Often overlooked by visitors, this is one of Madrid’s best museums. The collection comprises more than 20,000 items recovered from the Americas, including textiles, ceramics, tools, paintings and sculptures. The star of the show, by general consent, is the fabulous Quimbayas treasure, presented to the museum by the Colombian government in the 19th century. The exhibition is organized in five themed areas: how America was perceived in Europe from the Age of the Discoveries to the 18th century; the reality; the evolution of the native societies; religion; and communication between the nations.
Forged in Colombia more than 1,000 years ago, this superb statuette in area 4 (cabinet 4.23) is part of the Quimbayas treasure. The fabulous array of gold objects includes earrings, crowns and musical instruments.
This painted baked clay urn (cabinet 2.25) dates from AD 600–900, the zenith of the Mayan civilization of Central America. The face on the lid represents the deceased.
This stunning feather headdress (area 1) belongs to the Karajá Indians of Brazil and would have been worn during a ritual dance or other ceremonial. The Karajá are known for their artisanal flair. Less than 500-strong, sadly this small tribe is now under threat.
A huípil (pronounced wee-peel) is an embroidered tunic, and this one, in area 3 (cabinet 3.9), is from Guatemala and is decorated with fertility motifs. The design designates the wearer’s village, social and marital status, wealth, religious beliefs and much else besides. A woman might own two or three huípils during her life.
This mummy in cabinet 4.21 was discovered in Peru and dates from between 400 BC and AD 100. Paracas tribes wrapped the bodies of the dead in woven mantles.
This beautiful mask in area 4 (cabinet 4.8) belongs to the Tapirapé Indians of Brazil. The Tapirapé believed that only the shaman could protect them from malevolent spirits.
Inca craftsmen fashioned this ceremonial axe (area 3, cabinet 3.92) from bronze, then encrusted it with copper and silver. The Inca empire flourished between AD 1200 and 1530. The axe was a symbol of imperial power.
This colourful helmet in area 3 (cabinet 3.39) was made from wood, copper, leather and shells by Tlingit Indians of south Alaska.
There is more to this replica hut (area 3, cabinet 3.30) than meets the eye. Both the house and its contents are aligned east to west, following the movement of the sun. The hut itself represents the cosmos while the roof beam represents the union of heaven and earth.
This Aztec law code (area 5, cabinet 5.8) dates from around 1553 and is bound like a book. The Aztecs regularly used ideograms, each picture representing an idea. The scribe would sketch the outline in black, then add colour with a fine brush.
The entrance is on the ground floor where visitors will also find the toilets, cloakrooms and a small museum bookshop. The reception area also leads to the Temporary Exhibitions room. Plans of the museum are available at the ticket counter. A broad staircase leads to the first floor and the beginning of the permanent exhibition. From here, signs point visitors in the right direction for a thematic tour of the displays. Area three continues on the second floor.