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One gets the feeling that lots of people in Mexico City believe the Lecumberri Palace ceased being a prison at some point after the Mexican Revolution. In fact, as a prison, the palace only opened in 1900. It then served as a major penitentiary complex until 1976. The complex’s service as the National Archive began only in 1980.
Built to house some 800 male prisoners, there is also space for 180 women and 400 children. The 804 primary cells were complemented by workshops, a nursery, plus cooking and medical facilities.
As the Archivo General de la Nación (General Archive of the Nation), the facility in essence a records repository with a tremendous collection. Former prison cells contain millions of records and corridors have been re-purposed as reading and research areas. The repository also contains some 60,000 secret police files made public in 2002 by then-president Vicente Fox.
As a destination for the only mildly interested, the AGN is not always a perfectly welcoming destination. Afterall, it was a prison for 76 years. For scholars of Mexico and Latin American history, it’s a lot more inviting, and probably even essential.
Guided visits are available, and temporary and permanent exhibitions culled from the collections are constantly changing. But again, these are drawn from the national archives and will only sometimes allude to the former-prison surroundings.
The Lecumberri Palace is a fascinating and enlightening place to visit, and as a General Archive, it’s probably more inspiring than its dark past might imply. Still, a visit is richly rewarded even if you’re only hoping for a few insightful photos. Architecturally, it’s unique and even splendid.