I have not had the best timing for large Valparaíso museums. I was originally very keen to see Valpo’s Museum of Natural History, but as it turns out, it’s closed indefinitely for earthquake repairs. After a bit of Internet research, I decided to go see the Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes (Municipal Museum of Fine Arts), because it looked colorful.
I took the El Peral ascensor to the top of the hill, but saw no museum. I asked a nearby Chilean where the museum was; she told me that it was closed for construction. Alas! Since I was already up there, I decided to look at the neighborhood, which turned out to be an excellent pursuit in and of itself. I found the closed museum, whose exterior was indeed colorful: checkered and strewn with turrets.
There was a small plaza surrounding the museum-area, with jasmine bushes and bougainvillea growing around its edges. Facing the ocean, there was a restaurant that looked like an observation deck on a boat: all glass-paneled windows and tiny angled roofs. There were jacaranda trees aplenty, and a few giant, handsome old wooden houses, very typical of this city.
After a bit of hilltop exploration, I decided to try a different museum I knew of, the Museo Naval y Maritimo. Since it was on a different cerro, I descended back to the centro, this time using a pebble-mosaic winding staircase instead of the ascensor.
As I walked across town, I passed an old blue building that is missing its roof and most of its upper windows, with its interior area now grown into a lush wild garden. It has a sign proclaiming it El Refugio, and whenever I pass it, I wonder whose refuge it is. I walked beyond the old Aduana (Customs) building, and, after a considerable line, entered Ascensor Artillería to ascend the hill.
New Year’s Eve in Valparaíso is a big tourist draw, with thousands of people coming to the city for just these few days. As such, the streets and hills were unusually crowded with visible tourists. I am happy for the income and attention they bring to this city, but crowds do make me rather twitchy.
To my pleasure, the Naval Museum was actually open. I paid my entrance fee, and entered a large room which held an assortment of naval-battle artifacts, letters between prominent naval heroes, and so on. In the center of the room, there was an epic statue of the Father of Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme (who was key in attaining Chile’s independence from Spain).
In the next room, there were a variety of stunning stained-glass portraits with intricate details. There were three portraits of important Chilean military figures: Bernardo O’Higgins again, as well as Captain Arturo Prat and Lord Thomas Cochrane. At the far end of the room, there was another stained glass window, which immediately convinced me that, even if the rest of the museum was boring, that my trip would have been worth it. It was a two-window illustration of the world, with one side showing an old-fashioned map of the Western Hemisphere, and the other side showing the Eastern Hemisphere, with both globes hung in radiant blue space. At the bottom of the glass, there were portraits of four global figures: Columbus, Magellan, Copernicus, and, strangely enough, Neil Armstrong. Before the glass lay a giant stone book, carved with the Latin phrase navigare necesse est (a part of the longer saying navigare necesse est vivere non est necesse — to sail is necessary; to live is not necessary).
After the stunning stained-glass room, I walked out into a large courtyard, with cannons and rowboats arranged along its edges, as well as a small café. In the middle of the grass at the center of the courtyard, they had dug a large anchor-shape, parts of which were mud and other parts of which were planted with flowers.
The museum was larger than I expected, and I wandered through a seemingly endless array of rooms. In glass cases, there were medals, coins, cannonballs, guns, knives, ship skylights, sextants, and much more. There were also several intricate models of historic ships, one of which (the Esmeralda) had a hull plated with many tiny pieces of beaten copper.
One of the circulating museum guides informed me that there was also an upstairs — good gracious! I wandered up some stairs, and found six-or-so more museum rooms to browse through. The first one was one of my favorites, as it contained an entertaining miscellany of things: some scientific sketches of California quail by a French fellow, a giant wooden albatross, a giant stuffed albatross, several ships’ figureheads in varying states of undress, and much more.
Another room seemed to be geared towards children. It was very dim, with much of the light coming from a passel of blue LEDs placed underneath a model ship the size of a van. The walls were lined with jungle scenes, and there were buried treasures, informative posters about famous pirates, and a stockade.
Yet another room was crammed with smaller model ships of many kinds. One of them even featured a sea serpent merrily munching on a marine, while two others valiantly tried to fight it off. Very realistic. Its filmy windows looked out onto some araucaria trees, and beyond, the ocean.
After a perusal of the gift shop, I departed the museum. While it hadn’t been my plan for the day, it was an interesting visit: more history and tiny objects than you can shake a stick at! As I left the museum grounds, I noticed a Magnolia grandiflora (Southern magnolia) growing beside the path. I normally disdain this tree: there are so many nice magnolias, so why would you plant one with wide leathery leaves and unattractive follicles? Nonetheless, it is native to the United States, and — to my surprise — when I saw it here, I had a sudden surge of fondness, and a longing for East Coast springtime.