Becoming Cuenca

A Museum Is a Place Where One Should Lose One’s Head

Feb 27, 2023

“Museums are wormholes to other worlds. They are ecstasy machines. Follow your eyes to wherever they lead you…and the world should begin to change for you.” ~Jerry Saltz

It has been said that a museum is a place where one should lose one’s head. It happens all of the time to expats in Cuenca.

Cuenca is The Arts Capital of Ecuador, and some say it is The Rising Arts Capital of Ecuador. Those names are appropriate just for the number of museums in the city.

Part of Cuenca’s charm and culture are its municipal museums. Cynthia Cornejo works for the city’s museums. She told me that the city has five museums:

 

-Catedral Vieja

-Museo de Arte Moderno

-Museo de la Paja Toquilla y el Sombrero

-Museo de Remigio Crespo Toral

-Planetario Ciudad de Cuenca

 

Being operated by the city, they are all FREE.

I will focus on two to give you a good idea of the rich history and love of art in this city. The first is Museo de Remigio Crespo Toral (Remigio Crespo Toral Museum).

One could say the French neoclassical former home of one of Cuenca’s most famous residents has a huge story to tell.

Or a hundred.

You will see the name, Remigio Crespo Toral, as well as his relatives all over the city. Many expats are very familiar with Ave. Remigio Crespo Toral that starts on the east at Av. Fray Vicente Solano and goes west all the way to Av. de las Américas. Remigio Tamariz Crespo parallels it for half the distance, and in the other direction, Roberto Crespo Toral goes south all the way to Ave. 27 de Febrero.

Remigio Crespo Toral (August 4, 1860–July 8, 1939) was a writer and politician. He is recognized as one of the most important poets in Ecuadorian history. In 1917, Crespo Toral was crowned as the most prolific poet in Ecuador, by President Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno, at Parque Abdón Calderón. It was such an important ceremony, that the ambassadors of the United States, Belgium, Chile, and Peru attended.

As a politician, Crespo Toral held important positions for his country, including Ambassador to Chile. He was also the owner of the newspaper Correo del Azuay, and the Rector (academic head) of the University of Cuenca.

It is not surprising that a museum dedicated to his life and the history of Cuenca is 75 years old.

In 1900, Crespo Toral started building his casa, situated between what is now Calle Larga and Paseo 3 de Noviembre.

It took until 1917 to complete the brick façade building that is one of the first samples of the French neoclassical architectural style in the city. At that time, the affluent in the city were huge lovers of anything French, especially architecture.

A good bit of it still stands. It is one reason why the historic center of Cuenca (El Centro) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That is an important and distinguished designation by the United Nations organization as the sites are determined to have “outstanding universal value.”

Ximena Pulla, Coordinator of the Remigio Crespo Toral Museum, told me, “When you look at the French architecture in Cuenca, it is because they thought it was modern. Even the suits, the fashions they bought were French. A lot of the rich could speak French.”

Remigio Crespo Toral designed the house along with Chilean architect Teodoro Tomás. “Because Crespo Toral was really connected, he was able to get the architect to help design the house,” Pulla told me.

Eight years after Crespo Toral died, his wife donated the first collection of their books and furniture to the. That is when the museum was created, and it became the first public museum in Cuenca.

The museum has one of the most valuable art and historical collections in the country. It includes the first books of the Cuenca city council, the 1820 declaration of independence for Cuenca (a national holiday in Ecuador on November 3rd each year), period clothing and furniture of the era Crespo Toral lived, and 18,000 items that represent the history of the indigenous of Ecuador.

It is great to see the indigenous to be recognized and to not have their history erased from history books and classes as they are being done in parts of the United States (such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banning a new AP-level high school African American studies course that the College Board spent years devising and was set to pilot in 60 schools across the country).

The indigenous were given a derogatory name: Los Guandos. It came about because indigenous people used a guando (a stretcher) to mule things in. In 1912, the first car was brought to the city in pieces as there were no roads from Guayaquil to Cuenca. It had to be put back together in Cuenca.

“Because of that, I think it was necessary for us to have a space to honor the Guandos,” said Pulla.

In honor of the indigenous, the museum’s exhibit has an area dedicated to life prior to the 16th century, when the Spanish invaded South America (Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, arrived in what is now Ecuador in 1531).

Pulla explained to me that people were ashamed of their indigenous past. The intellectuals of the early 20th century, such as Crespo Toral, started to appreciate the indigenous past and did a lot of research on them.

Though the signs and audio displays throughout the museum are in Spanish, one who can only speak another language will still be able to learn a lot about the rich history of Cuenca.

Remigio Crespo Toral Museum, Calle Larga y Presidente Borrero, Cuenca, Hours: Tuesday-Friday: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Closed Monday, Admission is free.

The co-founder of Oracle Corporation, Larry Ellison, said, “I’m going to start these art museums that are basically converted homes, and I have one for modern art, and I have one for 19th century European art, and one for French impressionism. I’ve got Japanese.”

Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno (Municipal Museum of Modern Art) is an excellent example of a converted home. The museum building has a long and colorful past.

It started in the 19th century with Cuenca’s Archbishop Bishop Miguel León y Garrido, who saw a lot of people were drinking and lying on the streets, trash from the taverns, and generally drunkenness in the atriums of the churches and in the city’s squares.

The Catholic church believed alcohol was acceptable in moderation but regarded drunkenness as a sin. It still believes that today as it quotes Proverbs 23:19-35, which states that becoming drunk is unwise and that we are not to do it. And the church adds Proverbs 31:1-7, which tells us that when we drink to excess, we forget God’s laws.

Records indicate that German priest Juan Bautista Stiehle designed the original building and that it took two years to build. It should be noted that Father Stiehle was also commissioned to draw up the plans for Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción (New Cathedral) as well as Iglesia de San Alfonso (San Alfonso Church).

In 1878, Casa de la Temperancia (House of Temperance) opened. Like almost all charities, it had many financial problems. In 1905, the house the church created was closed.

Later that year, the Cuenca city government took over operating it. To be admitted, the police had to bring the alcoholics to the house.

Those municipal funds ran out in 1924 so it was converted to a men’s jail. That lasted 11 years.

In 1935, authorities decided the house should provide social services and be used as a rest home. That lasted four years.

It was transformed into a school for poor people and orphans. The students and their families lived at the school.

Bernardo Vega, the Coordinator of the museum told me it was very harsh and sometimes an evil environment.

“If the children urinated on the mattresses, they had to carry it around the school 20 times,” said Vega. “Children laughed at them as part of their humiliating punishment.”

In the 1970s, Hernán Crespo, Director General of Museums of the Central Bank of Ecuador, suggested saving the historic building and converting the casa into a museum. Restoration and preservation were a new concept a half-century ago.

“At that time, Cuenca was not a patrimonial site, so Crespo’s idea was a new one for the city,” said Vega. “They based the restoration of the building on what had been done in Prague and Venice.”

The first pieces of art were donated by prominent Cuencano painter Luis Crespo Ordóñez. It was the beginning of Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno. There are now 608 pieces of art, including drawings, paintings, and sculptures. That includes a dozen more works in 2005 by Ordóñez as that is what his last wishes stated.

The granddaughter of a famous Cuencano watercolors artist, Eudoxia Estrella de Larrazábal, is credited with getting the museum to where it is today. Her experiences as a watercolors artist as well as being married to a Spaniard who made the stained glass for the New Cathedral, Estrella made the museum a leader in Latin America.

In 1987, Estrella founded the International Cuenca Biennial, which promotes high quality contemporary art in Latin America. Because of that, the biennial has grown into one of the largest such exhibitions in this part of the world.

Two years ago, three dozen artists from Brazil, China, France, India, México, Perú, and the United States had their works exhibited at the museum’s biennial. That is quite impressive for a city of just 660,000 people.

Walking through the museum is an interesting and fun journey. Unlike many famous museums in the world, there is no “correct way” to view and experience the museum.

The museum has numerous small rooms holding individual displays. That includes a current interactive display by Catholic University of Cuenca concerning an unknown species of bees that was discovered in the Cajas mountains.

One area has a moat with succulents planted along its sides as the casa used to have a water channel in back. Vega told me this water feature was “to calm down the patients” at the temperance house.

Connecting two parts of the museum building is a narrow keyhole passage. My wife, Joanna, and I think it is cleverly painted to make one feel like they are going through a giant keyhole such as the one in “Alice in Wonderland.”

The museum has three gardens. On the wall of the largest garden is an interesting permanent display of stone faces. Joanna and I find them very intriguing.

On the outer back wall, artwork has transformed what was a boring border. To the museum’s grounds. While taking in the lovely artwork, make sure to look to the southwest and get nice view of Lomo Shihuín (3,761 meters / 12,339 feet above sea level) and the city.

Municipal Museum of Modern Art, Mariscal Sucre 15-27 y Coronel Talbot, Cuenca, 07-413-4900, info.mmamcuenca@gmail.com, Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Admission is free.

For centuries, museums around the world have played an integral role in preserving the history of our societies. Their exhibits tell us stories about how nations, cities and cultures came to be and why they are the way they are today.

It helps one understand where one lives, and it enlightens one about people of other countries. It is why Joanna and I have made it a point to always go to museums throughout the world.

Without museums, those stories and history could be forgotten. That is a big reason for Cuenca putting such an emphasis on museums. It is so important that the city has made admission free.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.