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.
-- 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.
ACROSS THE THRESHOLD
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
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
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!"
NATURE AND CULTURE
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
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"
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
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.
MAGIC AND RELIGION
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
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
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,
ACROSS THE THRESHOLD
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
"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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