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

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)


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