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An Open and Shut Case
Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology
by Melissa Biggs


This article was written for a presentation made at the 1999 American Ethnohistory Society Meeting. Renovation of the National Museum of Anthropology has been ongoing and some of the galleries described below have changed.

MEXICO CITY -- Follow me across Paseo de la Reforma, passing the vendors peddling mango on a stick, potato chips drizzled with salsa picante, your name engraved on a grain of rice.

Walk past the man in the broad-brimmed hat offering you an Aztec calendar stone -- "For you, a good price ... cheap." Glance over your shoulder at the Flying Men of Papantla, slowly spinning headfirst to the ground every 20 minutes.

Politely decline the offer to have your photograph taken in front of the carved sign announcing your arrival at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexican flag rippling above.


Allow the guards to inspect your bag, and enter the soaring foyer of the Museum.

Along with neatly dressed groups of schoolchildren, restless teenagers on foreign exhange trips, and countless other tourists and visitors, turn to read the inscription carved on the portico:

"In the grandeur of their past, peoples find valor and confidence toward the future. Mexican, contemplate yourself in the mirror of this grandeur. Share here, foreigner, in the unity of human destiny. Civilizations pass away, but the glory of the knowledge that other men struggled to erect them remains with man forever."

Nationalist discourse, Richard Handler reminds us, transforms tradition and culture into bounded "objects to be scrutinized, identified, revitalized, and consumed" (1988). National museums provide a physical manifestation of this phenomenon.

In this paper, I explore some of the display practices in play at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I offer a detailed account of the Museum's initial hall, titled "What is anthropology," and a discussion of the renovotions to two of the six ethnology halls, as well as the construction of a new hall intended to introduce the ethnographic consideration of native Mexicans. I consider official representations sanctioned by the Museum and performances and displays that occur on the margins of the Museum grounds.

Rather than a completed project, I present to you some preliminary explorations and initial efforts to braid together several strands of inquiry into the relationship between museum practice and the construction of a state-supported version of Mexicanhood -- mexicanidad -- that relegates indigenous experience to a glorified past and a present lived either as assimilated members of the Mexican state or in "zones of refuge" far from the contaminating reach of modernity.


In his book Hybrid Cultures, Nestor Garcia Canclini identifies two strategies employed by Mexican national museums to, in his words, "consecrate the national cultures" in this epoch of radical crisis for nationalisms" (1989, 162). The first strategy renders the national patrimony an aesthetic object to be contemplated. The second requires that national culture be the subject of historical and anthropological ritualization.

Garcia Canclini claims that the Museum of Anthropology exemplifies this second strategy. According to his analysis, the Museum's strategy succeeds because its designers succeed in combining two modes of reading the nation, the scientific and the politically nationalist. I agree that this is the case, but would add that the Museum also successfully employs techniques of display that make of the objects and peoples depicted aesthetic artifacts.

Your guidebook tells you that the current Museum of Anthropology is the descendant of the National Museum, founded shortly in 1825 after the declaration of Mexican independence.

The original National Museum underwent several permutations and splits to become the National Museum of Anthropology in 1940. In 1964, the collections of the Museum of Anthropology moved to their present home in Chapultepec Park.

The Museum architect and designers intended "to offer a scientifically exact presentation, that was at the same time so visually attractive that a visit to the Museum would be considered a true spectacle" (Ramirez Vazquez, 1968). The resulting complex is 45,000 square meters, encompassing 25 galleries, workshops, laboratories, research facilities, a library and archives, a theater, a cafeteria, and two gift shops, not to mention the backup generators over which one description enthuses (Newsweek, 1970).

After paying your admission, you enter the central patio of the Museum. Cascades of water fall from the immense umbrella shaped fountain near the entry. Directly in front of you is a narrow reflecting pool, surrounded by reeds and presided over by an enormous stone carving of a conch shell. As your gaze lifts from the conch, you see the ramped entryway leading to the central gallery of the ground floor archaeology exhibits: the great hall of the Mexica.

For today's tour, however, you will resist the temptation to stride across the patio and up the ramp. Instead, you will veer right across the open patio, towards the hall titled "Introduction to Anthropology." We will linger here, as I believe that the exhibitions in this hall provide the frame for the presentation of objects and peoples that follow. As with all of the halls on the ground floor, a carved quotation adorns the doorframe. The quote here is from the Canto de Heuextingo: "Is this the only way for me to go? Like the flowers that perish? Will nothing remain of my name? Nothing of my fame here on the earth? At least flowers, at least cantos!"


As your eyes adjust from the brightness of the patio to the dimness of the interior, you will encounter a mural. It purports to depict women of all the races, as well as man's technological progress, thus bringing together the arenas of inquiry identified as comprising anthropology by the raised text that precedes the exhibition cases: "the biology of man, his characteristics, and his struggle to dominate Nature." But I'm not ready to leave the mural yet. It brings to mind James Boone's observation that "the nature of museum-going enmeshes the seemingly serious and the apparently voyeuresque"(1991).

Each figure emblemizes particular phenotypical characteristics, while also suggesting particular relationships to the "natural." The pale blonde on the left turns her back to us, leaving her nude body unexposed, while the women of color all face forward. If the mural intends to demonstrate human diversity and comment on human mastery of the environment, it also provides a clear statement of whose bodies are available for display in this science of man. Your appreciation of the mural complete, the exhibits guide you through an introduction to the classic four fields of anthropology: physical anthropology, archaeology, ethnology, and linguistic anthropology. For the purposes of this paper, we will leave aside archaeology and linguistics to concentrate on physical anthropology and ethnology. The exhibit opens with a section describing "General aspects of evolution." Boone's sense of prurient peering again pertains.

Under the subheading "What do bones tell us," you receive a lesson in how forensic sciencists determine the age and sex of remains, as well as illustrated explanations of various practices intended to alter the human skeleton, including "dental mutilation" and "cranial deformation." After touching on demographics, the wall texts slide into a discussion of "biotypology." The text defines "biotypology" as "the study of corporeal structure and its relation to individual conduct." You learn that the ancient Greeks established a relation of sorts between physical form and intellectual and other behavioral tendencies. Today's knowledge of biotypes, the text informs you, "allows us to relate body type to predispositions or tendencies toward certain physical or mental diseases." Miniatures depicting the three basic body types -- endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph -- punctuate the information.

The text then makes a shift that Garcia Canclini describes as part of the representational strategy of the Museum, from the scientifically general to the nationally particular. This set of texts introduces the "mancha mongolica," the Mongolian stain. According to the text, the "mongolian stain" is a marking that appears around the small of the back sometime around the fifth month of fetal development on babies of Asian and South American descent, and disappears around age four.

A wall map illustrates the prevalence of the Mongolian stain. The stain is hereditary, the text tells you, and considered original to Asiatic populations; its appearance in other human groups reveals "the mixing ("mestijaze") that exists on all continents." As further proof of intercontinental mixing, the text offers "the Mongolian eye." A helpful map compares the parts of the world in which the "Mongolian" and the "European" eye prevail.

Having introduced the notion of human variation, the exhibit provides you with a series of photographs depicting various somatic characteristics. Here the text confronts you with the aforementioned struggle between Culture and Nature. Although, thanks to culture, we largely dominate our environments, our individual bodies, "like those of any species of animal," adapt and integrate to our particular surroundings. A series of drawings clarify the relationship: first, you see a group of heavily dressed European figures observing lightly dressed 'natives' of an indeterminate region; then a sweltering European standing next to an African figure who appears quite comfortable; then a chilly African next to a smiling European.

These drawings lead immediately into an exhibit that directly evokes -- unintentionally, I presume -- the Barnumesque. Without any apparent segue, the text announces "Staetopygia." A miniature of a naked African woman with enormous buttocks rests on a shelf that protrudes from the wall. "Staetopygia is the accumulation of fat deposits in the gluteal region. It manifests itself most of all in women of certain African groups. This characteristic is represented in sculptures dating from the Later Paleolithic. Today we find it predominantly among the Hottentots and the Bushmen."

Your introduction to physical anthropology concludes with a case titled "Blood." Next to drawings representing five continents -- the Americas rendered as one and Antarctica missing -- and a vial holding a drop of blood, the text informs you that "We can now see that human groups across time differentiate themselves in accordance with genetic and environmental factors. This is how the races are constituted and disappear." However, the text admonishes, the concept of race is dynamics There is neither racial superiority nor inferiority, simply differentiations "of populations always in a process of change."

You speed through the section describing archaeology, barely glancing at the case titled "How an Archeologist Works." You rush past a chart depicting the chronology of four major culture groups -- Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, dioramas highlighting life in the Early and the Paleolithic, cases of Neolithic artifacts, all beneath huge reproductions of illustrations that appear to be from Stevens' Travels in Yucatan, or a similar work. A partially enclosed central rotunda, designed to resemble a cave with Stone Age paintings decorating the top, contains the linguistics exhibits. Around its circumference, there are a series of free-standing exhibit cases.

You stop a moment to appreciate the recreation of a burial site. You glimpse the Egyptian sarcaphogus directly ahead of you, the glassed-in mandala to your right. You come to a halt in front of a carved figure. Unmarked, it divides the last of the archaeology cases from the section titled "Ethnology."

From plaques you learn that the science of ethnology consists of fieldwork and ethnography. Before beginning an inquiry into a community, the ethnologist carries out a thorough preliminary investigation, which includes among other things, reading the existent bibliography and selecting adequate informants. Only then can field research, to be carried out "applying all of the modern techniques of social science investigation," begin. With the data collected during fieldwork, the ethnologist produces an ethnography. The ethnography collates all of the data into an integrated cultural whole.

The task of the ethnologist is then to compare the social institutions characteristic of one society with the social institutions of other societies; to compare its historical antecedents with history in general; to place the society studied in the appropriate level of technological development, and from this to derive the social and cultural laws that underlie human interaction. In other words, to move from the particular to the general, both in a national context -- from the particulars of Mayan culture, to the general category of Mexican heritage -- and in a more universal "human" context. Cases hanging on the wall hold samples of tools and material culture objects from a variety of places, all neatly labeled.


Rounding the corner, you encounter a quote from Claude Levi-Strauss: "Ethnography tells us that ideas of the supernatural are universal and that man has two attitudes towards his dealings with unknown forces: magic and religion." A narrow case displays various ritual objects, kachina dolls, amulets, prayer sticks. To your left, a curving waist-level case serves simultaneously as room divider and repository of a collection of photos and artifacts titled "Eskimo Life." A carved mask -- Melanasian? -- adorns one wall. There are also cases containing a bolt of cloth, feather headdresses, belts and rattles, there are artifacts from the Masai, the Kwakiutl, the Cameroon, some identified only as African, some not identified at all.

Oddly, you reencounter the Levi-Strauss quote, this time printed on a card mounted in one of the cases. The section closes with a wall length case that catalogues the "Conclusions of the Study of Culture." The "conclusions" cover six areas: housing, weaponry, education, food, toys, and adornment. Enlarged black and white photographs and items appropriate to each "conclusion" fill the case. The overall effect is, as Garcia Canclini notes, exhausting, if not exhaustive.

I detail these introductory exhibits so completely because their representational modes prefigure strategies employed in other Museum galleries: the invitation to contemplate, to measure, to compare, to align yourself with the viewer rather than the viewed, the investigator, not the investigated. The exhibits promise you that through viewing parts -- a single bone, a drop of blood, a ritual object -- you can understand the whole. The variations in scale you experience as a Museum visitor: the miniature models, the dioramas, the life-sized displays such as the tomb, the huge decorative panels, the vast physical space of the building itself, produce an effect at once disorienting and exhilarating. Susan Stewart writes "aesthetic size cannot be divorced from social function and social values" (1984).


The shifting spatial dynamics you experience allow you to be both the giant and the miniature, the container and the contained.

This tactic of "monumentalization," to borrow a term from Garcia Canclini, is one of the mechanisms through which the state establishes a notion of unified national culture. By providing you with collections of miniatures, with diagrams, maps and displays that you can comprehend in a glance, the Museum assures you that you do indeed grasp the complexity of what is Mexico, that in fact there is a Mexico to be grasped; the sheer physical size of the building convinces you that the Museum actually encompasses that reality. Performances not confined to galleries, such as that by the musical group Tribu, who play music of their own composition on pre-Colombian instruments in the Museum's plaza as part of the "Museum Live" program, and the Voladores de Papantla, who perform outside the Museum's walls, but at the Museum's behest, contribute to the appearance of a seamless continuum between the history related by the Museum's displays and events that really happened, people who really exist. You can find pipes in the display cases just like those played by the musician; the volador twirling outside dresses identically to the mannequin in the gallery.

In a museum dedicated to establishing an explicit relationship between the modern nation-state and a glorious indigenous past, between a citizenry identified as "Mexican" and peoples called Huichol, Tzotzil, Pame, these techniques collapse difference, blur power relationships, and "replace history with classification, with order beyond the realm of temporality" (Stewart).

This lack of temporality imbues the ethnological galleries housed on the Museum's second floor . Perhaps the emptiness of the galleries contributes to the sense that they remain untouched by time, hovering in the ethnographic present, as it were.

If you are like most visitors to the Museum, you will never see them. However, the Museum staff would like to change that. As part of the 24 million dollar renovation to the Museum, the ethnological team will overhaul two of the galleries, those housing the Otomi and Cora-Huichol exhibits, and create a new gallery, titled "Hall of the Indian People." The curators intend the new gallery to provide the general background information necessary to understanding the specific exhibits that follow. According to the lead designer, the guiding motif of the gallery is that of living cultures confronting the larger world. "We want to talk about cultural change, why certain characteristics develop." It serves as the ethnological counterpart to the introductory gallery we visited on first arriving.


The gallery opens with an exhibit depicting the "moment of cowith Europe, and the destruction of indigenous life as it was. Samples of ceramics created during the initial encounter years demonstrate how quickly cultures adapt to new techniques and styles.

Maps depicting indigenous population density before and after the European invasion provide demographic proof of the shattered indigenous world. An interactive kiosk then introduces you to indigenous languages.

By pushing buttons, you can hear sample phrases in any of the extant indigenous languages. A chart or map will identify languages that no longer exist, though the designers hope to find some spoken samples of extinct languages in the ethnological recordings collection of the Museum's archives. The language kiosk will be followed by a display titled "Phenotype." Photos of six physically distinct ethnic groups precede a textual explanation of mestizaje, the mixing that leads to the "typical Mexican" of today.

Next, the curators present the notion of relationship between environment and cultural production. Through the juxtaposition of photos,"cultural facts," and actual material objects the exhibit argues that all peoples adapt to and make use of their natural resources as efficiently as possible.

A glass case will then present the concept of "zones of refuge," places far from urban centers and outside influences in which indigenous practices flourish unadulterated. More cases follow: religious practices, life processes, agriculture, festival, everyday life. "Downstairs" meaning -- in the archaeology exhibits -- "everything is from the elites. We want to show pieces that are used every day."

A mural sized map delineating the cultural areas of Mexico closes the gallery. You can choose to learn more about each area by consulting the hand held information cards that accompany the map.The gallery is designed to be general, as you will learn specifics from visiting the other ethnology galleries.

I ask the designer whether the new exhibits will include any information about Indians living in urban areas. "Look," he tells me, "we all know Indians wear tenis, drive busses, whatever. What we want here is the essence, the pure indio." I nod. "What about the Zapatistas?" "We don't want to do anything too topical, too political. I mean, these exhibits have to last a long time, right?"


Look up as you leave the Museum. The Voladores are performing again, spinning in slow circles towards the ground. A group of danzantes has gathered at the steps.

Dressed in their own version of Aztec finery -- sequined breastplates for men, feathers and fringe for women -- or simply wearing street clothes and a red band tied around their foreheads, they whirl and stomp to the beat of several large drums. Clouds of copal rise from their incense burners.

At the edge of the small crowd that the dancers attract, a gaunt woman dressed in Mayan traje extends her palm. A blue-jeaned adolescent hands out pamphlets in support of the striking Autonomous University students. The pamphlets claim the support of the Zapatista Army.

"As the gigantic splits into the official parade and the unsanctioned festival," observes Susan Stewart, "between central and local, sacred and secular respectively, it works to contribute to the creation of new public spaces necessary to class society: the spaces of reproduction and production within which those classes define themselves by means of an exaggeration of boundaries."

At a museum that asserts that Mexican national culture has "its wellspring and crux" in what is Indian (Garcia Canclini), the official parade passes through the unsanctioned festival.


Melissa Biggs is an anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached via email





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