Visiting The Small Museums of Costa Rica

Once upon a time, museums were fusty-looking collections in glass cases with, perhaps, a few life-size stuffed wild animals or mannequins displaying strange foreign customs.

Today’s museums in Costa Rica serve different functions, such as preserving the past, instilling pride in one’s culture, safeguarding traditions, providing teaching tools to complement classroom learning, and disseminating information through activities and publications. Not all museums are alike or share the same goals. And not all rely on displays.

In addition to the well-known and frequently visited National Museum and Children’s Museum in San José, the country has several regional and specialized museums, a concept promoted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the National Museum to encourage a look into local history and traditions.

While the National Museum, with its superb collection of archaeology, colonial and religious history, revolving collections and outdoor butterfly garden, draws 225,000 visitors a year and is a popular tourist destination, the regional museums are small and dedicated to one concept: history, art or cultural aspects of the area, or the accomplishments of a local person.

They are rarely visited by tourists and most are within easy reach of the Central Valley and can be browsed in an hour, making them pleasant little side trips. Ideal for budget travelers, these museums are all free or low-cost, and can be reached by bus. Here is an introduction to a few of them:

Dr. Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia Historical Museum

This house, built in the French classic style in 1912 and later used by physician and former President Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (1940-44) as his medical offices, is truly interesting, as are the revolving art exhibits. However, the best part of this museum is the film and talk on the history of the social guarantees in Costa Rica, dating back to the early labor and social movements in Europe around 1900.

Credit is given to European leaders who fought for the rights of workers.Calderón studied medicine in Belgium in the 1930s and became keenly aware of the social and reform movements in Europe and within the Catholic Church under Pope Leon XIII. After returning to Costa Rica, he entered politics and became President in 1940.

Meanwhile, Manuel Mora, leader of the communist movement, and church leader Monsignor Victor Sanabria, were also pushing for the rights of the underprivileged.

Mindful of the revolutions in Mexico in 1910 and in Russia in 1917, the three together made social reforms a reality in 1943. These included the University of Costa Rica, formerly a collection of classes, the Social Security System (Caja), the labor code to protect workers, and the guarantees of work, health and decent housing.

The museum’s program is for groups, and reservations must be made in advance. Smaller groups of three or four qualify, and can sit in with larger groups or even arrange a showing. A library is open to the public for those interested in further information. The museum and program are wheelchair-accessible

Location: One block east and one block north of Santa Teresita Church, Barrio Escalante, eastern San José.

Costa Rica Electricity Institute (ICE) Museum

This little museum dedicated to energy production and telecommunications is tucked away in the ICE complex on the north side of La Sabana Park. Follow the street on the right of the main ICE building about 300 meters. The museum is behind a white mesh fence and has two huge turbines in front.The museum’s main emphasis is on compiling and disseminating information on energy and telecommunications; publications covering all aspects of these topics are available.

It also focuses on the history of energy dating back to the l800s and its role in the social and economic life of the country. (In 1882, San José became the third city in the world with street lights.) ICE now produces hydroelectric, thermal, solar and wind power.

A slide presentation on ICE’s plants and plans is available.Worth a visit, this museum is of special interest to students of science and technology. Information on the displays is offered in English and Spanish.

The museum is currently closed, but will reopen soon. (call to confirm).

Location: Behind ICE, across from north La Sabana Park, western San José.

Liceo De Costa Rica Cultural House

This collection is housed in what was once San José’s home for juvenile delinquents and later the home of the director of Costa Rica’s first public high school. Founded in 1887, the school moved to this site in 1903. Today, it provides quality education to more than 2,000 students in distinctive gray uniforms and ties.

The museum contains photos, musical instruments, trophies, uniforms and artwork from student competitions, including a l948 drawing by noted cartoonist Hugo Díaz depicting his high school classmates, as well as odds and ends from early science classes

Designed to instill pride in students and alumni, this little museum is also a record of public education in Costa Rica and an architectural sample of public buildings from the era.

Location: Corner house inside high school grounds, Ca. 9, Av. 18, San José.

Postal Museum

This museum features telegraphs, telephones and stamps dating back to l863, when the first stamps were printed up glue-less and had to be pasted on. Displays include special stamps depicting images of soccer, the new pope or other themes, and stamps from around the world. In the children’s area, kids can play postmaster and learn how letters are addressed and delivered.

Photo and old equipment displays show how the postal service evolved here.Dating back to 1917, the building housed the telegraph office as well as the post office. The museum is on a balcony where you can watch present-day postal workers sorting mail below.

Stamps lure more than collectors, as they depict the important events, people, animals and plants of a country. A stamp exchange for collectors and anyone curious about stamps is held the first Saturday morning of each month, and in January the museum offers courses on stamp lore. On the lower level of the post office, the stamp office sells commemorative stamps, first day issues and pre-stamped post cards.

Location: Central Post Office, second floor, Ca. Central, Av. 1/3, San José.

Joaquin Garcia Monge Museum

Built in 1824, this old adobe building was the first parish house in Desamparados, back when the area was called Dos Cercas (Two Fences) and was an early settlement between the country’s old capital, Cartago, and San José. Featuring thick walls and tall windows with heavy shutters, the building is an interesting study in the architecture of the time.

The museum is dedicated to Joaquín García Monge, who grew up in a similar house nearby and attended school in the building when it was a boys’ school. Born in 1881, Monge was an educator who taught at the Liceo de Costa Rica. He was also an artist, writer and editor of the Repertorio Americano, an intellectual collection of essays.

The museum consists of a meeting and event hall and rooms dedicated to local history, including photos and remains of indigenous settlements, a priceless statue of the Virgin of Desamparados brought from Guatemala in 1824, books, furnishings and an old typewriter from the days of García Monge.

Sponsored and cared for by the Friends of the Museum Association, the main hall is used for civic group and garden club meetings, as well as twice-monthly programs for the public on local culture and history, and the annual rosary to the Christ Child (around Candlemas Day, Feb. 2).

Art classes are held in another part of the building. The association is looking for donations of furniture and items related to the area and its history.

Location: Corner house on the north side of the church in Desamparados, south of San José.

Juan Santamaria Museum

Housed in the old jail near the main park in Alajuela, this small museum will soon get bigger when it takes over the front part of the building, the former army barracks.

The museum is dedicated to the Campaign of 1856 that routed the invasion of U.S. filibuster William Walker and his army, and the heroic act of Alajuela native Juan Santamaría, who saved the campaign and Costa Rica by torching the thatched roof of Walker’s headquarters.Built in the 1880s as a military barracks and later used as the Alajuela jail, the building itself is of interest.

The collection contains military items, photos, flags and paintings of the important victory. The museum keeps an extensive document collection, and books on Santamaría and the campaign are available. In addition, there is a revolving art gallery in the front, a patio with an orchid garden and a theater for plays, concerts and events.

Location: In the old jail, one block north of the main park in Alajuela, north- west of San José.

Joaquin Garcia Monge Museum

Part of Universidad Nacional, this museum is used as a teaching project in many fields. The house was built in 1885 by the parents of former President Alfredo González Flores (1914-1917) as a summer home. The building is made of bahareque (mud, manure and grass held in place by bamboo rods), and the ceiling is pure bamboo.

This type of construction is now being studied because of its durability.The house is furnished in the style of the era, and the grounds include a Tico style outdoor oven, an outhouse, an open shed for storing corn and coffee, and stone walkways along gardens.

The museum offers programs in traditional crafts, including construction, masks and handicrafts. Occasional programs such as the Christmas rosary to the Christ Child are held to restore interest in and enjoy the beauty of Tico traditions. A restaurant serving traditional food is open on Sundays and by reservation for groups.

Location: Santa Lucía de Barva de Heredia, north of San José.

Indio Kurieti Natural History Museum

This little museum is a big surprise, fun and informative. What started as Ángel Ramírez’s personal collection of indigenous artifacts and lore to rescue and preserve what is left of his people’s culture has led to a small village on his own property.“I had to make a museum to save our culture,” said the descendent of the Piriruci- Tobosi (Huetares and Cabécares), who held this land long before the Spanish came.

The museum is named for a Tobosi chief. Ramírez began collecting items and stories from around the area in 1971, learning from his father and other elders how things were done.

Using his skills and research, he began work in 1988 building huts, ceremonial structures, and a sacred food temple for storing corn and other food, and adding tombs and walkways similar to those found in Guayabo National Monument, near the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba.

He has help from the University of Costa Rica, the National Museum and student volunteers. Some of the exhibits may seem out of place, such as the one about the Atlantic railway that once passed through the area, until its explained that coal mined in the Caribbean region of Talamanca by the native population was used for the steam engines of the railroad.

Another example is a grotto with a replica of the Virgin of the Angels, Cartago’s and Costa Rica’s patron saint who appeared to Joana Pereira in 1636. Before that time, blacks, mulattos and natives were not allowed into the colonial capital.

But when La Negrita, a black madonna, appeared before an indigenous girl, it was like God saying everyone is equal. Other exhibits refer to African cults that had shamans, sacred rites and medicinal plants not unlike those of the Piriruci- Tobosi.

The Conquistadors brought blacks from Africa to work for them, and the cultures mixed. Another part of the museum contains early iron pots and grinders, an adoption from the Spanish to replace clay and stone.Shamanic power was important to the Piriruci.

Shamans or priests cured ills and warded off evil. A hollowed-out stone serves as a fountain that was once filled with fragrant oil for the shaman to anoint his people, much like the holy water font in the faith Ramírez now practices.Chisikú is the name used in the logs where was recorded research and lore.

And “logs” they rightfully are: notebooks are inserted between rectangular pieces of tree bark, the material used by the Piriruci to record things before paper came along.

Apart from the museum, a medicinal garden is home to approximately a hundred different plants that were used by the indigenous people, which Ramírez can explain in detail. One is cabuya (sisal) whose stalks were broken down to fibers for making twine and rope, and for weaving bags, once a big industry in the area.

Cabuya is still sold in central markets and old-time hardware stores. Soon to come will be a restaurant for sampling native food, such as aracache, ñampi, corn and even chicha, a fermented corn beverage.The guided tour is well worth the extra money to hear the history, even if your Spanish is weak.

This is an outdoor museum, so dress accordingly and call ahead to make sure someone can meet with you. There is an extra charge for the medicinal garden, depending on the number of people going.

Don’t let the looks of the small office building deter you. It follows the bamboo-and-board design of the area’s earliest inhabitants.

Location: Tobosi del Guarco, near Cartago, east of San José