The Bogota Gold Museum houses the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic goldwork, making it one of Colombia’s most historically important museums.
“The story of humanity over the last 9000 years is the story of metals…It is with these that we built the world of today,” says a video installation accompanying the Gold museum’s collection.
The video compares centuries of metalwork forged by human hand the world over, relating the “profound symbolism” of central-African bronze statues to Colombian goldwork. Objects made from precious metals presented a “vision of the world shared by the whole society.”
Gold, reflective of the Sun’s light, represented life and fertility and was ritually offered to the gods. Across the ages it has also served as a marker of status.
English and Spanish language descriptions as well as audio guides tell the story of these objects through the eyes of those who created them. There are explanations of symbolic figures produced by and for ancient shamans who used them as part of transcendental rituals. Gold birds represented the shamans and the “flights around the world” that they took under the influence of hallucinogenic plants.
The objects also tell us about the social make up of pre-Columbian communities, some of which were organized into strict caste systems. Dignitaries were represented in gold as half-human-half-animals because they were viewed as descendants of gods and related to “powerful beings like Jaguars.” Sculptures always portray them seated and masked since their feet were not allowed to touch the ground like lowly, worldly beings, and looking them in the face was forbidden. After they died dignitaries were mummified and entombed along with precious metals, some of which make up the collection currently in Bogota.
The museum’s masterpiece is perhaps the “Muisca raft” which is highlighted in its own room towards the end of the exhibition. The finely wrought golden sculpture portrays a tribal chieftain accompanied by priests and six oarsman sailing on a raft of about ten inches in length. It is dated to between 1200-1500BC and was discovered 1856 by peasants in a cave south of Bogota. The piece is representative of an ancient tradition of the indigenous Muisca people.
Legend has it their chieftain would cover himself in gold-dust and sail with senior community figures and warriors to the center of Guatavita lagoon — two hours north of what is now Bogota. He would then say prayers and throw offerings of precious metals to the gods into the lake and dive in afterwards, washing off the gold-dust.
The discovery of this site became the origin of the Spanish conquistadors’ “El Dorado” myth. Many of the objects on show in the Gold Museum were offerings recovered from Guatavita.
The Gold Museum then brings the story of El Dorado to life. Every five minutes or so, visitors are invited into a dark room through an automatic door. The room is lined with all sorts of wonders collected from Guatavita, with a hollow in the middle of the room in which layers of gold objects are piled up on panes of glass. As the door shuts the sound of ritual prayers and splashing water reverberate around the room, and visitors can imagine they are transported back to pre-Hispanic Guatavita and are taking part in the Muisca ritual.
The Gold Museum is part of the Bank of the Republic’s national collection and is found in Santander Park on the corner of Carrera 5 and Calle 16 in downtown Bogota. The collection is open to the public 9AM – 6PM Tuesday to Saturday, Sundays and national holidays 10AM – 4PM. Entrance is charged at $3,000COP.