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.
From An Exhibition of Pre-Columbian Art, held in 1940 at Harvard University’s William Hayes Fogg Art Museum, to Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vases of the Ik’ Kingdom, presented in 2012 at the Princeton University Art Museum, university museums have played an important if under-sung role in shaping the discourses around Pre-Columbian or ancient American art.1 In the former case—more than two hundred objects on view for a mere twenty-six days, partially piggybacking on Mexico’s display at the World’s Fair in 1939—a veritable who’s who of collectors and institutions loaned a what’s what of the nascent subfield to an exhibition that helped shape its canons. Given the exhibition’s brevity, the content is scarcely institutionally justifiable in a contemporary context (the insurance costs alone would make it prohibitively expensive) even as it presaged larger blockbuster-style exhibitions like Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art (1940, Museum of Modern Art, New York), and similar large-scale international collaborations like Before Cortés (1970, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes (1992, Art Institute of Chicago), and most recently Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas (2017, Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum, New York).2
Dancing into Dreams, with its laser-like focus on eighteen objects, demonstrated just how much can be said about an extremely small sample of elegantly painted ceramic vessels associated with a specific Late Classic Maya kingdom, even as it took pains to consider what had been lost in bringing these objects to the art market. It continued a rich tradition of university museum exhibitions centered on Maya ceramics, including Painting the Maya Universe (1994, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina) and Princeton’s own Lords of the Underworld (1978).3 The undercurrent concerned with looting and private collecting alongside immaculate objects with precise archaeological contexts also emerged in Royal Tombs of Sipán (1992), organized by the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles.4 Throughout the twentieth century, then, we saw university museums consistently walk this central line of the discipline: balancing the need to care for and understand objects without archaeological context with the desire to showcase glamorous and important discoveries from controlled excavations. What happens in the twenty-first?
Negotiating these different contexts is a challenge university museums face perhaps more often than larger municipal museums, because in many cases their established collections of material culture from the ancient New World are significantly older. We lack the kind of detailed information about the field that we would need to determine answers to practical questions about how many professional staff members Pre-Columbian collections in the United States would require on a regular basis. Lacking these kinds of statistics, what follows is a personal reflection and assessment of what university museums could and should be doing.
I can think of more than half a dozen major university museum collections of Pre-Columbian or ancient American art—neither term is especially satisfying—besides the Fowler’s, as well as a few others that have a few hundred objects. The Fowler’s collections combine archaeological materials that come from sanctioned excavations like those of Cerro Portezuelo and Amapa in Mexico and Rainbow Bridge in Utah, alongside collections that lack such context, including many of its famous fine-line Moche vessels. Princeton’s exceptional and eclectic collection was largely driven by curator Gillett G. Griffin’s interests, enthusiasms, and relationships, which he developed over decades with a broad network of collectors and dealers, especially in New York. Yale University’s collections in its Art Gallery and Peabody Museum of Natural History overlap with these broader trends in some intriguing ways. This is especially the case with the Peabody’s early trove of objects collected in the late nineteenth century by Julius Skilton, a doctor who served Benito Juarez in the aftermath of the French intervention, which are juxtaposed with the Josef and Anni Albers collection, emblematic of the larger connection between modern art of the twentieth century and non-Western art. Harvard University, of course, has its own Peabody, which is bursting with treasures from across the hemisphere (and in many cases archival information to match), and the newly configured Harvard Art Museums house a small number of intriguing Pre-Columbian objects, including those that came originally to Harvard’s Fogg Museum via collector Grenville L. Winthrop.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has, historically speaking, one of the oldest collections of its kind in the country, owing to donations Joel Roberts Poinsett originally made to the American Philosophical Society in the 1830s. The holdings in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, like those at the Fowler, include a mix of Latin American folk art alongside historical archaeological collections from Mexico and the Andes; one could also include Tulane University’s Middle American Research Institute in this category of anthropological collections, along with the Southwest-centric Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Museum of Natural History.
Other collections with twentieth-century histories include those at the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine; the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame; the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University; the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri; the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami; and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. And in order to broaden our cultural and geographic scope, I would include the Jones Archaeological Museum at the Mississippian site of Moundville, under the stewardship of the University of Alabama, because the ancient arts of North America have been, and continue to be, woefully underserved by art history as a discipline. University museums, including the Fowler, and others like the University of Missouri’s Anthropology Museum, often become repositories for local and regional archaeological collections excavated during the course of construction projects. These collections come with significant responsibilities under NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), but the opportunities they represent to open and establish dialogues with Native American communities regarding access, research, and potential repatriation have been and will remain crucial to establishing a greater sense of transparency and building relationships with these communities.
Most, if not all, of the collections described above could sustain at least one full-time curator engaged in research and exhibition projects. Each could also benefit from a mixed appointment of a professor-curator, and several are probably large enough to merit more than one curator (imagine an Andeanist, a Mesoamericanist, and a Native North American specialist in the many museums that could sustain all three positions, just as they do for other curatorial areas with staff covering a number of different chronological phases and media of Western visual culture). To these one could add smaller collections with less than a thousand objects, such as that at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, which, although probably not large enough to sustain a full-time curatorial position, easily supports classroom research and training in museum practices.
In most cases, the institutional histories of these university collections overlap with the broader structures of larger municipal institutions, as well as generally following the “art” versus “anthropology” museum distinction. “Old” collections and archives like those at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania usefully coexist with the vast holdings of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Field Museum in Chicago. Each of these institutions contains unique but overlapping comminglings of archaeological collections and donated material. “Newer” collections like Princeton’s and the Nasher’s reflect the same kinds of individual tastes, tendencies, and market availability of certain kinds of objects from the second half of the twentieth century as those at larger public museums like the Saint Louis Art Museum or the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
In this respect we can see a history of collections in three broad phases: one marked by Joel Roberts Poinsett’s donations in 1830, mentioned above, and the moment in 1914 when the Metropolitan Museum cast off its substantial Pre-Columbian collections, consigning them to the American Museum of Natural History. The second moment saw the “return” of Pre-Columbian art to the Metropolitan in 1982 with the opening of the Rockefeller Wing. The third phase is likely still unfolding as institutions of all sizes begin to approach the always complex histories of their collections in new ways, especially in light of evolving ideas about cultural patrimony.
Given the long-term lack both of institutional stability (as suggested by these three phases) and of consistent staffing at many of the institutions mentioned, we need to acknowledge the contingency and fragility of our collections as well as the state of the data that supports them. No one collection, anywhere, is a truly comprehensive collection of the ancient arts of the Americas of both hemispheres (though the NMAI probably comes closest). The capricious nature of past collecting practices has a profound effect on what material is available for study and display, and thus on what specialists can share and tell members of the broader public. This, in turn, impacts how the ancient cultures of the Americas are understood, allowing for biases and prejudices about a perceived lack of aesthetic achievement, cultural sophistication, and even civilization to persist.
To better understand the cultures we study, we must have better data about the collections that inform our analyses. In addition to forcing us to acknowledge the contingencies of the collections under our care, we also have the opportunity to correct some of the oversights of the past. Much more can and should be done to consolidate and share information among institutions. Full, detailed, individualized collection histories are key to this, as are deep dives into institutional archives and field research with those who can corroborate existing details—essentially, the surviving members of the networks of collectors and dealers who brought these objects into these institutional contexts. Using this information we can better understand and capture histories of taste and, more importantly, identify possible problems with respect to cultural patrimony—including marking candidates for return to countries and communities of origin. This will be a decades-long effort, akin to the Nazi-era provenance research that has occupied many institutions in the United States and Europe. Some of the work will necessarily overlap with other categories, like African and Oceanic art. In order to rectify the histories of colonialization and capitalist exploitation that form the backbone of many of our most treasured collections, we must know these histories.
I will describe a brief example drawn from some of my archival research to establish the parameters of what I mean. A set of objects traditionally identified as Olmec masks, plain and incised celts (greenstone axes), and small sculptures associated with a Mexican site called either Arroyo or Río Pesquero has vexed and enticed scholars since they first emerged on the art market in the early 1970s. Recent sanctioned excavations at the site have revealed a remarkable example of a small maize cob rendered in greenstone, lending some credence to the legends of dozens of such objects that were passed down in oral tradition from dealer to collector, collector to curator, and curator to student. Río Pesquero became a brand name for Olmec objects, with today’s quantities of objects ascribed to the locale almost certainly exceeding the “27 stone masks, 10 stone figures, 6 incised celts and over 100 plain ones, mirrors, a ‘spoon’ and a small carved stone snake” first enumerated in February 1971 by Susan Vogel, then a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York.5
In one version of the story, it was a milkman diving into the river for a lost can; in others, a young boy sent to collect water from a spring who lost his basin. In whichever case, these accidental losses led to the chance discovery of the objects, and as word spread, the Mexican military moved in to confiscate some of them. None of these accounts are contemporaneous, however, and none identify specific individuals or dates, although most seem to concur that the find took place in late 1969, perhaps in October.
A letter that may shed light on how these objects moved through the hands of various dealers comes from the Morton D. May Archives at the Saint Louis Art Museum. On September 8, 1970, dealer Everett Rassiga wrote to department store magnate May, a regular and reliable customer. Though the letter never explicitly invokes either moniker, Arroyo or Río Pesquero, or the names of other nearby locales like Las Choapas, Rassiga describes a “recent major find of Olmec material in south Veracruz,” and says that “pieces from this group have come into this country only through Jax, Stendahl, Merrin, and myself.” Alphonse Jax (whose name consistently appears in the provenance records of museums and collectors across the United States and Europe), Alfred Stendahl (son of Earl Stendahl, whose Los Angeles gallery was a prime vector for Pre-Columbian objects in the postwar period), and Edward Merrin (whose New York gallery on Fifth Avenue promoted and promotes Pre-Columbian art) all played a major role in shaping the tastes of the elites who purchased Pre-Columbian objects from the 1960s onward. Rassiga presented five objects to May with the option to buy them at a steep discount—$50,000, basically half of a total list price of $95,500 (roughly $610,000 today). May passed on the acquisition, so this letter never found its way to an object file. Instead it is deep in his archive, a sign of the collection May could have had, serving as a reminder that all collections depend on the specifics of such offers, declinations, purchases, trades, and the immediate context surrounding each transaction.
Though it is difficult to identify exact matches with the known Río Pesquero corpus, Rassiga’s dimensions and descriptions do allow for some tantalizing possibilities. One of the figures he offered to May was a “Jade figure with headdress and incised design on body (the very best of this type), 6 1/2˝ high, $14,000.” As far as I am aware, the only published figure with a headdress and incised designs that approximates this object in size is a seated figure now at Dumbarton Oaks, which purchased it from Alphonse Jax. Given the incomplete nature of our knowledge about the set, it is impossible to say with certainty that they are the same object, especially since records at Dumbarton Oaks suggest it was acquired at some point in September 1970. But if they are one and the same, that would suggest that there was a degree of market cooperation among dealers, and that Rassiga, shortly after failing to sell it to May, may have sold the Río Pesquero figurine to Jax, who in turn sold it to Dumbarton Oaks.
It may not seem like much. But how much of the cultural patina surrounding this object comes from its placement at Dumbarton Oaks, the jewel in the crown of Pre-Columbian collections? This kind of detail is ultimately necessary so that we can assess the historical records of individual objects and their role in our understanding of ancient cultures and their aesthetic expressions, and, when necessary, discuss the possibility of repatriation. On a personal level, I do not think that every object lacking archaeological context has to go back to the place where it was found (or, more likely, the national institution responsible for such objects). But it is also important to recognize that not everything has to stay where it is, either. These kinds of objects have always moved across landscapes, whether as raw materials or as finished works. The key thing is understanding and documenting the degree of transparency with which those movements took place.
One consideration that colors my position is that we all have plenty of material to work with. Sometimes when I walk into a museum storage facility or an archaeological bodega, I am overwhelmed with combined fatigue and excitement. What unseen treasures are in those boxes lined up on the shelves, and what resources do we need to adequately document and house these collections? The sheer scale of a large collection, and the quantity and quality of work that goes into maintaining it, sometimes makes me think that museums should just stop acquiring objects, that archaeologists should just stop digging, and that we should all just focus on documenting what we already have.
But what would we do then? On the one hand it’s frustrating not to have a certain level of coordination of activities and research across institutions and disciplines, but on the other hand, none of us got into these professions because we enjoyed being told what to study. That liberty and freedom to inquire is a hallmark of the humanities. And museum collections, despite our pretending that they can be ordered and made comprehensive, are situated as much in the nexus of the chaos and energy of cultural production as they are representative of rigidly controlled hierarchies of aesthetics and taste.
That said, there is a lot we could do to counter the trajectories brought on by the vagaries of collection habits, to say nothing of the more deeply embedded sample biases. What we know of what we have is only a fraction of a fraction of what once was. Broad assessments of synthetic groupings of object types and basic iconographic and visual analyses would allow us to establish more accurate inventories and compare the decontextualized objects that populate most museum collections with those that come from sanctioned excavations. This, in turn, would allow us to determine if the objects we value correlate in any meaningful way to the objects the ancients valued. Analytic conservation techniques may provide clues and evidence not only to manufacturing details, but also to potential points of origin on the landscape, allowing us to recover some kinds of context. These studies need to be integrated, as no one technique is infallible. And this isn’t just about settling scores over what is authentic and what is not in museum collections. It is about coming to an honest assessment of what we have, and how we came to have it.
The future to answering these and many other questions lies in close collaboration: with other curators, whose institutions hold the archives documenting how objects changed hands; with conservators, whose technical analyses can provide invaluable insights into production and facture; with archaeologists, who provide the contextual data for objects similar to those in our collections; and with our counterparts in all these categories in the countries where these objects came from. Museums need to start thinking of archaeologists with active field projects as potential partners, in the same way that they have treated institutions in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru as partners for large-scale exhibitions. These are relationships that require stewardship similar to the efforts that most museums already devote to courting private collectors and donors.
To my mind, the most significant example of this kind of collaboration remains that started by the de Young Museum in San Francisco after it received the collector Harald Wagner’s art bequest, which famously included a large quantity of murals looted from Teotihuacan in the mid-1960s. Kathleen Berrin and her colleagues established a working relationship with counterparts at Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), eventually reaching an agreement to return a good portion of the murals to the Museo Nacional de Antropología.6 That agreement formed a foundation of goodwill that led to a series of exhibitions on cultures of ancient Mexico—Teotihuacan, the Maya, and the Olmec—as well as reciprocal exhibitions of de Young collections in Mexico.
This relationship was very much what I had in mind when I worked with Juan Carlos Melendez and Daniel Aquino, respectively the former and current director at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología e Etnología (MUNAE) in Guatemala, to negotiate the return of the Maya monument known as Naranjo Stela 8. The stela had been on loan to the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM) from the Republic of Guatemala for nearly thirty years. Morton D. May purchased it from Rassiga in 1966, and put it on sale at the May Company store at Wilshire and Fairfax in Los Angeles.7 With a $50,000 price tag—about $400,000 in today’s dollars—the stela did not sell, so May placed it on loan to SLAM. He returned title of the object to Guatemala about ten years later. Working under the aegis of the 2010 exhibition Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, which was organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, Juan Carlos and I discussed how we might return the stela to its home country.8 We developed an agreement whereby MUNAE and SLAM would jointly conserve the monument, which would then be exhibited in Saint Louis before going back to MUNAE. This was accomplished in 2015. Another example that provided us with a model was that developed by Michelle Rich of the El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project, whereby the project, the Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (which houses a stela looted in the late 1960s from El Perú in its permanent collection), worked to conserve a magnificent set of figurines from El Perú-Waka’ Burial 39.9 These kinds of collaborations can lead to either shared exhibitions, an increase in professional capacity, or both. In all cases it is important to remember that they take many years and require persistence and a great many resources, financial and otherwise, even when there are good intentions on both sides.
How do university museums fit into all this? What makes the opportunities different? It is very clear to me that being part of a research university with global ambitions does make a difference. The scope of exhibitions need be no less international and aspirational than those created by larger municipal museums (though such projects may well be less frequent). University museums can also experiment a bit more readily. Objects from these pasts and these places connect with the everyday world all across the hemisphere, and smaller institutions have a chance to focus on more intimate experiences. There is great potential for combining them with contemporary works to comment on the institutional forces that have shaped archaeology’s role in defining the nation-states of the Americas, and to articulate the stakes of our disciplines to a broader public.
I am perhaps more sanguine than some of my colleagues about the state of the field, even as I have only anecdotes and impressions to counter the reams of data that document the perils our disciplines and our institutions face. Even as museums are in a near-constant state of change and grapple with demographic shifts and concomitant declines in funding, they continue to have a voracious need for exhibitions and programming—and this is content we can provide. If our discipline is going to survive in the realms of both the museum and the academy, we are going to have to get creative about activating audiences and constituencies in new and more inclusive ways. One crucial gesture in this regard will be for art history and anthropology to acknowledge a more unified connection between the ancient pasts of the entire Western hemisphere and the contemporary situations of its Indigenous peoples.
University museums have immediate expertise readily at hand to explore these approaches in the form of colleagues who specialize in multiple fields, be they activists, archaeologists, art historians, anthropologists, information specialists, or lawyers. And we also have access to students. As devoted as we all are to the importance of graduate education, we should not forget or neglect the broader impact and reach that education about the Pre-Columbian past may have. A university museum actively engaged with faculty in multiple disciplines might be the first place an undergraduate or graduate student has the opportunity to learn about the manifold professions that make museums function—directors, administrators, curators, educators, designers, registrars, conservators, and more. Increasingly, a seven- to ten-year path to a doctorate may seem financially untenable, perhaps even foolish, to some. But a four-year degree followed by professional experience in one of these other areas can be an effective path for many. This is not to say it’s any easier to find a job. It’s not. But the discipline of art history could do more to actively prepare students to work in museums, perhaps reclaiming some of the ground ceded to museum studies. In this light, it is my hope that we can build on the relationships and networks already in place to further research projects that serve the needs of the Fowler in understanding its own collection, UCLA faculty and students with whom our interests overlap, our colleagues at other institutions in other countries, as well as the broader disciplines we all represent.