Archive for November, 2010

Representing the Pacific in Mexico: la Sala del Pacífico del Museo Nacional de las Culturas

Posted in Mesoamerica, Museum-related stuff, Oceania on November 18, 2010 by salul

This post has been some time coming. But better late than never.

Map of linguistic diversity across the Pacific.

On Wednesday 6th October 2010, I and my fellow curator Oscar Aguirre Mandujano took part in the long-delayed opening of the new Hall of the Pacific (or Pacific Hall; Sala del Pacífico) at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas (MNC) in downtown Mexico City.

The hall in question consists of a permanent exhibit whose main purpose is to bring together key objects from the museum’s Asian, Oceanic and American collections in an attempt to represent the cultural diversity of the Pacific Rim and Islands for a local Spanish-speaking public.

Given that many of the objects in these collections – especially those belonging to First Nations (NW Pacific Coast) peoples, Javanese and Pacific Islands’ societies – were originally brought to the MNC under the supervision of Miguel Covarrubias (from the 1930s to the 1950s), the authorities at INAH asked us to try to incorporate Covarrubias’s vision of Pacific peoples and material culture within the overall concept of the Pacific Hall.

Mounting the exhibit

Hence, as curators we were confronted with the rapid design of a Pacific Hall which attempts to represent various things at once, not all of them mutually compatible or easily juxtaposed. (The entire project was designed, from scratch, in under six months, given that it was typically thrown together at the last minute by INAH; once again proving that their timeframes are rarely conducive to the proper execution of a major exhibition space such as this one…o tempora, o mores).

  • First, it is intended to be the principal museum space dedicated to the representation of the Pacific (understood in its widest sense, i.e., the Pacific Rim and Islands) in Mexico. The fact that it is housed at the MNC serves to remind the public that said museum is the single most important repository for the arts of Asia and the Pacific in Mexico.
  • Second, following the express, and not entirely coherent, desire of the current INAH authorities, it attempts to evoke the vision of the Pacific that Covarrubias developed during the 1930s and 1940s. This vision, as far as we have been able to discern, was inspired on at least three sources: first, a vague sort of cultural diffusionism regarding the purported ancestral and aesthetic unity of the cultures of the Pacific Rim and Islands; second, Covarrubias’s close study of early 2oth century Pacific collections at various prominent European and American institutions, most prominently the Field Museum in Chicago; and, third, his misplaced belief in the fact that the natural target of cultural and political interest for the Post-War United States was to be the Pacific, rather than Europe.
  • Third, it is also meant to offer a coherent vision of the cultural diversity of the myriad societies that inhabit the littoral (coastal) and insular geographies that make up the Pacific Rim and Islands.

Introductory panel, Sala del Pacifico.

This third theme brings the Pacific Hall in line with the MNC’s current interest in presenting itself as the primary museological space for the representation of global cultural diversity in Mexico.

Given that I regard this interest with a healthy dose of skepticism, it requires some explanation.

In sum, the MNC’s interest in cultural diversity arises from the bureaucratic introduction of this concept during the Fox presidency (2000-2006), and more recently of its continuity under the Calderón administration, into the mainstream educational and public outreach narratives of the Mexican government. This, especially in relation to federally funded programmes relating to the representation and revaluation of Indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Under these narratives, Mexico was officially declared a “multicultural” country, and it was therefore incumbent on its educational and cultural authorities to

MNC staff and INAH conservation specialist, with Aboriginal Australian art, during the selection process. Credit: C. Mondragon

demonstrate that they -and by extension all “we” Mexicans- are sensitive to the diversity of cultures around the world. That the concept of multiculturalism has been handled with a great deal of frivolity as a politically correct (but legally and morally non-binding) way of recognizing the existence and importance of the previously marginalised and discriminated Indigenous population of our country has been the object of much scholarly debate. But it was meant to be a fundamental part of the Pacific Hall’s contents and narrative, so we did not have much choice in the matter.

As the gentle reader will have surmised, I am none too impressed by the shallow, because unproblematic and self-complacent, interpretation of cultural diversity

Oscar Aguirre Mandujano, co-curator, during the final selection process for the Pacific Hall at the MNC. Credit: C. Mondragón

stemming from the official government rhetoric described above; nor by its reproduction in musea such as the MNC. Nevertheless, it is true that when I accepted the curatorial commission for the Pacific Hall I had to try to compromise between my skepticism and the unique opportunity to work from the inside, as it were, in order to produce a more ambitious, conceptually sophisticated and educational exhibit which just might bring a slightly more nuanced and open-ended notion of cultural diversity to the broader public.

Part of the strategy which Oscar and I decided to employ in order to generate useful themes for comparison across Pacific Rim and Islands’ cultures was the

Gomon (Kanak house post)

inclusion of two “subtexts”, which we inserted within various of the panels and labels of the exhibit in such a way as to invite the reading public to think on certain problems without compromising the overall thematic concerns of the INAH authorities.

The themes in question were, on one hand, the effect on local aesthetic values of regional production systems, namely, tubers for the Pacific Islands, rice for the Asian littoral, and maize for the Americas, and, on the other, the widespread presence of shamanistic rituals and beliefs across the Americas and parts of mainland Asia.

I believe that the introduction of texts relating to production systems worked fairly well and allows the public to realise that what they are observing are not simply the abstracted result of intangible creativity, but a set of objects which are intimately linked up with all sorts of other contexts and values, many of which are rooted in the local ecologies and basic productive activities of the peoples represented herein.

Yup'ik masks (Alaska).

As for the subtext on shamanism, Oscar managed to pull off some really nifty labels and a panel dedicated to orality, ritual and cosmology. Unfortunately, his main panel on shamanism is hidden away in the upper right-hand corner of the platform dedicated to Arctic societies.

But never mind. In the end, I do believe our job was well done, given the absurd limitations (temporal, conceptual and bureaucratic) under which we had to work, and I am happy to lay out some of the images, ideas and contradictions behind the Pacific Hall in this space. For what it’s worth.

Kwakwaka'wakw mask (First Nations, Canadian Pacific littoral)


Looking back on 1491 (the book)

Posted in General Anthro, Mesoamerica, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales on November 16, 2010 by salul

This can be read as a late reaction to 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann, a book that was originally published in 2005 (hc) and 2006 (pb) but which I have only just recently read.*

So this is not intended as a review so much as a brief set of thoughts regarding some of Mann’s principal themes, such as ecological history and anthropogenic landscapes. I am also interested in the different ways in which the book might be perceived by different audiences.

These issues function as markers of an important shift in anthropological approaches to the environment. As with most paradigm shifts, this one has been gradually taking shape, taking its inspiration from the interdisciplinary intersection between human geography, ecology, biology, archaeology and anthropology. It is not my intention to summarise Mann’s arguments here (some early reviews of the book which adequately sum up its main points can be found here and here).

This intersection can be traced back through a recent scholarly genealogy that coalesced around several common threads throughout the 1990s, and would include, among others, the (mostly collective) tomes by Crumley (1994), Soulé & Lease (1995), Krech (1999), Whitmore & Turner (2001), Gunderson and Holling (2002), Selin (2003), Balée & Erickson (2005), Walker & Salt (2006), and, more recently, the critical riposte to Jared Diamond by McAnany & Yoffee et al (2010).

The multistranded conversation and debates that have animated these and various other authors concentrates on viewing the environment as a dynamic, complex phenomenon that has consistently, and decisively, been influenced by human activity since at least 12,000 BP. Among other things,  these studies concentrate on the fact that the circumambient world is something far more complex than established (anthropological) approaches to the social construction, or representation, of space and place. Hence the inclusion of historical ecology as a key component of this analytical perspective.

Importantly, a great deal of interest within this ongoing discussion has concentrated on the so-called New World Tropics (or Neotropics). And that is where Mann’s synthesis of the anthropogenic history of continental American ecologies comes in.

My various reactions to Mann’s book can be synthesised thus:

On one hand, I found that it succeeds remarkably well in attempting to offer a useful overview of the state of historical ecology across the Amerindian world for a non-specialist readership. His tripartite thematic structure, emphasising Pre-Columbian demographics, social complexity and anthropogenic landscapes, hits the nail on the head. In this sense, I was pleased to discover that 1491 has been translated into Spanish and will soon be available to Iberoamerican readers. While many details of Mann’s presentation – and a few glaring omissions – can be argued over, the primary goal of turning mainstream (Anglo-American as much as Latin American) views of Amerindian history on its head is nicely resolved.

While many of Mann’s main points go over literature and materials with which I had previously had varying degrees of familiarity, I was especially interested in his descriptions of fire as a critical component of Pre-Columbian human transformations across the North American landscape. This is mostly because human-induced and controlled fire is a well rehearsed topic in relation to the historical (I mean LONG term historical) development of Meganesian ecologies, particularly in regard to the Aboriginal management of the extremely meagre environments of the Australian continent. However, the argument that fire also played a part in the human management of North American landscapes was not known to me, and is well addressed here.

Beyond specific materials and issues, reading 1491 prompted me to think about the different ways in which Pre-Columbian history has been popularised and assimilated in Anglo and Latin America. At one point in his narration, Mann is sensitive to these differences of perspective, which speaks to the attention with which he has observed and interacted with Latin American scholars and people throughout his travels and research.

More to the point, I find it interesting that while the book has mostly been received as an important tool for teaching future Anglo American students about the fascinating diversity and historical depth of the hundreds of Amerindian societies that inhabited the Americas before Columbus, I hope that once the Spanish edition finds its way to the broader Spanish-speaking public it will also help our various regional schools of archeological, anthropological and historical inquiry to begin to think beyond the usual nationalistic boundaries within which Indigenous American history has tended to be circumscribed. This is not just about extending current horizons beyond the rather stale navel-gazing that has characterised Mexican anthropological and archaeological research for the past few decades. It is also about motivating local scholars to think about the value of comparative analysis, especially when coupled with serious attempts at ecological history.

Speaking for myself, I have already been able to draw on the extremely rich bibliography that Mann offers in order to pursue useful comparisons across a number of topics which are familiar from Melanesian and Pacific contexts. These include:

  1. fire in the human management of landscapes,
  2. the relativisation of the otherwise unproductive dichotomy between nomadic (hence small scale and simple) and sedentary (large scale and complex) societies. Mann accomplishes this not only through an enticing description of the fluid nature of 15th century Algonkian communities, but also through his focus on the exchange systems that allowed the coastal inhabitants of Peru’s Norte Chico littoral (5,000 BP) to build up sophisticated urban structures on the basis of fishing and cotton production, that is to say, in the absence of the agricultural and political frameworks that have normally been seen as indispensable to the rise of early city-states, and,
  3. the extremely important discussion regarding the possibility that it was the recent (post-contact) introduction of steel axes that radically transformed shifting cultivation (“slash-and-burn” agriculture, arboriculture and horticulture), turning it into the predominant method of food production for tropical forest societies**

To sum up, I found Mann’s overview to be stimulating and meticulous, if a bit clunky at times, in terms of structure and narrative. Perhaps my only remaining comment is that, in preparing this post, I have found surprisingly few scholarly comments or reviews of 1491. Perhaps my institutional search engine is filtering stuff, perhaps I simply arrived late to the academic reactions to this book. But considering that it continues to appear in many a prominent bookstore, I would have expected it to have generated much more interest, even if we specialists could turn to it and say “well, yeah, I already knew that…sort of”. But hopefully this is just a result of my insufficient searching. Whatever the case may be, I am looking forward to further discussion and reaction of some of these themes as the book makes its way across continents, languages and readerships.

*The “lateness” of my comment is in respect of the book’s original publication date, and is mostly due to the fact that I normally avoid airport kiosk-type bestsellers like the plague, and when it originally hit the stands this book had every appearance of being just that. I was, however, pleasantly proven wrong in this case, as I recently realised when I took it with me as travel fodder.

**Cfr. Carneiro, R.L. (1979), “Tree Felling with the Stone Axe: An Experiment Carried Out Among the Yanomamö Indians of Southern Venezuela”, in L.E. Sponsel, ed., Indigenous Peoples and the Future of Amazonia: An Ecological Anthropology of an Endangered World. Tucson: University of Arizona Press,  46-52; Denevan, W.M. (1992), “Stone vs. Metal Axes: The Ambiguity of Shifting Cultivation in Prehistoric Amazonia”, Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society, 20: 153-165.

Calendarios mesoamericanos en el MNA

Posted in Mesoamerica, Museum-related stuff on November 16, 2010 by salul

El Calendario Mesoamericano en sus Inscripciones,

Códices, Monumentos y Estelas




  1. El calendario maya. Inscripciones y presagios
  2. Introducción a los sistemas calendáricos mesoamericanos
  3. El tiempo mítico, el tiempo histórico, el tiempo mágico
  4. El calendario en los códices de los valles centrales de México
  5. Instrumento de poder: el calendario y los monumentos


sábados de 10:00 a 13:00hrs
del 13 de noviembre al 11 de diciembre
Auditorio Fray Bernardino de Sahagún
Inscripciones: Deptartamento de Promoción Cultural, Museo Nacional de Antropología (México, DF)
Tel. 55536381 y 86 (horario de lunes a viernes de 9:00 a 19:00hrs)

Rapa Nui. Not just a bunch of old stones

Posted in General Anthro, Non-State Societies/Sociedades no-estatales, Oceania, Rapa Nui, Travel Writing on November 3, 2010 by salul

Moai at Aku Tongariki. Credit: Carlos Mondragón 2010


I recently traveled to Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island.

Prior to my journey I armed myself with enough archaeological papers to know that the current, enormously popular view regarding the disastrous ecological collapse of Rapa Nui was far more complex than Jared Diamond, and many, many others – including an otherwise photographically stunning documentary series by the Beeb – have led us to believe (mostly following the original dissemination of the “ecocide” theory by Bahn and Flenley in 1992).

Argentine-Rapa Nui couple, Claudio Enright & María Angélica Pakomio Pakarati, on the terrace of their fusion restaurant.

However, I was quite unprepared for another discovery, which in itself is quite surprising – at least for the vast majority of us who have never actually been to Isla de Pascua. Namely, that contrary to the notion that the Rapanui people logged themselves to extinction by the end of the 17th century, or even that they were wiped out by Europeans during the 19th (even though, it must be said, they were the victims of what can only be described as a cruel, brutal and completely senseless genocidal process at the hands of Euroamericans), they actually continue to represent a thriving Polynesian community today.

Rapa Nui traditional dance troupe at a local fundraising event. Credit C. Mondragón

This may not seem surprising, given the process of intercultural union that has taken place since the middle of the 19th century. But while I was prepared for the likelihood of running into a local community of pascuenses of mixed European, South American and islander ancestry, I was quite unprepared for the vibrant, renewed sense of Polynesian identity that I encountered.

The first clue, of course, was in the language. From the first day that I walked the few streets of Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui’s solitary township, I picked up people consistently speaking to each other in Rapanui. I even thought I detected various degrees of accented Spanish from some local folk; a sign, as I was eventually to realise, that they very much were brought up within primarily Rapanui speaking contexts and only picked up Spanish as a second language.

As they days went by, I gradually struck up enough conversations with different Rapanui and

Naturaleza muerta sin cultura. Credit: C. Mondragón

“contis” (continentales, the local term for continental Chileans and other outlanders) to begin to form a rather more gripping picture of local life than the overwhelmingly popular view of a treeless island full of mysterious, ancient, abandoned stones; a view which has been firmly lodged in the global imaginary on Rapa Nui by a barrage of brochures, books, photographs and documentaries.

For instance, in the first episode of the South Pacific documentary by the BBC, titled “Ocean of Islands”, Easter Island is once again portrayed as a deserted monument to human ecocide. At no point are we shown the living, contemporary community of Polynesians who happen to be the direct descendants of those ecocidal primitives.

Among other things, in the 1990’s this living Rapa Nui community established a Council of Elders through which they have mediated a great deal of their recent cultural revival – most importantly, the formalisation and introduction of Rapanui language into the local primary school classrooms.

The librarian at the Biblioteca Pública Rongorongo. Credit: C. Mondragón

There is also a local library, the Rongorongo Public Library, at which the local librarian faithfully gathers and presides over a humble but symbolically important stash of publications relating to Rapa Nui (I promised I would send along a copy of the catalogue of our recent Moana exhibit, since it portrays a rei miro, a ceremonial staff, and a rapa, from the Field Museum and the Museo Nacional de las Culturas).

However, the clincher came in the form of a number of local protests that took shape over the week that I spent on the island. These gatherings took the form of small tent camps that were being held together by various groups of locals, many of them thirty and fortysomethings with few kids in sight (they are the largely dispossessed sons and daughters of Rapa Nui who benefited from government programmes in the ’70s). The largest of these gatherings was to be seen outside the local municipal government headquarters, where the island’s centrally-appointed governor -then Mr Pedro Pablo Paoa- presided over the day to day admin of Rapa Nui.

The how’s and why’s of this protest, its immediate and longer term causes and possible outcomes,

Gregorio, a Rapa Nui participant in the recent protests over land reform. Credit: C. Mondragón

are the subject of an upcoming talk that I will be giving at El Colegio de México. Suffice to say that this clearly was part of a complex, multilayered and certainly contested process of cultural revival and assertion. In essence, it harkens back to the not so distant past when indigenous Rapa Nui were recognised as human beings and legitimate Chilean citizens (around 1967), and eventually offered small plots of land as part of a government-sponsored land reform programme.

The short of this is that neither land reform, nor uncontrolled migration from the continent, nor the bleak educational, health and labour prospects faced by Rapa Nui then and now have been enough to make the island’s inhabitants feel particularly well about their troubled and historically problematic Chilean citizenship.(Edit: herewith a recent, very informative, newspapaer article in Spanish regarding the latest tensions and twists in this tale, which involved the Rapa Nui blocking the island’s airport and quite vocally repeating a call for independence from Chile)

Downtown Hanga Roa. Credit: C. Mondragón

For me, this became an opportunity to carry out the beginnings of fieldwork and of a longer term research project in which I hope to explore the intricacies of Rapa Nui survival and cultural revival, and, more recently, of identity claims and counterclaims. Most importantly, I hope to bring to this a Latin American perspective. I hope my credentials as an Oceanist and a close observer of relations between the State and indigenous peoples in Latin America will allow me to offer new insights into just what is going on.

There are currently a handful of good books, articles and monographs regarding the anthropology of Rapa Nui. Most of them were produced over the past seventy years, and include Alfred Métraux, Thor Heyerdahl and of course P. Sebastian Englert. More recently, my friend and colleague Grant McCall has produced some fine analyses of Rapa Nui lifeways and realities. Time will tell whether this germ of a research project can take shape and eventually offer new insights into this fascinating place. For now, I am content with calling attention not only to the

A photogenic landscape...but something's missing. Credit: Carlos Mondragón 2010

overhyped “ecocidal” theory of Rapa Nui’s history (a thorough, informative and specialist reply to Diamond’s writings about the island can be found in the chapter by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo in the book Questioning Collapse; also, see the SM review of said tome for a great summary of the arguments), but to the existence of its lively, perceptive and increasingly self-confident people.

A people who are very much alive, and thriving, and whose relationship to those old stones incorporates far more than the tourist brochures and pretty pictures generally indicate.