Museo Municipal De Guanabacoa

The Museo Municipal de Guanabacoa (Guanabacoa Municipal Museum) is somewhat off the beaten tourist track, but a worthwhile visit nonetheless. Located across the harbour from Old Havana, Guanabacoa is renowned for its Afro-Cuban culture, on full display here at the museum. From slavery to the modern day role of Afro-Cubans, the museum takes a look at the whole story. A special focus is reserved for Santeria, the Afro-Cuban fusion religion popular in this area.

The museum is famous for its exhibits on Santería as well as on the general history of Afro-Cubans, including the slavery period. As the Guanabacoa municipality is known for elaborate home altars that form the centrepieces of local religious traditions, it should come as no surprise that recreations of such scenes are the main draw here. Though such altars can be glimpsed simply wandering the streets in this part of town, a visit to the museum will give you a better opportunity to learn about the historic and cultural contexts at play—and it’s arguably a more respectful option than peeking into peoples’ homes!

But having said that, it is important to recognise that the African aspects of Cuban culture are arguably one of the most intriguing ingredients in the island’s cultural melting pot—. To understand it you must have at least a basic understanding of Cuban history.

Slavery as an institution ended in Cuba during the late 19th century, but prior to then many slaves were brought to the island, primarily from West Africa, to work mostly on sugar plantations. The slaves who came didn’t magically become “Cuban” overnight—they brought their own culture, including language, music, and religion, which eventually blended with the Spanish-influenced culture of the lighter-skinned elite.

Though mainstream Cuban culture certainly adopted a number of African influences, an Afro-Cuban culture is still very much alive on the island. In Havana, the Guanabacoa municipality is arguably the epicentre of this cultural group.

If you’re hoping to learn more about Afro-Cuban culture during your Cuba holiday, Guanabacoa could very well be the best place to do it. And if you’re looking for where to begin, well… here you go!

The Museum’s Story

A main goal of the Cuban Revolution was to establish the island’s Afro-Cuban population as equally important as the island’s population of European descent—and so it’s no surprise that the Guanabacoa Municipal Museum was founded shortly after the Revolution.

Opened in 1964, this museum was the first in all of Cuba to contain expositions on religious ethnology, focusing primarily on the local traditions falling under the umbrella of Santería. Santería is a fusion of Catholicism with West African traditions, and it still thrives in this part of Cuba.

The building chosen to house the museum is a colonial home dating from the 19th century, though later on two additional spaces were added under the museum’s jurisdiction: the Museo de Mártires (Martyr Museum) in 1992 and the Museo de los Artistas (Artists Museum) in 2011. The former focuses on the Cuban Revolution while the latter acts as a forum for local artists, primarily representing the Afro-Cuban tradition.

Though often overlooked and misunderstood, Afro-Cuban culture is rich and complex and shouldn’t be left unexplored during your holiday. Simply put, a visit to the Guanabacoa Municipal Museum can open your eyes to a culture and a worldview that you might otherwise have never known to exist.

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