Not many people go to Rio de Janeiro for the museums. The city is rich in culture, that’s for sure, but when I visited earlier this month I had planned to spend my days in the thrumming sunshine on one of its endless beaches. But then I heard that two museums had just opened, which between them offer very different perspectives on Brazil and Latin America. When cloud was forecast, I left the crashing waves of Arpoador and went to find them.
The first, the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR), is dedicated to Brazilian art and to Rio itself. It's in the port area, which is notoriously dodgy and run-down, so this shimmering new complex came as a surprise. Two buildings—one an old palace, the other a former police headquarters—have been cleverly linked by a vast white canopy, like a sheet rippling in the breeze. Beneath it, crowds mill around happily, making MAR, which is only a month old, already feel like part of the city.
Inside, exhibitions are spread across four floors. "Images of Rio: A landscape under construction” shows the many visions of Rio’s jagged landscape and sweeping beaches through countless maps, panoramas, watercolours, photos and movies. It's a comprehensive introduction to the city's past, which prepares the visitor for "Shelter and Land", an exhibition on the ground floor about modern-day Brazil, that deals with the grit and frustration of modern urban living. The museum, not far from one of Rio’s hundreds of favelas itself, is well placed to comment.
The second new museum, Casa Daros is devoted to contemporary Latin American art. But the next day, wandering its grand, shuttered corridors felt a more muted experience. Couples huddled together, poring over pieces, and smart Rio ladies filed round, before heading for lunch in the chic new restaurant. Casa Daros is the long-awaited home for a 1,200-piece collection that has been built up in Zurich by the philanthropist Ruth Schmidheiny. It aims to show off Latin America’s largely unpublicised art scene.
The themes of its opening exhibition of Colombian contemporary art, "Cantos Cuentos Colombianos", ranged from the spread of American TV culture to the legacy of the country’s FARC terrorists. On the way in, a coffin made of Lego has a white line scored across its lid (above), the first of a number of references to the cocaine trade—grinding a porcelain plate into tiny fragments is another.
There'll be another new opening this year too. The Museum of Sound and Image will relocate to a purpose-designed building on the beach in Copacabana. As the world's eyes turn to Rio, ahead of next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the city is presenting an ever-stronger sense of itself. Perfect for a cloudy day.