The best way to truly get to know a city, and even fall in love with it, is by visiting its monuments and museums. That’s why; every time I accompany a visitor on a tour of the tricentenary city of Matanzas, I never overlook the chance to show them the "Museo Provincial Palacio de Junco", whose showrooms tell the history of the city.
This museum; the first ever to be inaugurated by the Cuban Revolution, opened to the public on 6th September 1959. Since then, it’s been visited by thousands of Cubans as well as foreigners, and generally just everyone and anyone interested in taking a detailed look at this majestic edification, and the valuable and varied collections presented acrosse its 18 showrooms.
The museum’s main collections
Allocated within 18 showrooms, the pieces displayed at the Museo Provincial Palacio de Junco are quite rare and interesting, due to their antiquity and good state of preservation. As you view them you might feel as if scanning the city’s history, from the times of the native Taino Amerindians who first inhabited this area before the Spanish colony settled in the island, to the more recent developments of our time.
I recommend you not to miss the following pieces, which are unique and you might not be able to find at any other Cuban or foreign exhibition hall:
- An aboriginal handmade necklace made of tropical seal teeth. This mammal inhabited the island for some time, and became extinct shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards to Cuba.
- The bar or small iron lever used by miners and masons when they accidentally discovered the famous "Cuevas de Bellamar" (Bellamar Caves). These caves; of which I’ll be telling you about in more detail on a future blog post, are an outstanding work of nature.
- The oldest lapidary piece in Matanzas, which belonged to the Amoedos; one of the family-founders of the city.
- Two sculptures of Sioux Indians carved in wood, used during the 19th century in the decoration of American shops that sold cigarettes and cigars.
I also advise you to take a close look at the stocks; one of the very few remaining examples of these punishment instruments. The one here is probably the only one preserved in Cuba.
The stocks; as you’ll be able to confirm during your visit, were made from a heavy log placed horizontally, with holes in which the slave’s feet were inserted and secured for the punishment inflicted by their white masters. The victim’s torso, who lay on its chest or back, “rested” over a pair of planks separated one from the other. Thus; the body lay at a lower level than the feet. In such position, almost stock-still, the sugar or coffee plantation slaves remained for entire days at times. Sometimes the damage brought forth by such cruelty was so severe, that the victim would either die or come out disabled for life.
Also among the museum’s exhibits you’ll find, also dating back to the slavery years, the remains of a "cimarron" (runaway slave) and an odd exemplar of a stuffed “aura tinosa”; a large bird of prey that feeds on carrion, quite common in the Cuban countryside, but sometimes also spotted on the ciy. This bird inspired renowned Cuban writer Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, to write her "Leyenda del Aura Blanca" (The Legend of the White Aura).
In addition to these curiosities and historic objects, there are pieces that belonged to well-known Cuban patriots and intellectuals; many of them born in Matanzas. The museum also displays a valuable 18th century chest, a selection of paintings, furniture, decorative art items, an unusual clock collection and the only Cuban mummy to ever be exhibited in a Museum.
Before its current location, various sites served as host to this museum which was totally restored in 1979, prior to its definite relocation to the "Palacio de Junco"; one of Matanzas’s most beautiful colonial buildings. Manuel del Junco; a Spanish Army Captain, ordered the erection of this beautiful palace whose construction began during the 1830s, in the vicinity of the "Plaza de la Vigia"; the site of the city’s foundation.
Over the course of my research on this palace, I discovered that a fire destroyed it in 1845, but that shortly afterwards it was rebuilt, preserving all the magnificence that you can still appreciate today. Among other buildings in Matanzas, this "Palacio de Junco" is a standout, because of it being one of the few that comprises a mezzanine, a portal, and a balcony. Other remarkable features of its architecture which I can’t help but admire; are its patios, inserted between the service sections, the neighboring houses and its main structure.
Valuable items are also exhibited in the museum’s outer areas. Among these are a collection of street tallies and stone plaques, monuments, Matanzas historic spots, and an impressive statue of Spanish King Fernando VII, made of Carrara marble. Deemed by some specialists as the best ever made of the monarch, it was sculpted by the famous artist Ignacio de la Pesheira. The statue was first placed in a Matanzas park, and was later brought to decorate one of the museum’s patios.
The Matanzas Mummy
The remains of Josefa Petronila Ponce de León y Heredero are unquestionably the museum’s star attraction. The so-called "Momia de Matanzas" (Matanzas Mummy) was discovered on 4 March 1965, in the underground burial chamber of the San Carlos cemetery. The corpse, identified by its initials; JPC, was kept mummified for nearly a century. This was made possible due to the chemicals with which the body was treated to preserve the body during its transfer from Havana; where Josefa Petronila had died, to its final resting place in Matanzas.
Research carried out by my friend, the eminent forensic surgeon Dr. Ercilio Vento Canosa; Historian of the city of Matanzas, revealed that the body was that of a woman deceased in the Havana neighborhood of Montserrat, in March 1872 and buried in the aforementioned San Carlos cemetery, on 16th March of that same year.
Born in 1815, in the Havana municipality of Guanabacoa; Josefa Petronila came from a affluent family who had settled in Matanzas prior to 1820. She married at the age of 25, and later went on to live in Havana.
In order to preserve it, the mummy is permanently exhibited in an air-conditioned showroom. The results of Dr. Ercilio Vento’s research, as well as the items found in the mummy’s burial chamber, are shown alongside it.
Having read this post, you might now conclude that a visit to the "Museo Provincial Palacio de Junco" in Matanzas, may turn out to be (if you can spare the time) a fascinating journey into the history of Matanzas, and Cuba too. Thus; should you be visiting Cuba, I extend my invitation for you to make a stop between Havana and Varadero. You may also come to the heart of Matanzas on day trip from Varadero (one of the many easily arranged at most Varadero hotels) and include this attraction in the list of sites that you don’t wish to miss. You’ll find further references to other must-see places in Matanzas in a few other blog posts of mine. But this one visit to "Palacio de Junco" will surely result in a unique experience for you and your family; and an especially exciting one for little ones.
Address: Plaza de la Vigia (Vigia’s Square), Matanzas.
Ideal for those who love history, art, and archeology, as well as curiosities.
You must not fail to see: La Momia de Matanzas (The Matanzas Mummy).
Open: Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Entry Price: 2 CUC per person. You may take photos