BOGOT, COLOMBIA — Judged by US State Department memos and news accounts, Colombia is a violent place where tourists wouldn't want to venture. But there is something here bright enough to outshine the tarnish on the country's image: the Museo del Oro.
The Gold Museum, the Colombian central bank's showcase of 33,000 pre-Columbian gold pieces - including bowls and utensils, headdresses, rings for ears, noses, and lips, and an astonishing array of gods and animals - is in my book one of the wonders of the new world.
Ever since I stopped by the museum on my second trip to Bogot, I've been drawn back to this intimate exhibit like a conquistador with gold lust.
But it's not just the fact that this museum holds a lot of gold that makes it so captivating. A similar display of today's gold jewels, coins, and ingots - especially at today's historically low gold prices - would hold no such interest. The real draw is the museum's explanation of what gold meant to Colombia's first peoples, and the glimpse it gives of how the metal's aura made it the material for creating exquisite art.
To the people who predated Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Western Hemisphere, gold was a means of establishing authority and perpetuating social stability. But it was also the sun brought to Earth, a godlike presence among them. Learning that in the introduction makes the short visit to the vault-like Gold Room at the end of the tour as awe-inspiring as entering one of France's Gothic cathedrals.
The museum was founded in 1939, when the directors of the central bank acquired the signature piece: a perfectly crafted, solid gold vase-like receptacle, or poporo. The pre-Columbians used these to hold cal, a lime powder made from crushed seashells, which they added to ground coca leaves and then chewed. Called the Quimbaya Poporo, the piece is now considered a national symbol (no smirks from the Drug Enforcement Administration, please).
With the Quimbaya Poporo in its possession, the bank came up with the museum as a way to prevent the country's stunning early gold work from being melted down or exported. The two-floor exhibition, located in an unassuming building on a busy central Bogot plaza, includes maps and time charts of which Indian tribes used gold and when, and dioramas showing how they prospected for, melted down, and fashioned it.
The variety of objects is stunning: masks, bracelets, chest plates, cookware, musical instruments, tiny bells, whimsical human figures with bird beaks, humorous animals with human faces. And newly discovered pieces are added to the museum all the time.
A few years ago, a farmer tilling land on a sugar plantation near Cali turned up more than 4,000 gold pieces from an ancient burial ground. The sheer volume of pieces indicates the principal use was bodily adornment, making this display a must-see for the current generation of body piercers. Colombia's pre-Columbians believed in the earring as a statement - no puny studs for them. Here you can see (and wonder about the comfort of) solid gold earrings the size of a dessert plate.
And the nose rings! Hundreds of them dangle against backdrops of black velvet like swatches of delicate lace. The nose ring had special significance because the pre-Columbians believed the wearer took on the aspect of the sacred jaguar.
One British tourist, writing in the museum visitors' log, revealed the urge for interactive learning the 1,000-year-old journey had prompted: "How about 'us' trying on a nose ring?"
The exhibit's unforgettable finale is the Gold Room, entered through a bank-vault door flanked by guards. The anticipation builds as the visitor steps into the middle of a black space. When the vault is sealed, lights come on like the rising sun, illuminating 8,000 gold figures, from small figurines to giant masks, set all around.
In one display case, a few simple words from the 1553 diary of Spaniard Pedro Ciega de Len illustrate the conquistadors' feelings upon arrival in what they thought must have been El Dorado: "I remember seeing Indians dressed in gold from head to toe."
Visiting Colombia's Gold Museum offers a glimpse of the awe that vision must have inspired.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society