Monday, 3 May 2010

Madrid's Museum of Anthropology

Know yourself?

A trip to the Botanic Gardens was thwarted by the threatening rain and we diverted to a museum around the corner from where I teach twice a week at Atocha. The Museum began life as the Ethnographic museum and was founded by Pedro Gonzalez Velasco (1815-1882) a Segovian doctor. The museum was purpose-built and is showing signs of wear as the rain has got in. I couldn't help but compare it to my favourite local museum in London - the wonderful Horniman Museum and Gardens. It covers similar ground but lacks the same broad vision and interpretation. It is a fine line between presenting artefacts as curiosities and as scientific evidence and the museum is not quite there yet. The ground floor houses a room that is authentic to the inauguration with plast casts of different human body types, skeletons, specimen jars and the star attraction, the skeleton of a man who was over 7ft tall.

The Extramaduran Giant, Agustin Luengo Capilla was born in 1849 amd joined the circus at an early age. Apparently Doctor Velasco went in search of Luengo and paid for his skeleton in advance of his death. They agreed the sum of 3,000 pesetas. Luengo dies in Madrid on 31 December 1875 at the age of 26 and measured 2.35m by then. A plaster cast was struck of the dead man and is displayed on the wall over the wooden case that bears his bones, which shrank by 10cm during the tanning process to preserve him apparently. The reason for his great height? It was due to an excess of the growth hormone somatrophin  from a tumour due to a disease called Acromegaly. The disease affected his outward appearance as well as his bone structure.

The museum is organised into galleries from Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Philippines. It offers an oversight of three Asian religions - Buddhism, Hinuism and Islam. There are intriguing objects from all corners of the globe and I hope that this museum benefits from the TLC it clearly needs. It is free to visit on a Saturday and worth a trip but not on a gloomy day. We were told there is even a ghost who haunts the third floor but maybe that was being fanciful.


  1. You know me - don't really do museums or art galleries, but this one sounds pretty interesting. And of course, then you mentioned the ghost........ I'm on my way!

  2. Ooh, I'd like to see the Extramaduran giant - although he's not really tall compared with the world's tallest man, in China, who is 7ft 5 inches high.

    I like Ethnographic museums, which seem to have a good mix of scientific claptrap and mumbo jumbo. Science, in my view, changes almost as often as the fashion industry and I get annoyed when my husband's pals say 'I never read a novel' but are quite happy with something Stephen Hawkey or Susan Greenfield has put out.

    That aside, I used to take the children to the Horniman at Forest Hill when we lived in nearby Penge. I loved the Red Indian sand portrait and the moth eaten stuffed walrus, which is still there, I believe. It's also handily opposite Sydenham Wells Park with grassy picnic slopes and big paddling pool.

    In the 70s wehad this old car that overheated so when I met Roy where he worked in the West End we met outside The Museum of Mankind, off Regent Street. I used to pop in to fill a bottle with cold water for the radiator so we'd make it back to Selhurst. I think it's gone now - the museum I mean.

    I think I got a taste for these bizarre museums from seeing Ripley's at Blackpool when I was small. You'd get two-headed animals and bearded lady, but that doesn't seem so funny now. Just off to find the Veet.


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