El Museo del Barrio’s Permanent Collection contains over 400 pre-Columbian objects, the majority of which are Taíno pan-Caribbean archaeological objects. These are primarily ceramic and stone objects from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. As well, the museum cares for select, related holdings of relevant pre-Taíno and post-conquest objects. El Museo has a strong core of revival or Taíno legacy materials that include fine photographs, graphics and contemporary works influenced by Taíno heritage and history. It speaks to the power of the original images to note that they have sustained their inspirational force for over five centuries.
Although not as well known as the Aztec, Maya, and Inca, who were their continental contemporaries, the Taíno were the dominant culture in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamas from approximately A.D. 1200 to 1500. When Columbus reached Hispaniola in 1492, Taíno culture was the most highly developed in the Caribbean.
Our knowledge of the Taíno comes from several sources. Sixteenth¬ century Spanish chronicles provide incomplete but crucial information about Taíno society. Archaeological excavation of Taíno sites, which began about 1950, has unearthed many types of pottery and artifacts, confirmed Taíno burial customs, and revealed what their ancient communities looked like
It is widely accepted by scholars that Taíno society was dismantled within a few decades of the arrival of the Spanish in 1492. Key aspects of Taíno culture, including genetic elements, survived the devastation of European conquest through an imposed transculturation amongst surviving Taínos, European colonizers, as well as Africans and other Native American peoples brought to the region as slaves. The Taíno legacy survives today not only in the ethnic heritage of the Caribbean people, but also in words borrowed from their language, such as barbecue, canoe, hammock, and hurricane; in customs related to ancient traditions of weaving, hunting and fishing, song and dance; and in a cuisine based on yuca, beans, and barbecued meats and fish.
From the nineteenth century onward, in their quest for defining a national identity antithetical to that imposed by Spanish rule, Caribbean anthropologists, intellectuals and politicians in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba promoted the widespread notion that the cultural identity of their nations resulted from a blending of Spanish, indigenous, and African groups. On the island of Puerto Rico in the 1940s, Taíno heritage (termed La buena herencia, or, the good legacy) became the subject of increasing investigation. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s a great resurgence of Taíno visual symbols occurred in New York—the largest and most vital community of Puerto Ricans outside the Island. Within this pivotal period of struggle towards social, political, and cultural empowerment for Puerto Ricans (as well as for African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and others), El Museo del Barrio was founded. Since the museum’s inception, Taíno culture and its legacy has been a major source of inspiration, study, and reference.