Following an introductory essay, six short contributions by academics and museum curators in the United States (US) and Europe tackle the current state and future of Pre-Columbian visual culture studies. They explore the field’s impressive growth in this century, as well as some of the dangers it currently faces as a result of that growth. Several trace its present state to its origins and the part played by early Mexican and US nationalism, the popularity of world’s fairs, and the civil rights movement, among other factors. Also considered are problems inherent in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century separation of the preconquest past from the newly labeled colonial period, as well as the concurrent embrace of the term “Pre-Columbian.” Other essays take a hard look at the present and future relation of art history to archaeology and cross-disciplinary studies within the field, which is defined in part by their dependence on, or skepticism regarding, iconography. Whereas academics wrestle in these essays with the implications of a declining job market, museum curators struggle with limited funding. Nonetheless, possible new strategies and opportunities for the future are proposed, including engagement with issues posed by the rising interest in decoloniality and global indigeneity.

RESUMEN Luego de un ensayo introductorio, seis contribuciones cortas de académicos y conservadores de museos en los Estados Unidos y Europa abordan el estado actual y el futuro de los estudios de cultura visual precolombina. Se explora el impresionante crecimiento del campo en este siglo, así como algunos de los peligros que enfrenta actualmente como resultado de este crecimiento. Varios colaboradores trazan el estado actual del campo hasta sus orígenes y notan la influencia en él de las primeras manifestaciones de los nacionalismos de México y los Estados Unidos, la popularidad de las ferias mundiales y el Movimiento por los derechos civiles, entre otros factores. También se consideran los problemas inherentes a la separación entre el pasado precolombino y el llamado período colonial que se establecía entre fines del siglo XIX y principios del siglo XX, así como la aceptación simultánea del término “precolombino”. Otros ensayos analizan detenidamente la relación presente y futura de la historia del arte con la arqueología y los estudios interdisciplinarios dentro del campo, que se define en parte por su dependencia o escepticismo con respecto a la iconografía. Mientras que los académicos discuten en estos ensayos las implicaciones de un mercado de trabajo decreciente, los curadores de museos abordan las restricciones presupuestarias. No obstante, se proponen posibles nuevas estrategias y oportunidades para el futuro, como la participación futura en cuestiones planteadas por el creciente interés en la descolonialidad y la indigeneidad global.

RESUMO Após um ensaio introdutório, seis curtas contribuições de acadêmicos e curadores de museus nos Estados Unidos e na Europa abordam o estado atual e o futuro dos estudos da cultura visual pré-colombiana. O impressionante crescimento do campo neste século, bem como alguns dos perigos que atualmente enfrenta como resultado desse crescimento, são explorados. Diversos colaboradores traçam o estado atual do campo até suas origens e o papel desempenhado pelo nacionalismo inicial do México e dos Estados Unidos, a popularidade das feiras mundiais e o Movimento dos direitos civis, entre outros fatores. Também são considerados os problemas inerentes à separação, no final do século XIX e início do século XX, entre o passado pré-conquista e o recém-rotulado período colonial, bem como a aderência simultânea ao termo “pré-colombiano”. Outros ensaios dedicam olhar atento à relação presente e futura da história da arte com a arqueologia e estudos interdisciplinares dentro do campo, que é definida em parte por sua dependência ou ceticismo em relação à iconografia. Enquanto os acadêmicos lutam nesses ensaios com as implicações de um mercado de trabalho em declínio, os curadores de museus lutam com recursos limitados. No entanto, são propostas possíveis novas estratégias e oportunidades para o futuro, incluindo o envolvimento futuro com questões levantadas pelo crescente interesse na decolonialidade e na indigeneidade global.

The Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, and the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz the following year ended his thirty-five-year dictatorship. A new social era was to emerge, projecting a distinct image of social and national identity. The existing preference for European art and aesthetics was replaced by the promotion of ancient Mexican art. Hand in hand with this process, the nation’s cultural roots were to be reevaluated. Among many other reforms was a new “art for the people,” as the muralists called it. Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and others brought new life to the walls of public buildings with paintings that often incorporated Pre-Columbian motifs and themes. At the same time, the new education minister, José Vasconcelos, encouraged education through the arts. His work at the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City sought to instruct Mexicans in their history, emphasizing ancient cultures. Rivera was among the first of the muralists to celebrate and exalt the Indigenous artistic tradition; his detailed knowledge of it is evident in each of his panels painted on the Palacio Nacional’s walls. And other artists in the 1920s continued to draw inspiration from Mexico’s past, responding strongly both to finds in archaeological excavations and to objects on view in museum exhibitions. The lasting effects of this trend are evident in the work of many artists, notably Miguel Covarrubias, whose excellent drawings of Pre-Columbian art and architecture accompanied several of his books, including his 1971 Indian Art of Mexico and Central America.1 

Under Díaz, there had been no real interest in, or respect for, the arts of ancient Mexico. There had been no substantial archaeological excavations of Aztec sites, although several rescue digs had been carried out under the instructions of the engineer Porfirio Díaz, the dictator’s son, during construction or refurbishment of government buildings such as the Ministry of Justice and Public Education. In 1900 Leopoldo Batres conducted a limited excavation at a point along Calle Escalerillas (now Calle Guatemala) in connection with the construction of a sewer, which was cutting through each of the construction phases of the Templo Mayor.2 That it was completed without further ado makes clear the regime’s lack of respect for or interest in the Pre-Columbian era.

But a new chapter eventually began, thanks in general to the early twentieth century’s nationalist movement, and in particular the work of the archaeologist Manuel Gamio, who insisted on the enduring contribution of Indigenous tradition to Mexico’s development.3 He dedicated himself to preserving ancient remains and improving the lives of contemporary Indigenous communities. His accomplishments included founding the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Prehispanic Monuments, the latter today’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). In the 1920s Gamio encouraged publications of works on ancient art and, while excavating at Teotihuacan, promoted the welfare of local communities. He became a champion of what is known as indigenismo. Whereas before it was mostly European scholars and travelers who had engaged with Pre-Columbian Mexico, Gamio’s example was followed by generations of Mexican archaeologists, anthropologists, and artists. The effects of these workers and educators on the study of Pre-Columbian visual culture in Mexico are still felt today, especially in university teaching.

I was trained as an art historian in the 1970s at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, where I was very fortunate to have as mentors both distinguished archaeologists and distinguished art historians. Among the former was Román Piña Chan, who had been working at Chichén Itzá’s sacred well, or cenote, and spoke of his experience exploring its murky waters.4 As a young student with family origins in Yucatán, I was greatly impressed by the role of archaeology in understanding Mexico’s past. Another of my lecturers was Otto Schöndube, who lectured on the archaeology of west Mexico. He rightly insisted on the importance of reading German scholars such as Eduard Seler—a difficult task at the time, as his works had not yet been translated.

My days as a student predated Beatriz de la Fuente’s directorship of the art history department, although she made frequent visits to our classrooms as a guest lecturer. De la Fuente subsequently became director of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), where she left an indelible mark. She invited Warwick Bray of London University, one of the leading experts on ancient metallurgy in the Americas, and his lecture on Pre-Columbian gold inspired me to apply to the MA program at the Institute of Latin American Studies in London. Although my first year in the British education system was a wonderful experience, I witnessed there, for the first time, the notorious division between archaeology and art history, to which I shall return.

When I was in Mexico, studying the history of art, Pre-Columbian art was one of many subjects leading to a degree in world art history, not Pre-Columbian art history. The same is true in the United Kingdom, although London University has an institute specializing in the art and archaeology of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is in the process of creating the worldwide Archive of Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, which includes Mexican languages. Nonetheless, art history per se is not taught at SOAS. One of the few places in England where visual culture is studied is Cambridge University’s Centre of Latin American Studies, which is open only to postgraduate students. Its present director is a reader in Latin American literature and visual culture.

Be this as it may, England has produced a long list of distinguished archaeologists specializing in Pre-Columbian civilizations, usually the archaeology of the Maya and South America. Bray, along with Norman Hammond, Anne Kendall, George Bankes, and others, walk in the footsteps of such esteemed scholars as Alfred Maudslay, Eric Thompson, Geoffrey Bushnell, and Adrian Digby, to name but a few. None of them were trained as art historians. In contrast, only a few art historians in England specialize in Mesoamerica. In my opinion, this has created a bias in studies of visual culture writ large.

While working on my 1989 doctoral dissertation on Aztec death sculpture at the University of London, Institute of Archaeology, I was advised to use a computer program to test my hypothesis regarding the Aztec earth deity Tlaltecuhtli. I had observed that there were two types of representations: one associated with death and the other with agricultural fertility. Clive Orton suggested that I utilize Jaccard’s coefficient of similarities, which, by confirming my hypothesis, gave scientific validity to my research.5 Bray and Orton taught me the value of drawing upon other disciplines.

I am not suggesting that the division between art history and archaeology has disappeared altogether in England, but, at the institute today, there are a variety of options and specializations available for the study of Pre-Columbian archaeology. One course taught there, “Key Topics in the Archaeology of the Americas,” involves all of the lecturers who work on the Americas, each covering the areas in which they specialize. The lectures are followed by a seminar in which all of us participate. Having scholars teach the material culture of different periods and regions is certainly close to unique in Europe. In addition to illustrating the different disciplines’ methods, it encourages interaction and cross-fertilization among colleagues working with different cultures in the Americas. Similarly, the History of Art department at University College London encourages interdisciplinary symposia. In February 2018, it organized a daylong “Forum on Gold” with contributions by art historians, archaeologists, practicing artists, a medical doctor, and other specialists. This kind of event encourages students concentrating on art to enroll in, for example, the Comparative Art and Archaeology MA program.

Knowing of my prior training in art history, Bray, who was my academic supervisor at University College, suggested that I learn something of archaeological theory and practice. Accordingly, I took several archaeological courses at University College and, in 1980, another two courses at Cambridge University, one of them with the distinguished English archaeologist Ian Hodder. Hodder emphasized the risks and pitfalls of drawing inferences about the past from the present. In England, with the exception of the University of Essex’s School of Philosophy and Art History, Pre-Columbian visual culture is generally taught by archaeologists, not art historians. The University of Essex’s current undergraduate course on Latin American studies offers several options for the study of Indigenous and contemporary Latin American art and anthropology.

Although, at the University of London, the study of art history is mostly focused on European art, a few individual scholars have specialized in specific aspects of Mexican art. An example is Tom Gretton, who formerly taught in the History of Art department at University College London. Gretton’s work on the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada has attracted one or two students to write postgraduate dissertations on Mexican art.6 

The University of Bristol in England has also participated in the teaching of Pre-Columbian visual culture. In the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology of its School of Arts, I co-taught the undergraduate “Aztecs and Incas” course with the archaeologist Nicholas Saunders for several years until Saunders retired in 2017. Taking a visual culture approach, it focused on specific aspects of both cultures.

Aside from university teaching, I have had the good fortune to work as area editor for entries on the Americas written for Macmillan’s Dictionary of Art and Architecture. The thirty-four-volume dictionary employed several editors, most of them divided between European civilizations (the “Western” world) and non-European, or “non-Western” civilizations. Because, with a few exceptions, the entries allocated to the “non-Western” areas were shorter, the Pre-Columbian areas were not covered in long articles. The emphasis in the dictionary overall is on “Western” art.

One of the most important experiences in my own academic life was working between 1992 and 1995 at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas (IIH) at UNAM. Having the opportunity to work alongside one of the most distinguished Mexican ethnohistorians, Miguel León-Portilla, and being able to attend his weekly seminar on Nahuatl culture, was life changing. In those days we studied the sixteenth-century Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún’s texts written in the Indigenous language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl. Nahuatlatos—that is, experts on the language—came from different parts of the Mexican Republic to participate in the seminar, a practice that continues to this day. In London I have organized an annual Nahuatl Study Day (“Speaking and Writing Aztec [Nahuatl]),” which has met for four consecutive years. This is the only course of this type in the United Kingdom.

In conjunction with the Henry Moore Foundation, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, held two exhibitions during the Henry Moore centenary year of 1998, honoring the outstanding twentieth-century English sculptor: Henry Moore: Friendship and Influence and Moore and Mexico.7 I acted as the consultant for the former and curated the latter. My curatorial aim in Moore and Mexico was to demonstrate the depth of artistic inspiration that Henry Moore drew from Mexico’s Pre-Columbian civilizations. His extraordinary creativity combined elements of various sculptures or images in a single sculpture. For example Mother and Child (1922) depicts a woman in a seated position with a baby protruding from between her thighs. The mother has a geometric face, in contrast to the more naturalistic representation of the baby, who has features drawn from very early sculptures made by the Gulf Coast Olmec people.8 I organized the exhibition on the basis of the influence of given cultures on Moore’s work. For example, part of the presentation focused on Moore’s fascination with the Mesoamerican chacmool, a type of Pre-Columbian stone statue in the form of a man reclining on his buttocks with his knees and elbows bent and his head turned to one side.9 The chacmool is known to have inspired Moore to produce what he called his Reclining Sculptures. Moore’s sculptures represent females, however, unlike the male Mesoamerican chacmools. Ultimately my aim was to show, through objects and photographs, why Moore once acknowledged, “The Art of Mexico spoke to me the most.”

I am optimistic about the future of Pre-Columbian visual studies in England. Recently the British Museum, for the online Google Arts and Culture program, digitized the nineteenth-century explorer Alfred Maudslay’s photographs and casts of ancient Maya sites and artworks. New, interactive content focused on Maya sites in Guatemala has also been created, as have other programs dedicated to bringing the ancient Maya heritage to life.

I continue to live in England with a foot in Mexico, too. There is a general trend in both countries toward interdisciplinary work. A case in point is the extraordinary project Prehispanic Mural Painting in Mexico, initiated more than twenty-five years ago by Beatriz de la Fuente at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas at UNAM.10 The project continues to this day under the direction of another distinguished Mesoamericanist art historian, María Teresa Uriarte. This is one of the most successful interdisciplinary projects ever undertaken by Pre-Columbianists—one in which archaeologists, art historians, chemists, and many other kinds of specialists work together toward a better understanding of Pre-Columbian visual culture. Hopefully it will not be the last. I would like to believe that this is now the trend.

Miguel Covarrubias, Indian Art of Mexico and Central America (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1971).
Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Miguel León-Portilla, El Templo Mayor (Mexico City: Bancomer, 1980), 114.
José Vasconcelos and Manuel Gamio, Aspects of Mexican Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926). See also David Brading, “Manuel Gamio, and Official Indigenismo in Mexico,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 7, no. 1 (1988): 75–89.
Román Piña Chan, “Informe preliminar de la reciente exploración del Cenote Sagrado de Chichén Itzá,” Investigaciones del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia 24 (1970).
Elizabeth Baquedano and Clive Orton, “Similarities between Sculptures Using Jaccard’s Coefficient in the Study of Aztec Tlaltecuhtli,” London, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology (1990): 16.
Thomas Gretton, “Posada and the ‘Popular’: Commodities and Social Constructs in Mexico before the Revolution,” Oxford Art Journal 17, no. 2 (1994): 32–47.
Angela Dyer, Henry Moore: Friendship and Influence (Norwich: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 1998).
Henry A. Garrould, Terry Friedman, and David Moore Mitchinson, Henry Moore: Early Carvings 19201940 (Leeds, England: Leeds City Art Galleries, 1982), 20.
Elizabeth Baquedano, Aztec Sculpture (London: British Museum, 1984), 86–87.
Beatriz de la Fuente, ed., The Pre-Columbian Painting: Murals of the Mesoamerica (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes; Milan: Jaca; Wappingers Falls, NY: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1999), 7.