Published on March 28th, 2016 | by Mark Chesnut
Legendary Prison Serves as Biggest & Oldest Museum in Bogota
The imposing, thick walls that hulk over visitors at the Museo Nacional (National Museum) hint at what this cultural venue used to be: a giant prison. Today, it’s the largest and oldest museum in all of Colombia — and one of Bogota’s main attractions for anyone looking to learn about the nation’s history.
Bogota is a large, sophisticated South American city with a must-do list for every first-time visitor: the historic neighborhood called La Candelaria, the legendary gold museum, the soaring peak of Monserrate and perhaps the weird-but-cool salt cathedral. But during my most recent visit to Bogota, I focused on lesser-known attractions and activities (it was, after all, my fifth visit). And one of the most interesting places I found is this fascinating museum dedicated to the history of Colombia.
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Built in 1823 using stone and brick, the building’s striking architecture includes arches, domes and columns, with space for what had been 104 prison cells. The facility served as a prison, in fact, until 1946, when it became a museum. Today, the venue exhibits a wide variety of items from a collection of more than 20,000 pieces, including everything from historical documents to archeological artifacts to modern art.
For some reason, many foreign visitors don’t make it to this museum, even though it’s centrally located in the heart of the city (not far from La Candelaria and close to the Tequendama hotel). Admission is free to all permanent exhibits, which are open every day except Monday.
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You’ll want to set aside at least three hours to tour the museum. On the first floor, you’ll find exhibits of archeological artifacts, including items from pre-Columbian groups. The second floor tackles the colonial and republican era, with art and artifacts that depict the development of early Colombia. The third floor continues the history lesson — with everything from presidential sculptures to a death mask of an assassinated political leader and , and adds an array of modern art that provide additional insight into the creativity of this South American nation. Temporary exhibits focus on a variety of aspects of national history.
But the building itself is a big part of the attraction at this tourist attraction in Bogota. Its creatively reimagined architecture is impressive, and you can stop for a drink or light meal at the on-site restaurant, and sit in the peaceful garden where the windows of the former cells seem to return your gaze. It’s a fascinating place to get an in-depth introduction to Colombian history (though you may want to go with a local friend or guide, who can better explain the inside stories on many of the exhibits).