Sunday, August 21, 2011

Where the Plunder Came to Rest: Museum of America

Museum of America

The Museum of America / Museo de America
08/21/11 - Avenida Reyes Cat
ólicos, 6
The Central and South American loot gathered by Spanish explorers and conquerors, from pre-Columbian to Colonial eras, is beautifully presented.  With one exception: it was difficult to see items clearly through the wavy glass panes of the reconstructed eighteenth-century “Cabinet of Natural History”—a case of historical accuracy gone too far?  I liked the headgear in this cabinet of wonders, but I wish it had been labeled.  The intricately-woven skull caps with jutting visors may have been Incan, but my only frame of reference hearkens back to Hergé’s illustrations in the Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun

For some reason the majority of artifacts in the collection came from Peru—including ceramic vases in charming shapes: a Guanábana fruit, a potato, a cocoa pod, two sweet guinea pigs that reminded me with a twinge of the pet we gave away before we moved, and a perfectly Disneyesque ray fish (Un pez de raya, Cultura Mochica, 700 B.C.E.-100 C.E.).  The Peruvians were master ceramicists, I must conclude. 

Aside from a Hawaiian chief’s cape of woven feathers from the eighteenth century, Cheyenne moccasins, Eskimo boots, and a few Northwest Indian carvings, I saw little to represent North America in the collection. Looking through the brochure later, I noticed a photo of a reconstructed Teepee. It’s possible that a portion of the exhibit was closed or that I missed a room.  I don’t mind; fine Northern American Indian artifacts can be found in many U.S. museums.

One whole room is filled with The Treasure of Quimbayas (El Tesoro de los Quimbayas, 1000-5000 B.C.E.), pre-hispanic gold ceremonial and ornamental objects dug up in Colombia in 1890.  In 1893, the President of Colombia presented most of the pieces to the Regent Queen Maria Cristina of Habsburg to thank her for helping in a border conflict with Venezuela.  A quick web search reveals that groups in Colombia have attempted to repatriate the treasure since at least 2002. 

I should also mention the Mayan Codex and related items, as well as the paintings covering a range of subjects.  Most interesting was a series of eighteenth-century paintings that attempted to describe various racial combinations in colonial society (“Escenos de Mestizaje”).  The racial definitions, based on family lines and origins, dictated a person’s relative power in society. 

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