THE Mexican peasant family -- father, mother, and three children, all wearing straw hats -- had never seen anyone like Laurie Anderson before. The somewhat bemused parents, holding the sleepy children in their arms, watched a little white screen intently. On it, a spiky-haired woman in a man's suit and bow tie made strange, deep noises from the side of her mouth. What did the family think of her?
``Beautiful,'' said the father, ``but we don't have any idea of what she's saying.''
They were watching a videotape of this avant-garde performance artist from the United States. The tape, along with imitation Kellogg cornflakes boxes by Andy Warhol and mildly surrealist statues by SalvadorMUSEUMS13MUSEUMS1 Dali, was part of an exhibit at one of Mexico City's two museums of modern art, the Rufino Tamayo.
The family watching the tape was one of thousands of similar families: poor peasant or working-class Mexicans who visit the museums of Mexico City.
In few countries in the Western world do working-class people fill the museums as they do in Mexico. On any given weekend, museums bustle with ordinary Mexicans, not particularly sophisticated artistically, not particularly well dressed, perhaps not even particularly well fed, but still, quietly enjoying themselves.
Many Mexicans believe that this devotion to museums stems, in great part, from Mexico's 1910 revolution. In the decades following that upheaval there was a conscious effort on the part of Mexican artists and the government to bring the Mexican public into greater contact with fine art.
The years after the Mexican revolution, just like the period immediately following the Russian Revolution, saw a tremendous blossoming of artistic creativity. The most important Mexican painters in the decades after the revolution were internationally-known muralists Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jos'e Clemente Orozco. They strongly supported the revolution and painted powerfully colored, monumental murals.
Wall paintings, largely dealing with the country's history, portray ordinary Mexicans in their daily activities. Politically radical murals generally depict social injustice suffered by the masses and how they rose up against that injustice in the years following 1910.
Throughout Mexico City these pictures were painted on walls of public buildings. For the first time, good art came out of the museums and private residences and into the streets and courtyards where all could see them. For the first time, poor Mexicans were exposed to painting -- and they liked what they saw.
They took to the murals, in part, because they appealed to their sense of color and taught them their history.
But also, as Carlos Aguirre, an established young Mexican artist, says, ``Ordinary people loved the work because the murals spoke of them and of their daily lives -- their customs, their history, their problems.''
As a result of the Muralist movement, Mr. Aguirre says, ordinary Mexicans, already fond of beautiful local artisanry, became aware of painting as an art and acquired the habit of looking at it.
As a result of the influence of the powerful minister of education in the 1920s, Jos'e Vasconcelos, Muralists quickly became Mexico's most established artists. The Muralists also received the strong patronage of the government.
``Mexicans, contemplate yourself in the mirror of this grandeur.'' This injunction, engraved on the entrance of Mexico's government-built Museum of Anthropology, has become a central theme of the Mexican government's cultural policy.
The government has tried to expose ordinary Mexicans to both modern Mexican art and the magnificent cultural heritage left by the country's Indian cultures. Promoting national culture has become an important way for the government to instill national unity and pride.
It is also a way, many Mexicans say, of linking the increasingly conservative Mexican government to the populist achievements of the Mexican revolution. While many Mexicans question just how revolutionary the revolution was, there is general agreement that some of its finest achievements lay in the areas of culture and education.
The most visible monument to the government's desire to popularize culture is the impressive complex of museums, built largely under the administration of populist Mexican President Adolfo L'opez Mateos (1958-64), in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park.
Poor and working-class Mexicans visit the park on Sunday outings -- to picnic, stroll through the large zoo, ride the roller coaster, or merely sleep in the sun. The museums (among them, the Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of Modern Art, the Rufino Tamayo Museum, and a branch of the Museum of History) were placed there by the government in order to attract a larger public.
Monumentally modern, the beautiful Museum of Anthropology is especially attractive to ordinary Mexicans. Extremely low admission prices (under a quarter or free, depending on the time), the layout of the exhibitions, and the simple labels explaining them were consciously designed to attract more than just the cultural elite, museum officials say. So, they say, are the many free cultural activities, such as movies, plays, and concerts.
The motto at the museum entrance is apt; poor Mexicans, whose daily lives are often full of misery, come to rediscover the grandeur of their heritage -- the beauty and force of Indian civilizations destroyed by the Spaniards.
No one who has seen a Mexican worker staring intently at a massive Olmec Indian stone head whose features startlingly mirror his own can doubt the intimate connection between Mexico's past and present.
The Rufino Tamayo Museum concentrates on international modern art and achieves its popularity, in part, through the skillful use of media. A recent show of l7 young Mexican artists was accompanied by videotaped interviews of the artists. It explained their work in simple terms.
Even more important is the use of sophisticated television advertising to attract Mexicans to the museum. (The museum is indirectly owned by Televisa, Mexico's private television network.)
All of this fits in with the philosophy of the museum's director, Robert Littman, a New Yorker who was an official at New York's Metropolitan Museum.
``Looking at a painting should be entertaining,'' Mr. Littman says.
``I want people to come back. I don't want them to be intimidated -- all of our exhibits should be enthralling and visually exciting.''