From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico

From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico

From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico

From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico

Synopsis

From Idols to Antiquity explores the origins and tumultuous development of the National Museum of Mexico and the complicated histories of Mexican antiquities during the first half of the nineteenth century. Following independence from Spain, the National Museum of Mexico was founded in 1825 by presidential decree. Nationhood meant cultural as well as political independence, and the museum was expected to become a repository of national objects whose stories would provide the nation with an identity and teach its people to become citizens.

Miruna Achim reconstructs the early years of the museum as an emerging object shaped by the logic and goals of historical actors who soon found themselves debating the origin of American civilizations, the nature of the American races, and the rightful ownership of antiquities. Achim also brings to life an array of fascinating characters—antiquarians, naturalists, artists, commercial agents, bureaucrats, diplomats, priests, customs officers, local guides, and academics on both sides of the Atlantic—who make visible the rifts and tensions intrinsic to the making of the Mexican nation and its cultural politics in the country’s postcolonial era.

Excerpt

A Cabinet of Curiosities

The National Museum of Mexico was founded in 1825 by presidential decree, participating in the generational tide that brought forth museums in Brazil (1818), Chile (1822), Argentina and Colombia (1823), Peru (1826), and Bolivia (1838). the transition from colony to independent state in these countries—with the exception of Brazil—seems to have been closely followed by plans for a national museum, as though to show that nationhood meant cultural as well as political independence. Implicit in these acts was the expectation that museums would become repositories of national objects—whatever they might be—and somehow forge the kind of stories around these objects that would give meaning to the nation and teach its people to become citizens. in this sense, a museum is a constitutional institution; if the paper constitution bears the burden of defining a nation’s legal framework, the objects of a national museum bear the burden of constituting a nation’s cultural framework. As Lucas Alamán (1792–1853), the powerful minister of internal and external relations who was behind the creation of the National Museum of Mexico, declared before Congress in 1825, the genuineness of Mexico’s independence would be consummated by such institutions of public instruction as a national museum. the state would, in essence, produce its citizens by educating them in what it meant to belong to the nation; they would, in turn, reproduce the state.

Despite the elevated rhetoric with which its foundation was heralded, the reality is that during the first four decades of its existence, the National Museum of Mexico was neglected by the state. the museum did not occupy a space especially built for it but eked out its existence in the very cramped quarters granted to it at the uni-

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