Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 2, 2023
Miruna Achim, Susan Deans-Smith, and Sandra Rozental, eds. Museum Matters: Making and Unmaking Mexico’s National Collections Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2021. 312 pp. Cloth $63.50 (9780816539574)

For visitors to the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, it would be “hard to imagine today a mummy or the glass model of a jellyfish next to the emblematic Piedra del Sol” (4). How stabilizing are the geographical, historical, or cultural ligaments between a disintegrating skeleton, a jellyfish in glass, and the premier iconic, basalt embodiment of Mexico? Compelling viewers to buy into a curatorial proposition in which the display of such disparate objects in proximity to each other did or could make sense is the work of the innovative and provocative collection of ten riveting essays in Museum Matters: Making and Unmaking Mexico’s National Collection. They devise “an experiment” (4) envisaging the historical heterogeneity of Mexico’s national collections and how and why that heterogeneity was even possible.

Organized into “Canons,” “Fragments,” and “Disturbances,” the volume’s essays track the initial coordination of disparate objects from multiple collections into the first iteration of the National Museum of Mexico (MN) in 1825 and the subsequent 1964 dispersal of these objects into multiple museums based on discipline and/or period-based categories, most notably the National Museum of Anthropology (MNA). These are the theoretical and practical touchstones for the essays addressing what it means to aggregate, disaggregate, and even lose or dispose of collections.

The international, interdisciplinary (primarily social science based) researchers attempt to pry open “the museum’s black box” (10). A black box can be an input-output device that resists attempts at penetration for its contents and the illumination of the seemingly benign processes by which the objects—a mummy, a jellyfish, and the Piedra del Sol—became incompatible in the historical context of Mexico’s national collections. Such processes range from the burnishing of imperial or national aesthetics to the devasting annexing of cultural assets from local users to enabling museological practices deflecting viewers from fragmented histories or silencing contemporary troublesome cultural voices.  


Canons emerge with the forging of agreements about what belongs and what does not. Four “Postclassic stone sculptures” (38) were housed in the Real Academia de San Carlos (RASC) around 1794, until their subsequent move to the newly organized National Museum in 1825. Deans-Smith’s essay excavates the intervening period for the touchpoints between classical and Mexican antiquities during which, at least temporarily, an institution indelibly associated with the imperial canon of neoclassicism could accommodate “idols” (39) of a coyote, a coiled rattlesnake, a toad, and a seated male figure. Achim, together with Olmedo Vera, contends with the remarkably complex and controversial collections of forgeries that landed permanently or temporarily in the MN and, later, the MNA. They foreground the complex historical processes by which the authentic began to be defined in the nineteenth century against the canonical dissonance of fakes that should be banished from public display. Cházaro, in her essay, examines the “multiple existences” (81) of human remains and their replicas in nineteenth-century international and national practices of classification, circulation, and display. In Mexican institutions, the application of medical (normal/pathological) or anthropological methodologies fostered the discernment of national, “racialized body objects” (102). Pathologists, for example, identified specifically Mexican pelvic attributes in body fragments, while analysis at the MN characterized skeletal remains in the context of the local Mexican geographies in which they were excavated.  


Fragments are flaked away from broader physical and historical settings. A Maya limestone relief is severed into three pieces in the early nineteenth century, to be gathered and reassembled in the early twentieth century in the MN. Bueno’s essay tracks the path of these fragments and the attendant issues of international trafficking and repatriation of Mexican artifacts, as well as how Mexican federal authority asserts itself over distant objects to display and control them in the institutions—museums—in the capital. In a reverse process, the two hundred-year-old Museum of Natural History (MHN) has had some sixty-four thousand objects; today there are only five fragments, or “remains” (136) as Gorbach, in her contribution, calls them: a diplodocus, a jellyfish, an argonaut, a kiwi, and a platypus. In her accounting of these remains, she analyzes their current display at the MHN. Here they are dispersed as unlabeled, not well-preserved specimens in different galleries and framed in the context of evolution and environment rather than in their previous framework within the colonial construct of natural history in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century display spaces. López Hernández probes the current display of photographic portraits of Mexican ethnic groups in the MNA. She charts the deracination of living people from their own history through the curatorial practice of installing the portraits unlabeled and severed from the archive housing the originals and their documentation. These photos are rendered interchangeable across displays through a process of material annotation whereby the objects around the photos index only the culture highlighted and clearly labeled in the displays. Geographically farther afield, how did an assemblage of objects originally from the South Seas (Pacific Rim) make their way to the National Museum of the Cultures of Mexico (MNCM) in Mexico City? Mondragón’s esssay weaves together how this collection emerged from a favorable set of conditions that included major US and Mexican exhibitions, the brokering of an exchange of Pacific and North American objects from the Field Museum in Chicago for over one thousand pre-Columbian pieces from the MNA, as well as the then-current comparative/diffusionist anthropological studies that could help make sense of putting art from these two cultures inside the frame of Mexican national collections.   


Disturbances disregard the logic of local and curatorial environments. Achim looks at the collection of two large hollow ceramic sculptures during the completion of an 1844 study for the construction of an Isthmus of Tehuantepec canal. Today, in an antiseptic display as “objects under glass” (221) in the MNA, the collection process, not to mention the human lifeways and environment of the site from which the objects were extracted, is nowhere to be seen. Against this, she visualizes an innovative curation of objects that could open a critical field of engagement with the sculptures, for example, to present the invasive survey team’s tools (theodolites) as well as the sophisticated tool inventory of local resource managers (fishing traps). Rufer’s work reckons with the reclassification of a coat of arms more suited to display with similar objects in the MHN to a “feather work handicraft” (244, 246). Positioning this, and other Purépecha objects, in the ethnographic galleries rather than in the MHN forecloses museologically on Purépecha history. Rozental recounts in her essay the path of another sculpture disturbed from its rural environment in the State of Mexico and packed off to the MNA in 1964 to coincide with the museum’s inauguration. The rationale was that the nation-state and urban environment would be a better steward of this enormous, 167-ton ancient stone monolith lying seemingly neglected in a ravine. The local and inexpert community, it was argued, could neither conserve nor appreciate its patrimonial significance.  

If we were to pluck out the images from the book, some illustrated and some to be conjured from tantalizing descriptions, we would find yet other collections and exhibitions arranging themselves today. For example, a zoo, a multispecies assemblage of stone, stuffed glass, feather work, plaster, and paper animals. I was particularly struck by Guillermo Dupaix’s ink and charcoal on paper illustrations to represent the postclassic toad, coyote, and rattlesnake in the RASC (figs. 1.2–1.4). Might swapping out these for photographs of the actual objects serve to enhance the contrast between Mexica works and the RASC’s neoclassical plaster cast collection which is described but not illustrated (47)? Dupaix’s paper toad, captioned as “monstrous” (29) plots a different canonical constellation of teratological and pathological objects, if not also of neoclassicism’s abnormally idealized bodies and fragments.  

This volume is spatially saturated, a complex myriad of buildings and geographies, typically underscoring Mexico City as cultural and cartographic center. We could imagine the centrifugal suction of objects from distant sites to the capital’s museums as well as inter/intrainstitutional movements of things (wow, the possibilities of the digital/AI). By contrast, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec survey map (fig. 8.3) and the description of Miguel Covarrubias’s mural maps (196, 197), set Mexico between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and competing international economic interests. The north-south view of the proposed canal’s extraction corridor and the east-west arrangement of Asia, the Pacific Rim, and the Americas open onto beguiling cartographic research possibilities. 

Among the other valuable contributions of this volume is the rating of replicas, fakes, and other so-called inauthentic objects as indices of bodies of knowledge and practices of exceedingly high skill levels. These have the power to affect the reputation of a museum and destabilize canons. The contemporary legacy of this process is exemplified by the world-famous Obsidian Monkey, sold to the museum by a forensic pathologist, whose authenticity today remains inconclusive (x). Equally important is the recognition of the uncredentialed local, inexpert, or auto-didact. Central to museum matters were the self-trained Covarrubias, the forgers whose skills could compete with the prized work of the Mexica, the artisans creating replicas for sale in the market, as well as amateur societies and private collectors. 

For the volume contributors, Mariana Castillo Deball’s paper cut of Coyolxauhqui on the cover “offers a visual rendition of the book’s objectives” (x). Contrary to the huge, stone monument itself, this version is a quivering phantom, a double image, seemingly compressed out of its regular shape as if by seismic pressure. This Coyolxauqui engages what I sensed as I read Museum Matters: sonic and haptic qualities; the rumble of movements, the crunch of dried organic materials, the shriek of stone dragged across ground. This is the black box turned inside out. 

Stacie G. Widdifield
University of Arizona