The Oscar M. de Rojas Museum in Cárdenas; a surprise beyond each step

The Oscar M. de Rojas Museum in Cárdenas, which will honour its 115th anniversary in 2015, preserves more than 90,000 Cuban and foreign pieces. Its 12 showrooms enable you to travel through many historic and human knowledge facets, while observing remarkable pieces and curiosities. A visit to this museum only 9 km away from Varadero and reopened by Fidel Castro in 2003, is a pleasant approach to unsuspected and hitherto unknown details of Cuban and world history.

The Oscar M. de Rojas Museum in Cárdenas; a surprise beyond each step

Now, if there’s a site in my hometown of Cardenas which I thoroughly know, that is the Oscar M. de Rojas Museum. It’s among the pioneer institutions within its class, whereas it was only the second museum founded in the island. 

I stepped inside this museum for the first time in 1975, being only a child who dreamed of collecting coins and bills. I later on worked in it as a museologist for almost 25 years, from 1989 to 2000.

Brief history

Cardenas owes the foundation of this museum as well as that of its public library (Biblioteca Publica de Cardenas), to historian Oscar M. de Rojas and to jeweler, malacologist, and shell, and cameo collector; Francisco Blanes y Palencia. Thanks to money contributions and to the donation of 105 pieces, all by Cardenas townspeople, they were able to found the museum on March 19th, 1900.

Both the museum and the library occupied various sites from 1900 to May 20th, 1918; when the first building specifically constructed in Cuba for museum purposes, opened in Cardenas. Fifty years later, in 1968, the building was in poor constructive condition and thus in 1979, the museum returned to the site in which it was founded; the city’s old government house (Casa de Gobierno de la Ciudad), declared National Monument in 2000, where it still stands today.

A museum’s values

I welcome you to accompany me while touring the museum’s 12 showrooms which display only a minor share of its funds, whereas the museum hoards around 90,000 pieces. Each of the pieces exposed, emphasizes the details and collections you must not miss.

I suggest we begin by visiting the "Sala de los Fundadores" (Founder’s Showroom) which relives the museum’s 1918 appearance. This showroom displays sculptures, curiosities and historical items, as well as Cuban and foreign stuffed animals. The most significant among these are a pair of dressed fleas, Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask, and an excellent collection of antique cameos.

Let’s continue to the "Sala de las Culturas Precolombinas de America" (American Pre-Columbian Cultures Showroom). This showroom bears exceptional genuine pieces from Mayan, Aztec and other American cultures. As a child I used to be impressed by the head of a woman of European origin which was reduced by Jibaro Indians.

From here I’d like us to carry on to the "Sala de las Culturas Precolombinas de Cuba" (Cuban Pre-Columbian Cultures Showroom), which upholds objects that belonged to the aborigines that inhabited our island prior to the arrival of Columbus. It contains human remains found in "Cueva Calero" (Calero Cave), the largest aboriginal cemetery found inside a Cuban cavern.

Now, if you’re interested in malacology, it’s a must for us to proceed to the museum’s opening collection back in 1900. It shows an exceptional set of land and sea shells, Cuban and foreign; some of them already extinguished, and others more than 100 years old. Highlighting this area are the specimens collected in the late 1800s and a striking Nautilus; a shell made by a cephalopod contemporary with the dinosaurs that still inhabits the world’s oceans.

If like me you’re in love with sabers, pistols, and rifles; you mustn’t forget to tour the "Sala de Armas" (Arms Showroom). It’s an interesting collection of models ranging from man’s earliest times to the early 1900s.

If you’re interested in Cuban history, in the next showroom you can learn of significant events that took place during the war for independence against Spain. Authentic pieces that belonged to Generals Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez, and others owned by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes; considered el "Padre de la Patria cubana" (the father of the Cuban homeland), can be found here.
The following showroom is one which I deeply cherish. It holds the most important collection of items belonging to Jose Marti; the "Heroe Nacional de Cuba" (Cuban National Heroe), kept in a city other than Havana. Among these are those pertaining to his latest years in USA.

Articles related to cults of African origin existing in the island, to numismatics, and to plastic arts; can be found in subsequent showrooms. The collections shown may appear to be disarrayed, but actually this ample repertoire satisfies visitors, due to the fact that it actually exhibits pieces for all preferences.

Pieces and collections you must not miss

During you’re tour of the museum, I recommend that you make a close and detailed inspection of some of the pieces and collections. Due to their antiquity, exclusivity and preservation condition; it’s quite unlikely that you’ll find them in any other similar Cuban, or even world institution.

I’ll begin telling you about these, with the Zunzun Calipte Helenae o "Pajaro Mosca" (fly bird), considered to be the world’s tiniest bird. This specimen was captured, named and stuffed in Cardenas in 1846, by the wise German naturalist Juan Cristobal Gundlach, regarded as the father of Cuban ornithology. You’ll find it in the "Sala de los Fundadores".

The propelling pencil-shaped pistol that belonged to Nazi spy August Luning captured in Cuba during World War II, is one of the museum’s star pieces along with a Turkish scimitar, a Moorish musket and "machetes mambises" (machetes used by Cubans that fought the war for independence against Spain). These are shown in the "Sala de Armas".

Neither must you overlook the "Medalla Esprintiana"; a rare pornographic piece of which is said that there are only three in the world, that Neron’s mother Agripina used to welcome guests to the "bacchanalia" (in Latin, meaning wild orgies) which she used to organize in Rome.

If you’re a film lover and have seen Cuban films, the hearse exhibited in the "Sala de Arte" (Art Showroom) might look familiar to you. Carved in wood by a cabinetmaker from Cardenas descendant from French people, it’s been used in various films whereas it’s the only one of its type kept in Cuba.

All this plus many other surprises await you at Oscar M. de Rojas museum, a site that due to the number, variety and peculiarities of its collections, you must not overlook if you’re touring the Varadero-Cardenas-Matanzas tourist triangle. I assure you that you will not regret spending a morning or afternoon of sound recreation, within an institution which features as an unwavering segment of the island’s patrimony, history and culture

Address: Callejon Rojas Cachurro between Jenez and Vives Avenues (across from Jose A. Echeverria park) in Cardenas, Matanzas

Open: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Entry price: 5 CUC; but if you wish to take photos or record videos, you are required to pay an additional 5 CUC. A guide service in various languages is available at the price of 5 CUC.

Ideal for family visits and for those who love history, collecting, natural sciences and fine arts.

You must not miss: The fleas dressed as bride and groom by Indians from the Mexican state of Yucatan. Brought to the museum in January of 1912, they comprise; together with the head of a woman of European origin reduced by South American Jibaro Indians, one of the main attractions within this centenarian institution.

Ernesto Alvarez

Ernesto Alvarez

Passionate Historian

Being the author of The History of Tourism in Varadero and a resident there, Ernesto hoards an...

17 Articles

Related blog posts in Off the beaten track