Matters of State, Matters of Dispute: Collecting and Display in 19th- and 20th-Century Mexico

AHA Session 284
Conference on Latin American History 62
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Maryland Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Susan Deans-Smith, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

Matters of State, Matters of Dispute: Collecting and Display in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Mexico

This panel brings together studies on material culture, specifically on relics, ruins, indigenous and mestizo bodies, bones, and ethnographic and natural history specimens, in nineteenth and twentieth century Mexico. Though they might appear to form a rather heterogeneous assemblage of things, these objects shared a common space in Mexico’s National Museum at different moments in the Museum’s history. Moreover, they were all objects associated with the consolidation of scientific disciplines (archaeology, ethnography, anthropometrics, statistics, pathology) and with the formation of categories of the past, race, and ethnicity. They have also figured prominently in narratives of the modern Mexican state since the end of the nineteenth century and in official narratives of Mexican identity and heritage since the mid-twentieth century. Firmly incorporated in the imaginary of nationhood, they have often been treated as matters of fact and of faith, which obscures the coming into being of these objects, of the Museum that contained them, and of the ways in which they served as sites for enacting social, cultural, racial, intellectual, and scientific policies.

The papers presented here seek to historicize the ownership, collection, study, and display of fours kinds of objects -- antiquities in the early years of the National Museum, indigenous “jammed pelvises” and skulls from the later nineteenth century, animal and plant collections from the early twentieth century, and contemporary ethnographic exhibits – by answering the following set of questions:

  1. What kinds of political, aesthetic, racial, and scientific considerations were at play in the collection and display of objects at the National Museum? Why have some objects stayed in the collection while others have been erased from narratives of nationhood?
  2. What can we learn from the intimate juxtaposition of apparently very divergent objects? What does the display of indigenous bones alongside antiquities teach us about how their meanings and uses were constituted? How is juxtaposition used to create difference and identity?
  3. What kinds of material and intellectual resources were mobilized to study them?
  4. How were different objects and types of objects used for the production of evidence by different disciplines or for the construction of local, national, or imperial narratives?

From different perspectives and disciplines, the participants in this panel make the case for studying objects as the sites for complex entanglements, which destabilize the boundaries between modernity and coloniality, object and subject, nation and community, difference and racism.

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