The National Museum of History is the Chapultepec Castle that holds the memory of the history of Mexico, from the conquest of Tenochtitlan to the Mexican Revolution. Its rooms show a diversity of objects representative of four centuries of the history of Mexico. The museum is located in the Castillo de Chapultepec, whose construction began in 1785 during the government of the Viceroy of New Spain, Bernardo de Gálvez. Although it was created for rest home, over time it was adapted to different uses: it was a military school, imperial residence with Maximilian and Carlota (1864-1867), presidential residence and, since 1939, headquarters of the National Museum of History.
The museum has 12 permanent exhibition halls that present the historical trajectory of the country, from the Conquest to the Mexican Revolution; and 22 rooms in the area known as Alcázar, where the rooms of Maximiliano and Carlota and President Porfirio Díaz are recreated, as well as a room that recalls the assault on Chapultepec Castle.
Chapultepec Castle is located on top of Chapultepec Hill in the Chapultepec park. The name Chapultepec stems from the Nahuatl word chapoltepēc which means “at the grasshopper’s hill”. The castle has such unparalleled views and terraces that historian James F. Elton wrote that they can’t “be surpassed in beauty in any part of the world”. It is located in the middle of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City at a height of 2,325 meters (7,628 ft) above sea level. The site of the hill was a sacred place for Aztecs, and the buildings atop it have served several purposes during its history, including that of Military Academy, Imperial residence, Presidential home, observatory, and presently, the National Museum of History.
It was built at the time of the Viceroyalty as summer house for the viceroy. It was given various uses, from the gunpowder warehouse to the military academy in 1841. It became the official residence of Emperor Maximilian I and his consort Empress Carlota during the Second Mexican Empire (1864-1867). In 1882, President Manuel González declared it the official residence of the President. With few exceptions, all succeeding presidents lived there until 1939, when President Lázaro Cárdenas turned it into a museum.
The Chapultepec forest has a history that goes back three thousand years. Pieces of ceramics and burials from the Preclassic period (2500 BC – 200 AD) are testimonies that tell us about the first settlers on the shores of Lake Texcoco. The Mexicas occupied it on different occasions: during their migration, they stopped for a short time in Chapultepec, until they were expelled by the Chalcas and the Xochimilcas, neighboring towns. In 1325, after the founding of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Chapultepec was considered a sacred place and strategic site due to the springs that supplied drinking water to the capital of the empire.
During the Viceroyalty, Chapultepec continued to be a site of great importance. In 1530 the emperor Carlos Quinto decreed, by Royal Decree, that the forest of Chapultepec became property of the city of Mexico. For the first viceroys this was a place of rest and relaxation: they used it to walk and to hunt deer, hares and rabbits. It was so appreciated that Viceroy Luis de Velasco (1590-1595) had a pleasure palace built on the side of the hill. This was destroyed in 1784 by an explosion of gunpowder so, a year later, the Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez began the construction of another palace on the top of the hill: the Castillo de Chapultepec.
In 1845, the forest was used as a place of practice for the cadets of the Military College, who exercised shooting and carried out all kinds of military activities. Two years later, after the war against the United States, the hill was cut down in its entirety to prevent the defeated troops from hiding.
The transformation of the Chapultepec forest, until it became one of the most beautiful and famous parks in the world in the 20th century, is one of the works of the government of General Porfirio Díaz. In 1895, a commission was formed in order to make of that beautiful place a real place of recreation, open to all public. The rescue of the forest consisted in tracing roads with developments, almost identical, to those of the forest of Bologna; an artificial lake was made and the earth was used for excavation to form mounds, of different heights, that would break with the monotony of the flat surfaces. However, the Forest has been transformed since then, along with the political, economic, social and cultural changes of the city that houses it.
In 1785 Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez ordered the construction of a stately home for himself at the highest point of Chapultepec Hill. Francisco Bambitelli, Lieutenant Colonel of the Spanish Army and engineer, drew up the blueprint and began the construction on August 16 of the same year.
After Bambitelli’s departure to Havana, Captain Manuel Agustín Mascaró took over the leadership of the project and during his tenure the works proceeded at a rapid pace. Mascaró was accused of building a fortress with the intent of rebelling against the Spanish Crown from there. Bernardo, the viceroy, died suddenly on November 8, 1786, fueling speculation that he was poisoned. No evidence has yet been found which supports this claim.
Lacking a head engineer, the Spanish Crown ordered that the building be auctioned at a price equivalent to one-fifth of the quantity thus far spent thereon. After finding no buyers Viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes Pacheco de Padilla y Horcasitas intended the building to house the General Archive of the Kingdom of the New Spain; that idea was not to prosper either despite already having the blueprints adapted for this purpose.
Alexander von Humboldt visited the site in 1803 and condemned the sale of the palace’s windows by the Royal Treasury as a way of raising funds for the Crown. The building was finally bought in 1806 by the municipal government of Mexico City.
Chapultepec Castle was abandoned during the Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821) and for many years later, until 1833. In that year the building was decreed to become the location of the Colegio Militar (Military Academy); as a sequence of several structural modifications had to be done, including the addition of the watchtower known as Caballero Alto (“Tall Knight”).
On September 13, 1847, the Niños Héroes (“Boy Heroes”) died defending the castle while it was taken by United States forces during the Battle of Chapultepec of the Mexican–American War. They are honored with a large mural on the ceiling above the main entrance to the castle.
The United States Marine Corps honors the Battle of Chapultepec and the subsequent occupation of Mexico City through the first line of the “Marines’ Hymn,” From the Halls of Montezuma. Marine Corps tradition maintains that the red stripe worn on the trousers of officers and noncommissioned officers, and commonly known as the blood stripe commemorates the high number of Marine NCOs and officers killed storming the castle of Chapultepec in 1847.
Several new rooms were built on the second floor of the palace during the tenure of President Miguel Miramón, who was also an alumnus of the Military Academy.
Second Mexican Empire
The castle, now known as Castillo de Miravalle, started to acquire its current look during the Second Mexican Empire, when Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico and his wife Empress Carlota chose it as their residence and the seat of their Court in 1864. The Emperor hired several European and Mexican architects, among them Julius Hofmann, Carl Gangolf Kayser, Carlos Schaffer, Eleuterio Méndez and Ramón Cruz Arango, to design the several projects, which followed a neoclassical style and made the palace more habitable. European architects Kayser and Hofmann worked on several other revival castles, including Neuschwanstein Castle – built by Maximilian’s Wittelsbach cousin Ludwig II of Bavaria twenty years after Chapultepec’s renovation.
Botanist Wilhelm Knechtel was in charge of creating the aerial garden located on the roof of the building. Additionally, the Emperor brought from Europe countless pieces of furniture, objets d’art and other fine household items that are exhibited to this day.
At this time, the castle was still located on the outskirts of Mexico City. Maximilian ordered the construction of a straight boulevard (modeled after the great boulevards of Europe, such as Vienna’s Ringstrasse and the Champs-Élysées in Paris), to connect the Imperial residence with the city centre, and named it Paseo de la Emperatriz (“Promenade of the Empress”). Following the reestablishment of the Republic in 1867 by President Benito Juárez and the end of the Reform War (Guerra de Reforma) the boulevard was renamed Paseo de la Reforma.
Modern era to present
The castle fell into disuse after the fall of the Second Mexican Empire in 1867. in 1876, a decree established it as an Astronomical, Meteorological and Magnetic Observatory on the site, which was opened in 1878. However, the observatory was only functional for five years until they decided to move it to the former residence of the Archbishop in Tacubaya. The reason was to allow the return of the Colegio Militar to the premises as well as transforming the building into the presidential residence.
The palace underwent several structural changes from 1882 and during the presidency of Porfirio Díaz. The other Presidents who made the palace their official residence were Francisco I. Madero, Venustiano Carranza, Álvaro Obregón, Plutarco Elías Calles, Emilio Portes Gil, Pascual Ortiz Rubio and Abelardo Rodríguez. It was used for a time as an official guest house or residence for foreign dignitaries.
Finally on February 3, 1939, President Lázaro Cárdenas decreed a law establishing Chapultepec Castle as the seat of the National Museum of History (Museo Nacional de Historia) with the collections of the former National Museum of Archaeology, History and Ethnography, (now the National Museum of Cultures). The museum was opened on September 27, 1944. President Cárdenas moved the official Mexican presidential residence to Los Pinos, and never lived in Chapultepec Castle.
President Cárdenas moved to a large area of land that adjoined the south-western part of the Chapultepec forest, known as the “La Hormiga” Ranch. This site was owned by the Martínez del Río family, one of the wealthiest families in the country at that time. They called him “The Ant” because it was the smallest property of the family. “La Hormiga” would later be renamed Los Pinos, official residence of the President of Mexico from 1935 to 2018.
The castle was never used as an official residence since the mandate of President Lázaro Cárdenas, who never even used it as such.
In addition, the 27 of April of 1991 and 16 of January of 1992, harbored signatures of the peace accords, which ended twelve years of civil war in El Salvador.
On June 23, 2012, it hosted the dialogue for war: a dialogue between relatives of the victims of the war on drug trafficking – headed by the poet Javier Sicilia – and Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa. Dialogue where the president and the Executive Power were responsible for the approximately 40,000 deaths resulting from the drug war. This fact has been considered as “unprecedented” in the political and democratic history of Mexico.
Currently it is still used as a museum. Its 19 rooms contain a vast range of pieces that exceed ninety thousand where the history of Mexico is exhibited and illustrated since the Spanish conquest, with various objects such as medieval armor, swords and cannons among many others.
In the times of the second viceroy of New Spain, Don Luis de Velasco (1550 – 1564), a pleasure mansion was built on one of the slopes of Chapultepec Hill. In this place the newly arrived viceroys of Spain lodged, while their triumphal entry to the capital of New Spain was organized (remember that at that time Chapultepec was on the outskirts of Mexico City). Over time, the building was abandoned and finally, it was seriously damaged by the explosion of a nearby powder magazine. For this reason, the architects in charge of the reconstruction, by order of Viceroy Matías de Gálvez, suggested the construction of a new palace on the top of the hill.
In 1785, during the government of Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez (1785-1786), the construction of the new palace began. It was conducted under the direction of two engineers, first Francisco Bambitelli and then Manuel Agustín Mascaró. Nevertheless the project did not prosper and the Spanish Crown ordered to suspend the works and to auction the place; transaction that was not successful because nobody was interested in the building. The ministers of the Royal Treasury took advantage of the abandonment of the enclosure to auction glass, doors and windows, until the City Council of Mexico City acquired it in 1806, preventing it from being in the hands of private individuals. According to the plans and various sources, this is what the Palace of Chapultepec would look like, although its construction was never completed by the death of Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez.
It was in 1833 when the decision was taken to convert the then abandoned palace of Chapultepec into the headquarters of the Military College. In 1841, the reconstruction of the building began. Among the adaptations made to the building was the construction, on the highest part of the hill, of a tower or “Caballero Alto”, which gave it the appearance of strength. That was when he was called “Castillo”.
Years later, this construction was occupied for the first time as the residence of the Mexican Executive Power. Miguel Miramón, a former student of the Military College, chose the Castillo as his presidential residence during his term as interim agent of the conservative side (1859-1860). During his stay he made some adjustments to the building to make it habitable, such as the construction of new rooms on the second floor of the Alcázar and the south balustrade.
The Alcázar acquired its current appearance when the Austrian archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg and his wife, the Belgian princess Carlota Amalia, resided in the Castle between 1864 and 1867, during the Second French Intervention. The building was converted into a palace by Mexican architect Ramón Rodríguez Arangoity, former student of the Military College, and the gardens were redesigned by the Austrian botanist Wilhelm Knechtel, although, according to Carlota, “it was more due to Max’s hand.” While the works progressed, furniture, pianos, porcelain and silver china, oils with portraits of the imperial couple, tapestries, table clocks, tablecloths and glassware arrived to make the Alcázar a real palace.
Maximiliano and Carlota chose as rooms the rooms of the ground floor that looked towards the East, towards the City of Mexico, the lake of Texcoco and the volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl; which is why they ordered to build a panoramic terrace in front of their rooms.
In 1878 the first National Astronomical Observatory was established in the Chapultepec Castle, for which the building was once again conditioned. Specialized equipment was installed, the main telescope was arranged in the High Knight, for which a dome was added to the tower; In addition, new rooms and two guard posts were built. In 1883 the observatory was transferred to the town of Tacubaya so that the Castle could become, again, Military College, in addition to summer residence of Porfirio Diaz.
Diaz intended the building to be a showcase for Mexico’s artistic and technological progress, in part because it was frequented by foreign characters. He installed, for example, a large stained glass window on the east terrace of the upper floor of the Alcázar, which has been preserved to date; elevators, including one that climbed people from the base of the hill; and a bowling alley, a fashion game among the well-to-do, in whose room the first cinema exhibition was held in Mexico in 1896.
On the other hand, President Díaz decided to convert the forest surrounding the Castle into a park for citizenship. Roads and streams were laid, sculptures were installed, a botanical garden and kiosks, and an artificial lake was created.
In 1916, President Venustiano Carranza ordered the demolition of the building southwest of the College (built during the Porfirian era) to make the Alcazar more visible; that is where he installed the offices of the federal government and the presidential residence. The consecutive presidents maintained this headquarters until the government of Abelardo Rodríguez.
In 1939, President Lázaro Cárdenas decreed that the National Museum of History be installed in the Chapultepec Castle, an area declared a national heritage site. Between 1941 and 1944 the building was restored and adapted to house the collections that had been designated to the museum. On September 27, 1944, President Miguel Ávila Camacho inaugurated the National Museum of History.
The facilities of the former Military College house objects and images that tell the history of Mexico from the time of the Conquest (1521) until the twentieth century. Its rooms cover the different periods that the country has lived through samples of daily life and the social, political, religious and military features that shaped it:
In its six decades of existence, the National Museum of History housed in Chapultepec Castle has supported the creation of other national museums and those in other states of Mexico by ceding objects that are the historical patrimony of the Mexican people under the jurisdiction of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History; INAH). At the same time, it has continued to acquire pieces for its collections. As a result, today its holdings total close to one hundred thousand pieces. A part of the collection is on display in the permanent exhibition galleries, while the rest of it is in storage, organized into the following curatorial areas:
Painting, sculpture, drawing, engraving, and prints
Historical documents and flags
Technology and weapons
Costume and accessories
The National Museum of History is heir to the former National Museum of Archaeology, History and Ethnography at Moneda Street number 13, in downtown Mexico City, begun in 1910. When the National Institute of Anthropology and History was founded in 1939 it also provided for the creation of a new museum. As a result, the collections forming part of the departments of Colonial and Modern History and Ethnography went on to become part of the exhibition in Chapultepec Castle.
The former museum had, in turn, come from the National Museum created during the government of Guadalupe Victoria in 1825, in rooms in the University. From there it was moved, under the orders of Maximilian of Habsburg in 1865, to the building had housed it, the Casa de Moneda or former Mint, beside the National Palace.
Although the historical collections were sparse around the 1880s, they grew with the acquisition of objects related to the events and heroes of the Nation. For example, before the end of the nineteenth century this museum had a group of paintings of viceroys, the sculpture of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Vicente Guerrero’s military dress coat, Agustín de Iturbide’s scepter, and a suit, spectacles, and metal crowns of Benito Juárez, and the Christofle silver dinner set of Maximilian of Habsburg.
The institution increased its holdings with pieces acquired during the Celebrations of the First Centennial of the Independence of Mexico: dress coats and military accessories, jackets, a religious ornament and the portrait of José María Morelos y Pavón, as well as the keys to Mexico City, objects returned by Spain and France; the font where Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was baptized, brought from Cuitzeo de los Naranjos, Guanajuato, and the confessionary send from the town of Dolores. From the National Museum of Artillery—which was created during the administration of Porfirio Díaz and closed in 1914—came the historical collections, weapons, flags, and military uniforms. It should be noted that around 1924 the numismatics collection alone grew by eighteen thousand coins made of gold, silver and copper.
However, most of the collections that the National Museum of Archaeology, History, and Ethnography kept in the Department of Colonial and Modern Ethnography came from two major lots: that of military man Martín Espino Barros and mining entrepreneur Ramón Alcázar. The former was the largest by far, with 60,369 pieces, including coins, medals, crosses, reliquaries, insignia, military medals, chain links, locks, keys, samplers, decorative combs, ink wells, penholders, fans, belt buckles, candlestick holders, spurs, horse tack, snuffers, pipes, chests, writing desks, vases, basins, flower pots, buttons, and military appliqués. With this acquisition the former museum was able to form the Department of Retrospective Industrial Art, created by decree in 1908, which then was named Minor Arts, and later Colonial and Modern Ethnography.
The second lot entered the establishment in 1917 and since then it has been known as the Alcázar Collection. It is composed of more than 7,233 pieces from the viceregal period and the nineteenth century: fans, samplers, weapons, old watches of all sorts, military insignia, medals, furniture, snuff boxes, cigar cases, cigarette cases, matchboxes, chain links, sweets containers, jewelry boxes, stamps, sculpture, decorative combs, a wide array of jewelry (earrings, rings, bracelets, pins that formed complete and half sets), paintings, and many other ivory, porcelain, Talavera, bronze, and enameled metal objects.
In popular culture
In 1996, the castle was a film location for the Academy Award-nominated movie William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Many views of the castle as the Capulet Mansion can be seen throughout the film.
In the 1954 American war film Vera Cruz starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, Chapultepec was portrayed using elaborate sets and decor.
In the 2006 video game Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, a level existed in and around the castle.
Chapultepec Castle has been used as a model of castle architecture to design buildings such as the 13th Regiment Armory (Sumner Armory), in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, US.