Rebeca Vaisman explores an extraordinary house museum in Lima, founded almost 100 years ago through the vision and passion of one man. In the galleries, hallways and gardens of the Larco Museum, Rebeca discovers the palpable bond between Peruvian history and identity - in a fascinating country still discovering its past.
BY REBECA VAISMAN | 8 JANUARY 2024
Rafael Larco Hoyle's Labor of Love, The Larco Museum
Ninety-eight years ago, Peruvian agribusiness man and self-taught archaeologist, Rafael Larco Hoyle, founded a small pre-Hispanic museum in a colonial house in one of Lima’s most traditional neighborhoods. He filled it with his family’s personal collection, at a time when the importance of these ancient objects wasn’t fully acknowledged.
Rafael's vision was to garner attention for pre-Columbian cultures and reconnect Peruvian identity to its cultural past. Almost a century later, the Larco Museum - in 2017 declared one of the world's Best 25 Museums in TripAdvisor's annual survey - has navigated the complexities of being a contemporary institution, while proudly holding on to its founding spirit and ethos.
It’s not easy for the museum’s president, Andrés Álvarez Calderón, to succinctly describe the endeavor; every aspect is entangled to a deeply personal story. Andrés is the youngest grandchild of Rafael Larco, he didn’t get to meet his grandfather, but his legacy has been a solid presence throughout his life.
Born in 1901 in the Hacienda Chiclin – a powerful country estate dedicated to sugar in the North of Peru – Rafael Larco Hoyle was the son of Rafael Larco Herrera, a notable politician, philanthropist and landowner. Aged 10, young Rafael was sent to school in Maryland, USA, before studying Agronomy at Cornell University, followed by a master’s degree in Business at the University of New York.
Away from Peru for most of his life, he returned to his hacienda in the early 1920s “with the curiosity of the foreigner”, as his grandson puts it. It was this distance that gave him an unusual perspective about the land his family yielded.
“He realized he was living in a mecca of Peruvian culture”, Andrés says of La Libertad, the birthplace of the Mochica pre-Hispanic culture and the region where Rafael first began collecting Peruvian relics. He contacted a network of Peruvian collectors and, with the help of his father, bought their gatherings. He never intended to guard them jealously: he longed for them to be seen and appreciated.
All images courtesy @ The Larco Museum, Peru
In Chiclin in 1926, Rafael founded the Larco Museum, aged just 25. He began to research his collection thoroughly, and in doing so uncovered large gaps in Peruvian archaeological studies. He took it upon himself to remedy them, immersing himself in field research. In the decades that followed, Rafael helped identify ancient cultures (Cupisnique, Salinar and Virú), published over 20 books and established the first chronological line for the Northern cultures of Peru.
In 1953 the museum moved to Lima, where it stands to this day: the viceregal workhouse of an 18th century ranch. Inside, one still walks up ramps once used by crop-carrying horses, while the house itself was refurbished with the original architectural features of an old Northern casona. Notably, it was immediately decided that the deposits containing Rafael’s extensive ceramics collection should be open to the public, a cultural decision that was quite ahead of its time in Peru.
“Larco Hoyle was at the cultural forefront,” acknowledges Ulla Holmquist, a Peruvian archaeologist and director of the Larco Museum. “He had visited some of the great museums of the world and took into consideration international and cutting-edge criteria.” For Holmquist, formerly Minister of Culture, the museum has always been clear in its desire to make collections as accessible as possible.
Manto Paracas textile © Larco Museum
Involved with the museum for 25 years (five as director in two different periods), Holmquist oversaw renovations in 2008. “We understood that Lima demanded friendlier, more didactic cultural spaces that weren’t guided by big academic discourses, but by the aim to achieve a warm and attractive introduction to Ancient Peru."
Of the collection’s almost 50,000 items, about 8% are displayed in the main rooms, while the open deposit, with its labyrinthic hall, shows thousands more. “Very detailed curatorial work allowed us to redesign a more comfortable route and take more advantage of the selection of pieces,” Holmquist explains.
These include an emblematic 15,000-year-old Mochica portrait vessel; a 500-year-old full Chimú attire made of copper and gold; a 3000-year-old piece named Cupisnique Duality, included in notable modern art essays; and a Paracas Mantle of great dimensions that shows the quality of dye and embroidery achieved by Peru’s coastal weavers 2500 years ago (all artifacts pictured above).
The erotic huacos room was the last to be redesigned – it was renovated during the pandemic – yet forms an essential part of the visit, not only for its peculiar subject. “It is a very significant ensemble because it provides a way of understanding the relationship that [Peruvian] societies had with their bodies and a ‘fertilized world’, as well as their ceremonial calendars and bond to nature,” notes Holmquist.
The museum’s charm also lies in its colonial architecture and enchanting interior decoration; in its lavish patios and gardens that paint the scenery with colorful orchids, bougainvillea and greenery; and in its picturesque restaurant that not only serves visitors, but also attracts faithful, local customers.
Larco is part of a cultural route in the historic neighborhood of Pueblo Libre, which also includes the National Museum of Archeology, Anthropology and History, the Huaca Mateo Salado (a pre-Hispanic complex), and the Antigua Taberna Queirolo, a pub founded in the 1880’s where pisco is the main beverage – a reminder of the vineyards and agricultural lands that spread for decades in this part of Lima.
Rafael Larco Hoyle died in 1966 aged just 65, while in his intellectual prime. His daughter, Ysabel Larco, inherited his museum and estate, which became engaged in a new political order with a nationalistic government that prompted agrarian reform and the end of the hacienda’s system.
The family lost a lot of the business, but Ysabel staunchly defended the museum. She became President and dedicated her life to it. While she could have preserved it just as Larco Hoyle left it, with the help and advice of her son, Andrés Álvarez Calderón (now president), the museum moved forward, aligned with a contemporary mindset.
“We Peruvians are still discovering our past”, reflects Álvarez Calderón. For the current President of the museum, it can’t be easy to be part of a four-generation endeavor, but he insists that he has never felt an obligation, much less a burden.
He still enjoys staring at the artifacts through the glass, knowing there are many answers in the past as their reflection returns our true identity. “If my grandfather was alive today, I’m confident he would say: ‘This is what I wanted to do if I’d had the time.’”
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Rebeca Vaisman is an art and design writer, based in Lima and Barcelona, and a regular contributor to Cabana | Follow Rebeca on Instagram @rebecavaisman