non-Spanish speakers, this small museum is a step toward understanding the historic and modern diversity present within Bolivia.


-- Click here for the MUSEF's homepage, with a video in English: http://www.musef.org.bo/

--The MUSEF offers free folk dance exhibitions most Wednesdays at 7 pm.

-- MUSEF makes its text and video archives available to researchers.

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