Revisiting the Past

November 1, 2022 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Global Heritage, History, Interpretation Comments (0) 352

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.

A selection of Caesars that never left Libya

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.

Warriors then and now.

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.

The former prison.
Tema: Comunicación
Observa los tapices de dos culturas

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.

So this historic image was reinterpreted by a video artist who reenacted the work of carrying people through the mountains in this manner, only with the racial roles reversed so those of African origin were the ones being carried.

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.

We become what we contain. We form our tools and then our tools form us, be they molcajetes or microchips.

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.

Been there done that. See this blog from 14 years ago.

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.

Pretty much the oldest house in town
Nursing mother from Sinú region and culture
A man with folded arms jug from the Tairona.

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.

Again, the exhibit asks you to insert yourself into the content. On the left, the union of European and the African produces “Mulato” while on the right the union of Indian and European produces “Mestizo”.
The union of the Headbanger (Metalero) and the Disco produces the Emo. Art by Dimo García.
The union of the LGBTQ and the Hipster produces the (Harry) Potterhead. Art by Dimo García.

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.

A colonial era retablo (altarpiece) reinterpreted by a contemporary artist in the Museo Coloniale.

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.

The Viceroy of Nueva Granada 18C
This is a painted version of this guy’s dissertation defense!
Who is worthy of a portrait? What does it signify to have a portrait?
Contemporary art lines the galleries outside the exhibit halls

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.

Even Botero, who has a whole museum himself, got in on this action.
Hagiography and Camouflage/Submission and Seduction

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.

Investigating the attic of our cultural inheritance.

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.

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Museums in Old Buildings

September 11, 2020 Blog, History, Technology, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 725

For the last five years, the Conservation Society had advocated for the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings and their re-use as the new Alamo museum. Without every saying so, the Alamo has favored a new building, partly because they want to reveal where part of the western wall was, which I discussed at length last month here. I ended that blog noting that the Woolworth Building was to be a museum of airplanes a little over 20 years ago.

And why not?

The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe and almost every other museum in San Antonio is in a historic building. Some, like the McNay and the Witte, have new additions, which is what we proposed for the Woolworth and Crockett.

How are world class museums made? Perhaps you recognize some of these.

The Louvre
The Uffizzi, Florence. The name literally describes what the building used to be.
Another world class museum in Paris. In a former train station.

You can throw in the Prado, the Alhambra and the Hermitage as well. Locally, we have….

San Antonio Museum of Art
McNay Museum

The Alamo museum intends to focus its interpretation on the famed 1836 battle. So, their illustrations have lots of cannons, which, while smaller than airplanes, do need a little space.

Like this one they added last year. The carriage color was meant to show the patina after being out in the sun for a couple years. They then displayed it out in the sun.

Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas. In the absence of imagery, perhaps the museum will look like this?

Hmm. What does the outside of this museum look like?

Oh! It’s a historic building! How about this display replete with conquistador astride a horse:

What does this museum look like on the outside?

Kinda looks a lot like the Woolworth Building. Except in both of these cases the column spacing is not as flexible as the Woolworth Building.

Don’t get me started on the City Museum in St. Louis, proof you can do absolutely anything with an historic commercial loft building. It has airplanes and multistory chutes and ladders.

The Alamo is warning that it is do or die time for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. The next hurdle? Texas Historical Commission will decide whether the 1940 Cenotaph can be moved a few hundred feet to the south.

Stay tuned…..

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