The museums of Old San Juan: the ones that are open are charming
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, connected to modern San Juan by a bridge, is an islet with a past. Inhabited since 1521, it has a reputation for being rich in history. It has seven square blocks of thick-walled, arched, balconied, curvaceously plastered buildings with courtyards, narrow streets, and views of water in all directions, all strollable and freshly painted.Skip to next paragraph
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The area was valiantly brought back from seediness, starting in the 1950s. Walking the blue-cobbled streets and climbing the battlements of two brawny forts on opposite corners of Old San Juan, you get strong whiffs of spirit and culture.
History is harder to come by. Spanish colonial architecture presents a blank face to the street, with everything happening within.
In Old San Juan, a visitor is on the outside, clutching a copy of ''Que Pasa'' (the biweekly guidebook whose title means ''What's Happening'') and pushing on the fine arched doors of various museums. Most of them don't budge. ''Que pasa?'' indeed. No one, least of all the guidebooks, seems to know which museums are open. And the ones that are show you some interesting artifacts without labels or guides.
It wasn't always like this. Dr. Ricardo Alegria, who lobbied for protection of the historical buildings and did some of the restoration himself, was founding director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. He established small , specialized museums in Old San Juan's houses, like the Museum of the Puerto Rican family and the Museum of the Indian. When he retired in 1978, his successor, Leticia de Rosario, closed them, intending to round up all the old books, furniture, and Indian artifacts in one big Museum of Puerto Rican Culture. But the big museum hasn't opened, and many small ones remain closed.
Meanwhile, de Rosario has resigned, and Angel Avila has been appointed the interim director. Mr. Avila says the Museum of Puerto Rican Culture will open in January or February in the Arsenal Building. This would be an easy walk from the cruise-ships dock, to the left behind the Coast Guard building. But observers call his plan ''optimistic,'' and even Mr. Avila, when interviewed, was unsure how long he will fill his post. Nonetheless, visitors should check at the tourist booth when they get off the boat.
A few doors swing open: Casa Blanca, built for Ponce de Leon in 1521 and lived in by his family for 250 years, is the oldest continuously inhabited residence in this hemisphere. It was restored after the United States Army finished using it as a fort in 1966.
White-walled rooms hold dark Spanish furniture, tapestries, needlework, and blue and white crockery, all from the 16th and 17th centuries. In one, two red brocade chairs are pulled up to a table. Long maces lean wickedly against a wall. There is a globe and a case of books, and trade winds still blow in through the leaves of a tamarind tree outside. The room speaks eloquently of oceanic plotting and imperialist squabbles.
The Pablo Casals Museum, near the former Dominican Convent, displays not only one of the Casals cellos but also his domino set and some of his scorecards. He played both excellently during the last 18 years of his life, which he spent here rather than in Franco's Spain.The museum has a library of videotapes of his performances, which attendants will play for you on request.
The San Juan Museum of Art and History had one room open in August. A few paintings leaned against the wall; two were labeled. A tantalizing case of Taino Indian relics of carved stone was only explained in Spanish. A contemporary show was being hung in another room. One can only hope they were getting ready for the winter season.
The Dominican Convent, home of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, had a contemporary print show I had to see at a jog before workmen took them down. The institute's Popular Arts Center, however, was open and doing a good trade in hand-sewn cloth dolls, wood carvings, and guitars.