The Museo de Arte Popular (Museum of Popular Art) is an institution dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. However, it is best known as the sponsor of the yearly, Noche de Alebrijes parade in which fantastical creatures are constructed on a monumental scale and parade from the Zócalo to the Angel of Independence monument, competing for prizes.
Its purpose is to serve as a reference for Mexican crafts as well as promoting them through workshops and other events. The museum also has a research centre with a library and a periodical archive.
Every weekend the museum has workshops for children between six and twelve in various crafts with the aim of preserving crafts. Workshops include those on paper cutting, amate (bark) paper, papier-mâché, and occasionally making sugar skulls and traditional figures and candies.
Located in the historic centre of Mexico City in an old fire house, the museum has a collection which includes textiles, pottery, glass, piñatas, alebrijes, furniture and much more. The permanent collection contains both older and newer craft pieces from the various traditions that make up Mexican culture. The collection was gathered through the generosity of various institutions and individual donors.
The collection is organised into five permanent halls divided by theme, and two dedicated to “grand masters”, each of which contains various kinds of crafts. The five themed halls are called “Las raices del arte mexicano” (Roots of Mexican art), “Las raices del arte popular” (Roots of crafts or popular art), “Lo cotidiano” (Everyday things), “Lo religioso” (Religious items) and “Lo fantasmagico” (Fantastic and magical things).
The collection fills three of the four levels of the building, for a total of 7,000 square metres.
There is also a temporary exhibit hall and an “interpretation” room which has pieces from all 32 federal entities (states and Distrito Federal) of Mexico. Crafts displayed here are of many different types including pottery, basketry, wood carving, precious metal working, glasswork, textiles, papier-mâché and others.
The gift shop contains a wide variety of crafts for sale, from the most traditional to the most recent reinterpretations of various crafts, containing items such as furniture, textiles and toys from all parts of the republic of Mexico.
The museum’s store is non-profit, designed to help artisans get better prices for their products. Many of the products come from villages in Michoacán, often populated only by women and children as the men go to places like the United States to work. Sales of their products have been good enough to entice a number of men to return home and work at the crafts.
The building was constructed in 1927 by architect Vicente Mendiola and served as a fire station. The building has a central patio in which the fire trucks were parked, and three floors for offices and quarters. It has a tower on the corner facing the intersection with a light at the top to be used to signal an emergency.
Another feature of the building are the reliefs with pre-Hispanic motifs that decorate the façade. The inner courtyard is covered by a modern glass cupola. The building is considered to be the second-most important Art Deco building in Mexico City, with the first being the main offices of the Secretariat of Health in Chapultepec.
By the 1980s the growth of the city had rendered the station inadequate and it was abandoned. It deteriorated afterwards because of the 1985 earthquake and the general deterioration of the historic centre. In the 1990s, the city government decided to rescue the building and use it to collect and store a major collection of Mexican crafts.
The museum is known for its parade of “monumental alebrijes” which began as a yearly event in 2007. An alebrije is a fantastical creature, which usually includes various parts of real-life or fantastic creatures. Normal alebrijes are small sculptures made of cardboard or wood, painted in bright colours. Monumental ones are floats, with the tallest one so far being four metres tall by three metres wide.
These include creatures such as flies with dragon tails and multi-headed lions. The works also carry fantastic names such as “La Mula de Seis” (The Six Mule), “Alebrijos” (combination of alebrije and “hijos”, which is Spanish for sons), “AH1N1” and “La Gárgola de la Atlántida” (The Gargoyle of Atlantis).
The event is called La Noche de los Alebrijes (Night of the Alebrijes) and organised by the Museo de Arte Popular in collaboration with the Mexico City government and the support of National Council for Culture and Arts as well as various private institutions and individuals. The purpose of the parade is to promote the work of modern Mexican artists and artisans.
The process of creating the alebrijes begins in June, with the parade taking place at the end of October. Most of the monumental alebrijes are created with cardboard except for those from Oaxaca which are partially made of wood, and wind their way from the main plaza (Zócalo), through the historic centre onto the Paseo de la Reforma, ending at the Angel of Independence. The alebrijes compete for first, second and third prizes of 50,000, 30,000 and 20,000 pesos. After the parade, later in the day, the winners are chosen and other events such as the Alebrije Puppet Contest and the Alebrije Short Story Contest take place.
In the end, the alebrijes are placed on display for about two weeks on Paseo de la Reforma between the Angel of Independence and the Diana Fountain.