by Owen Lipsett
New York, New York
June 11, 2005
The museum occupies the Baroque cloister of the Colegio de San Andrés, a former Jesuit school in the heart of Bilbao’s casco viejo. It’s best to begin on the third floor, most of which is taken up by the display of an impressive topographical map of the entire province of Bizkaia, constructed as a subtle message of defiance under Franco’s regime. An adjoining room of antique maps serves to illustrate the antiquity of the borders of the various Basque provinces throughout France and Spain. A model of one of Bilbao’s foreign consulates is intended to illustrate the city’s trading wealth during the Renaissance and Baroque periods – another unstated dig at Franco, who sought to shift the country’s industrial base to Castile.
The second floor contains an exhaustive (although somewhat dull) series of displays of prehistoric skeletons and artifacts unearthed from sites throughout the Basque Country. A theory popular among Basque archaeologists holds that the Basques are the last remaining descendants of Cro-Magnon man, making them Europe’s oldest people, but perhaps in the interests of not irritating Franco, it is unmentioned. The first floor features a series of displays on Basque cultural traditions, the two largest of which cover their economic mainstays: fishing and sheepherding. The latter contains an interesting display on Basque farmers in the Big Sky region of the United States, although disappointingly for many of their descendants, it contains no accompanying material in English. Unfortunately, the displays of traditional ceramics, arms, and linen are not particularly interesting as the accompanying notes (in Spanish and Basque only) offer little by way of explanation. The tiny area devoted to Basque sports does not mention the most famous of all, pelota, better known outside the Basque Country as "jai-alai."
The indoor exhibition area of the ground floor is generally given over to temporary exhibitions (which are unlikely to have any explanatory material in English). I was fortunate enough to see one on daily life in Pre-Columbian Latin America. The colonnaded courtyard contains a lapidarium that would be quite fascinating if it featured any explanatory material whatsoever. Sadly, it does not, making it an apt metaphor for this generally interesting museum, which, if it were more fully explained, would be exceptional.
Further information: http://www.euskal-museoa.org/eng/presentacion.html
From journal Bilbao: The Epitome of Urban Renewal