Revisiting the Past
While in Bogotá I saw a news article about the Smithsonian Institute returning looted artifacts to Benin in West Africa, part of a growing trend to repatriate historic arts and crafts to the regions they were crafted in. This was of great interest to my students at Ean University, who asked me point blank what I thought about the repatriation of historic artifacts in museums. I said repatriate them. In a world of digital reproduction, museums can easily go back to the plaster casts from whence they came. Location is a key aspect of authenticity.
This reminded me of James Cuno’s book of a little over a decade ago, perhaps the last piece defending the ideal of the encyclopedic museum by arguing that antiquities belong to everyone, not a particular contemporary nation state. Cuno left the Getty this year and now I see that the Getty is hosting a symposium on “The Multiple Reinventions of the Americas in Context,” a critical look at how the “New World” has been conceived and reconceived over the last 500 years. Turns out, I could see much of that reinvention right in Bogotá.
Bogotá has some wonderful historic museums, but what really struck me was their interpretation, which is state of the art. My first visit was to the Museo Nacional, in a former panopticon prison. They have undertaken a reimagining of the museum by abandoning traditional chronology for juxtaposition, putting pre-Columbian artifacts next to telephones under the theme of communication, for example. Objects come alive as you see them simultaneously from the perspective of the colonizer, the colonized, the curator and the curious.
Colombia is a vast and diverse country in both people and geography. Like the U.S. it has Atlantic and Pacific coasts, a wide range of natural and mineral resources, a variety of indigenous groups, a history of African enslavement and a surprisingly long commitment to democracy. All of these themes were explored in the museum, with some clever interpolations by contemporary artists.
There was an exhibit on the history of the building, described as a 19C panopticon prison, and while it was not a true circular panopticon, the suggestion of Foucault and French structuralism was reinforced by the tiny gold exhibit in a literal safe across the way, which had this unexpected text on the wall.
Whoa! I have not seen McLuhan quoted in a museum before, but it makes perfect sense. Where is the medium the message more than in a museum? You are even invited to put your own self and your own culture in the museum.
MUSA, the Archaeological museum, was another example of interpretative elán, sited in one of the oldest surviving houses in Bogotá, from 1738. The collection is primarily ceramics from the many indigenous cultures that inhabited the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, the three ranges of Andes Mountains, the Amazon and various other regions.
Interpretive text asked us not to see these ceramics as the work of the Other but as human creations that contained foods and sounds. The text asked us further to empathize with each object, reimagining our relationship to our own foods and dolls and musical instruments. The text on the wall urged us yet further to imagine their uses for ourselves without the intervention of the archaeologist or curator. The text was not printed but projected, because the museum is not eternal but fugitive, an incomplete record of an incomplete conversation. The interpretation did not dictate but prodded us to think openly about what we take from the objects presented and how their makers may have experienced them.
The Colonial Museum has the largest task in a time of decolonization, and in many ways did it best. This one was busy, with a conference going on, a massive contemporary art display on the courtyard galleries, and school groups being led with laughter through the exhibitions. Again, there were deft insertions of contemporary art interpretations, but only a few, and their style deliberately played on historic forms and tropes. The best example took familiar 17C images defining racial categorizations resulting from the mixing of Europeans, Africans and Indigenous and then crafted modern ones playing on modern subcultures in a mirror of the antique style.
The opening exhibit sticks primarily to religious and art objects brought to the Americas from Europe as part of the conversion of the population to Catholicism, although almost immediately they give you the artist reimagining the retablo.
The arrangement produced an understanding of the massive effort it took to transport huge numbers of paintings and sculpture to reinforce European traditions and religion. The journey to Bogotá, administrative center of the complex Muisca people who likely numbered a million, took many months both on sea and land. That is a lot of work for a collection of religious items, many quite bulky. I suppose it was worth it to the Spanish crown if they ultimately succeeded in establishing control.
It often takes only a single contemporary image playing with the forms of the historic image to open them up. Here a couple, followed by an artistic interpretation that again plays with racial reversal to make a point and open an eye, not unlike the work of Kehinde Wiley.
They even linked the tradition of saints and martyrs to contemporary martyrs due to the various insurgent groups and narcotraficantes of the 20C. Again, juxtaposition of the old and new offered a view into parallel worlds of conflict, colony and conversion.
These museums were refreshing and interesting, because you looked at each piece longer and had a stronger sense of its purpose and intent than you would have 20 or 50 years ago when it was just another item that was supposed to be beautiful or persuasive. Contemporaneity and criticality opened up the items in new ways, exposing not simply the contradictions of colonialism, but the contradictions of cultural inheritance. You can return a piece from the museum, enacting social justice. Or you can recontextualize a piece, engendering understandings that will support the ongoing pursuit of that justice.
Disclaimer: The blog of Dr. Vincent L. Michael, Time Tells, is not an official Department of State site. The views expressed here are entirely those of Dr. Michael and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or its partners.