Antiquities: Paper Collections and the Making of Mexico’s Ancient Past
The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new object of study: Mexican antiquities. If the vestiges of ancient Mexico had provoked certain interest as “rarities” and curiosities and as such were sought for by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic ever since the end of the sixteenth century, it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that protocols and visual and verbal codes for their study and display were beginning to be conformed. Paper played an important role in the transformation of Mexican antiquities from curiosities to objects of increasing scientific interest. In comparison with other objects – plants, which could be pressed in herbariums and mineralogical samples, for instance --, antiquities were singular, fragile, delicate, and unwieldy. To study them implied the mobilization of paper “replicas” in the form of drawings, lithographs, photographs, molds, lists, inventories, and descriptions. More than the objects themselves, it was their replicas which, as they circulated between scholars and collectors, museums and scientific societies, fomented debates on the meanings of antiquities; gave relevance to certain objects or classes of objects; helped dismiss specimens and define categories of authenticity; established aesthetic, scientific, moral, racial, and political criteria for describing and representing them; and, finally determined the policies for collecting them. In other words, paper contributed, as Alain Schnapp has suggested, to the transformation of antiquities into the objects of the incipient science of archaeology. This talk follows the paper trails of some of these objects, particularly of antiquities housed in the National Museum of Mexico (founded in 1825), in an attempt to reconstruct the uses of Mexican antiquities in local and transnational contexts, as Mexican and foreign scholars and collectors debated the meaning of Mexico’s ancient past.
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