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Collecting the Pre-Columbian Past: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks 6th and 7th October 1990.

'He would come into my office, sometimes with a small object in his pocket, sometimes followed by his chauffeur carrying a picnic basket with something heavier'. Thus Mr Bliss, the founder of Dumbarton Oaks and one of the first collectors of pre-Columbiana, would unveil a new acquisition for his collection. Magnum-sized hampers (Fortnum's for preference) might presumably be used for a really big stele. This anecdote appears in ELIZABETH HILL BOONE's (ed.) Collecting the Pre-Columbian past: a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks 6th and 7th October 1990 (vi+359 pages, 111 figures. 1993. Washington (DC): Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection; ISBN 0-88402-208-0 hardback $30). Fourteen substantial papers explore how pre-Columbian artefacts entered into the canons and collections of America and Europe, and how they served to underpin divergent New World identities (nationalistic in Mexico versus Pan-Am/hemispheric in the United States) -- in short how they came to be both valued as 'art' and deployed as ideologically charged objects. The power of pre-Columbiana as a challenge to western aesthetics and a focus for alternative native loyalties is beautifully illustrated by the fate of the statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, excavated in Mexico City in 1790 and reburied twice because (in BOONE's felicitous phrase) it argued with the Greek and Roman plaster casts only recently donated by the Enlightenment monarch Charles III, and in addition because it attracted surreptitious gifts of flowers. Since the 1910 revolution all this has changed, of course, as is well demonstrated by SHELLY ERRINGTON's shrewd analysis of how the architecture of Mexico's Museo Nacional de Antropologia induces a progressivist view of the pre-Columbian past climaxing with the Aztec (and marginalizing the politically fragmented Maya), and further by BARBARA BRAUN's discussion of Diego Rivera's fake-riddled collection and its display in an Aztechnological pyramidiform museum. In the United States the status of Pre-Columbiana was no less complicated. Despite the enthusiasm of Brancusi et al., it could not be convincingly lumped with 'primitive art' by anyone with even a passing grasp of history, and CURTIS M. HINKSEY shows that both rivalry with the Old World and claims of hegemony in the New were implicated in its presentation as the New World Classical. A good paper by DIANA FANE explores how images of Pre-Columbian civilization were projected in North American museum displays and models, whilst MICHAEL D. COE looks at the chain of supply by which the earliest collections were fed (see picture). These papers admittedly have their lacunae. There is comparatively little on Andean material, and the trail goes rapidly cold with the watershed decade of 1960--1970, when the antiquities market changed its tone and the UNESCO laws on cultural patrimony began to be formulated. One wonders, in addition, whether invoking Appadurai's and Kopytoff's concept of 'the social life of things' when talking about objects that were basically plundered is a little faux naif. Nonetheless, for all those interested in the role of the past in the present, and in the concept of museology, this volume is full of absorbing and provocative stuff.


HINKSEY's paper cited above warns that 'the characters of nineteenth- (and twentieth-) century Pre-Columbian studies have been so idiosyncratic that there is understandable temptation ... to lose the cultural jungle for the fascinating trees of personality'. Undoubtedly one of the most redoubtable of such trees was JOHN LLOYD STEPHENS, who in 1839 attempted to initiate his collection of the pre-Columbian past on a grand scale by offering $50 for the site of Copan. Despite his lamentably unsound cultural matrix, the classic account of his journeys and discoveries in Mesoamerica still makes riveting and delightful reading. It is now available in an attractive abridged version highlighting the more archaeological passages of the original and illustrated with new and archive photgraphs, as well as drawings by his travelling companion Catherwood (JOHN LLOYD STEPHENS. Incidents of travel in Central America. Chiapas, and Yucatan. New edition edited by KARL ACKERMAN. xvi+270 pages, 87 illustrations. 1993. Washington (DC) & London: Smithsonian Institution Press; ISBN 1-56098-210-1 paperback $11.95). STEPHENS' travelogue betrays a fine sense of the comic, and the recent vindication of his opinion that the Maya glyphs recorded the deeds of kings, an uncannily inspired but subsequently long-unfashionable guess prompted by analogy with Levantine inscriptions, would certainly have amused him. Where you start from determines what you see, and the later abandonment of the idea of the Maya as a New World version of the Old World's ancient civilizations, in favour of the view that they were deeply Other from all Old World experience, must have played a part in creating the paradigm shift that stereotyped the Maya so long and wrongly as unworldly moongazers. By contrast Catherwood, hired to reproduce this Other on paper, found his Old World training in Classical and Egyptian art more of a hindrance than a help when trying to render the deeply cut designs and unfamiliar idioms of Maya carvings in the deep gloom of the rainforest.
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Author:Broodbank, Cyprian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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