Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

Date: 1889
Owner: Andy Rusch
Source Type: Images


Costa Rica's Museo Nacional was one of the country's few nineteenth century scientific institutions, created as part of their efforts to promote public education in order to modernize through the tenets of positivism. Anastasio Alfaro, a self-taught Costa Rican naturalist, had convinced the government to fund the museum and, despite very modest beginnings, developed a respectable collection of animal and mineral samples as well as many pre-Colombian artifacts.

The Museo became important to Costa Rican science on a national level when, in 1889, it was merged with the meteorological observatory recently founded by Swiss polymath Henri Pittier. These two institutes joined into the Instituto Fisico-Geografico Nacional (IFG), an effort by Costa Rica to create a foundation for national science ex nullius. Although the IFG's projects included meteorology, ethnography, and geology, its major initiative was creating a map of Costa Rica. Yet due to divisions within the institute (Alfaro and Pittier had trouble seeing eye to eye) and insufficient funding, the mapmaking was perpetually being postponed.

The problem was that Costa Rica's economy (and thus the IFG's funding) was dependent on agriculture, especially the export crops of coffee and bananas. Thus, after the IFG had been temporarily shut down, Pittier focused his research on botany and, persuaded by the economic potential of this work to enrich the nation, the government reopened the IFG in 1901. Yet Pittier soon became disillusioned and quit the Instituto (though he did eventually finish the map), which came under the control of Alfaro until its dissolution in 1910.

Actual science depends on research and, despite its short life, the IFG was an exceptional center for generating knowledge in a country that has long been outside of the world's scientific centers. The IFG, however, illustrates the inherent difficulties of trying to buildup science in developing nations, where funding often depends on unstable mono-crop agriculture.

Reference: Eakin, Marshall C. "The Origins of Modern Science in Costa Rica: The Instituto Fisico-Geografic Nacional, 1887-1904." In Latin American Research Review, Vol. 34, No. 1. (1999), pp. 123-150.

CITATION: Andy Rusch. National Museum of Costa Rica. January, 2011. San Jose, Costa Rica.