Pittsburgh's newest museum explores the history, culture and more of Latin America
Latin America covers a vast swath of the globe, stretching thousands of miles from north to south. It’s home to some 650 million people living in more than 40 nations and territories, and its history of human habitation dates back 20,000 years.
It would be hard to get all that history, culture and geography in a single small museum. But the brand-new Latin American Cultural Center opens Tuesday, Sept. 20, with an ambitious survey meant to spread the word about those richly diverse lands.
The Center is a project of the Latin American Studies Association, a Pittsburgh-based scholarly organization with nearly 14,000 members in 90 countries. LASA executive director Milagros Pereyra-Rojas said the museum seeks to address a widespread lack of knowledge about the region.
“We are trying to showcase precisely the geography, the history, the arts and culture, which is basic information which is not necessarily known in the U.S,” she said. Center officials said nearly 20% of the U.S. population has roots in Latin America, which includes the Caribbean, and note Pittsburgh’s growing Latino population.
One familiar aspect of the Center is its physical home: the landmark Italian Renaissance-style building on Bigelow Boulevard (catty-corner from Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall) was built in 1912 for the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. The Society left more than two decades ago to be reborn in the Strip District as the much-larger Heinz History Center.
LASA bought the elegant, 15,000-square-foot building in 2019.
“When we found this building, we saw the opportunity to do something nice to showcase what Latin America is about, to the Pittsburgh community and also to the world,” said the Center's Bill DeWalt.
DeWalt is a former director of both the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies. He and his wife, Sylvia M. Keller, served as senior advisors to the fledgling Center. The exhibits were designed by Sandra Budd, the Center’s assistant director and curator.
On the first floor, visitors enter a series of galleries featuring artifacts, exhibits, and touch-screen displays. One explores the region’s geography and natural history back to the first human habitation. Subsequent galleries survey its many indigenous peoples and their cultures, its early civilizations (Olmec, Inca, Aztec), and the ruptures caused by European colonization, including the decimation of indigenous peoples, the importation of enslaved Africans, and the beginnings of large-scale resource extraction.
Displays emphasize the ecological richness of Latin America, from its mountains and rain forests to its deserts, as well as its economic inequality. Other exhibits honor the region’s arts, from indigenous textiles to contemporary literature and film.
The Center’s first floor includes a small auditorium for readings and performances. It’s adorned with a small-scale — but still quite large —reproduction of “The Presence of Latin America,” a stunning mural by the Mexican artist Jorge Gonzales Camarena. (The original is in Chile.)
Upstairs, visitors will find “Maya Spirituality: Indigenous Paintings, 1957-2020,” the first exhibit in the Center’s space for temporary shows. The 43 vibrant oil paintings reflect the contemporary folk art of a single region of Guatemala.
“These are beautiful paintings, and they really try to emphasize the everyday life of Maya and how they relate to spirituality and how they relate to kind of living with nature,” said DeWalt.
As a new museum, DeWalt acknowledged, the Center doesn’t have a lot of original historical artifacts. (Exceptions include a 1,400-year-old carved-stone mask from Mexico.) In fact, many of the contemporary items on display, including artwork, are from the collection of DeWalt and Keller.