West News Wire: Small, antiquated sculptures that have been collecting dust in a storage container in Albuquerque are making their way back to Mexico, where they form a vital part of Indigenous communities’ identities.
In a ceremony on Wednesday, the Albuquerque Museum Foundation will commemorate the return of the twelve sculptures. Olmec greenstone sculptures, a Zacatecas figure, bowls buried alongside tombs, and other ancient clay figurines dating back thousands of years will all be accepted by the local Mexican Consulate.
The event takes place at a time when Native American, Indigenous, and African groups are urging museums, universities, and other institutions to repatriate objects that are significant to their cultures and history.
Foundation President and CEO Andrew Rodgers said returning the sculpture that have sat in storage for 15 years was the right thing to do. Even the foundation’s board agreed. But some outside their organization had a different idea.
“We did encounter a couple people who suggested ‘Oh you should just sell these. ‘They may not be worth a ton so just keep them’ or ‘Mexico doesn’t really care about this kind of stuff,'” Rodgers said.
Mexico, however, very much cares.
“We appreciate and recognize actions taken by the Albuquerque Museum Foundation to voluntarily return these archaeological pieces back to the Mexican nation,” Consul of Mexico Norma Ang Sánchez said in a statement. “They are important elements of memory and identity for our native communities, and we are pleased they will be recovered.”
The effort to research the artifacts’ origins began over five months ago when they were discovered sitting in a box in storage. Rodgers’ assistant obtained the original appraisal form from when a donor gifted them in 2007.
“Immediately alarm bells started going off in our heads” when they saw the label “pre-Columbian,” Rodgers said.
Playing internet detective, Rodgers found the original dealer. A New York woman in her 90s still had the original notecards from the items’ sale to the donors in 1985. She said they either were purchased on a roadside in Mexico or from dealers in New England.
“I don’t think anybody had mal intent. I just think there was not much clarity or much transparency in that sort of a practice 30, 40, 50 years ago,” Rodgers said.
Museum archaeologists at the University of New Mexico and Emory University in Atlanta authenticated the objects before talking with the local Mexican consulate. The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, which will end up with the figures, believes they were made in western Mexico between 300 and 600 B.C.
There has always been a desire to reclaim pre-Hispanic culture and artwork, according to Tessa Solomon, a reporter for the online publication ART news who has covered dozens of stories on the topic.
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president of Mexico in 2018, his administration made retrieving artifacts a priority. Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero has tried to stop sales of cultural items at auction. The efforts spawned a social media movement called #MyHeritageIsNotForSale. It’s estimated more than 5,500 archaeological objects from Mexico have been recovered in the last few years.
“(Mexican officials) definitely have the most concerted effort to stop auction sales of these pieces,” Solomon said. Placing these objects in a European or American gallery or museum is “creating these gaps in the art history of these places that is difficult to fill. It shouldn’t be up to other countries to create these histories.”
The racial reckoning that started in the U.S. in 2020 likely increased the number of calls for reclaiming antiquities and artwork. In April, the Smithsonian enacted an “ethical returns policy” that requires a look at how an object came into the institution’s possession.
Museums and other art venues must face they are in an age where they will be judged by their actions, not just their artwork.
“The public is sort of expecting more from these institutions,” Gover said. “This is part of maintaining that trust, being able to say we came into possession of this object in an ethical way, in a fair way.”
Rodgers, of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation, is taking the ordeal as a key learning opportunity.