Covarrubias and the South Seas collection of the Museo Nacional de las Culturas (Mexico)*

*During the past week I wrote up an extensive email, inviting several colleagues to collaborate in a museum catalogue for an exhibition of Oceanic art and artefacts that is to be held next year in Mexico City. I reproduce here, in enlarged and edited form, my original missive.

Recently, one of the main national museums in Mexico, the Museo Nacional de las Culturas, contacted me in order to assist them in organizing an exhibition of their South Seas collection.

To my astonishment, I discovered that the MNC have a really amazing set of approximately 250 Oceanic artefacts that were brought to Mexico in the 1950s by their then director, Miguel Covarrubias – more famously known in the Anglo-Saxon world for his Island of Bali book).

In effect, Covarrubias is widely known for having been a talented artist and caricaturist, as well as a canny self-promoter of the arts and humanities – and was indeed quite successful at portraying himself as a key member of the 1920s and 30s Mexican avantgarde of intellectuals and artistes to which people like Diego and Frida belonged. He was clearly quite a looker, to boot (thus he could, and often did, strike some pretty impressive, almost over-the-top, poses, such as the one above). In sum, Covarrubias was a fascinating, multilayered kind of proto-bobo (even though his career predated the coinage and popularisation of this term by several decades, it nevertheless conforms to its definition in ways that I find convincing enough to apply to him, a bit tongue-in-cheek). Moreover, for our purposes, he was also a highly informed traveler and admirer of the Asian-Pacific arts, as his Bali book has long confirmed. Hence, he was instrumental in founding the MNC and building up its most important non-Mexican collections.

For this reason the MNC’s Oceanic collection is surprisingly coherent – Covarrubias clearly knew what he was up to, and secured some very valuable objects during the swap that he arranged with the folks in charge of the Australia and Pacific Collections at the Field Museum. The collection itself is made up mostly of Melanesian objects, especially representative of the Solomons, island PNG and the Sepik. These objects were originally collected by Albert B. Lewis (1867-1940) during the 1909-1913 Joseph N. Field South Pacific Expedition, and include a malanggan from New Ireland, a number of amazing headdresses from across island PNG, and a garamut from the Rai coast of PNG, as well as several large shields, headdresses and anthropomorphic artefacts that are clearly meant to represent ancestral (Melanesian) presences. The collection also includes a number of Fijian and Central Polynesian clubs and a few artefacts from South Malakula, Vanuatu, but very few items from Micronesia or Polynesia as a whole.

The Oceanic collection at the MNC has never really been exhibited properly (it is currently housed in a nicely done but rather obscure corner of the 16th century MNC building in downtown Mexico City). This, coupled with the fact that the MNC wanted to organize a major exhibition to mark the 70th anniversary of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH, which is the foremost government research and teaching institution in charge of most of Mexico’s national heritage), means that there are suddenly funds and a great interest in mounting a large exhibition in the second half of 2009, which would be lodged in the International wing of the National Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City.

The basic idea behind this exhibit is to supplement the existing Oceanic collection at the MNC with Polynesian and Micronesian artefacts from other musea, most notably the Field Museum in Chicago.

As for my part in all of this, I have been hired as Research Assistant to the Curator of this exhibit, Dr. Raffaela Cedraschi, who is a permanent curator and researcher at the MNC and has previously organized a major and very successful exhibit involving African artefacts from other of the MNC’s collections. We are now working on a draft paper that will function as our project proposal.

The basic concept is to organize the exhibit in such a way that it highlights all three major traditional regions of Oceania – Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. Australia will not figure in this exhibition. However, we want this to be a dynamic exhibit, which highlights key aspects of Oceanic cultures and cosmologies, and have decided to experiment a little bit with how we conceptualise and present the various exhibits. Thus far, we have thought of dispensing with the traditional Melanesia-Polynesia-Micronesia division and have begun to settle on a five-part scheme which is designed on the basis of five more or less pan-Oceanic concepts, or fundamentals, which are: Moana, Fanua, Mana, Tamate (or tapu) and Kula [these last two are tentative, since they are more geographically-bound terms].

These concepts are intended to allow us to organize the artefacts on the basis of the basic ideas that they evoke, namely, the sea and maritime environment, land and territorial identity, power, ancestry/topogeny/fractality and the supernatural, and exchange/circulation as the basis for creating social value. 

The point is to try to break free of coherent and predetermined socio-geographic boundaries and emphasize the interconnected and dynamic nature of Oceanic societies.

There it is, in a nutshell. Any comments, advice and/or critiques are warmly welcomed.


Rosa y Miguel Covarrubias (photographer unknown)

Rosa & Miguel Covarrubias (photographer unknown)

One Response to “Covarrubias and the South Seas collection of the Museo Nacional de las Culturas (Mexico)*”

  1. Thanks for the info on Covarrubias, one of my favorites. Best wishes for your project.
    San Francisco

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