The 'Repatriation' Of Historic Objects: Nationalism, Nativism Or Justice?

By Rodrigo Cervantes
Published: Tuesday, June 1, 2021 - 5:15am
Updated: Tuesday, June 1, 2021 - 8:32am

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Office of the Mexican President
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador heads a ceremony to commemorate a Mayan victory.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico is taking actions that may resonate with many Native American communities, as it tries to bring back pre-Columbian names in some areas in Mexico City, while trying to recoup relics and historic artifacts from overseas.

As part of its historic celebrations, Mexico has been actively working on the repatriation of archaeological objects; some of them from the U.S. Other nations and Native American communities have engaged in similar efforts. Is this a righteous search for historic justice or a crusade to strengthen nationalistic views?

Fighting Racism And Colonialism

Historian Vekka Duncan and I meet at La Conchita square in southern Mexico City; the place where conquistador Hernán Cortés settled as he founded Mexico City on top of the defeated capital of the Aztec or Mexica empire.

“Maybe in a bench very similar to this, Hernán Cortés sat at some point," said the expert.

Mexico’s current government is commemorating 500 years of the fall of Tenochtitlán, the ancient Mexico City. As part of the celebration, some avenues and squares are taking back Pre Columbian names.

Duncan says the idea may be adequate to honor indigenous communities and fight racism.

“What I don’t like so much is the political use of that,” said Duncan.

Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Historian Vekka Duncan in La Conchita Square, Mexico City.

Mexico’s president has asked Spain to apologize for its colonialism in the country, while instructing his wife to tour Europe to collect archaeological artifacts extracted from Mexican soil. 

Controversy followed, but Duncan says Mexico’s actions also respond to a global trend against colonialism.

“There is a rightful claim for European museums, and American museums I have to say, to give back some of these pieces. In this effort to to decolonize our societies we also have to decolonize our cultural institutions and our museums," she said.

But Duncan says some governments and institutions from developed countries defend their right to maintain the pieces, arguing more and better resources. 

“I think that’s also a very racist argument, right? Like: ‘Only white European people know how to preserve historic artifacts,’” said the historian.

'You Can't Sell Your Soul'

Diego Prieto is head of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. He says the push to return historic artifacts is not new and that Mexico is not alone.

"World treaties establish that cultural goods should be kept in those countries where their cultural and symbolic values originate. Mexican law also establishes that historical objects belong to the nation," Prieto said. 

He says unregulated markets, along with looting, have allowed many artifacts to end up in private collections or institutions overseas.

"You can’t sell your soul," he said. 

The anthropologist says Mexico has recovered more than 5,430 hundred objects since 2019. The vast majority of them came from the U.S. In March, the Mexican consulate in Nogales received 280 archeological artifacts; most of them obtained from Department of Homeland Security seizures.

Mexican Government
Mexico and U.S. authorities met in Nogales, where the Department of Homeland Security returned archeological objects to Mexico.

A Plume And Heritage

For years, the crown jewel for many Mexicans is in Austria and it is, quite possibly, a crown itself: a penacho or plume allegedly given by Moctezuma to Cortés. 

During a press conference, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saying that it was an impossible mission for his wife to bring the plume from Vienna’s Ethnographic Museum, since Austrians have taken permanent ownership of it.

Gerardo Familiar is an expert in museology and Mesoamerican history at the extension school in Canada of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He explains that recent investigations between Austria and Mexico determined it was best to keep it in Vienna.

Gerardo Familiar
Gerardo Familiar is a Mexican expert in museology and Pre Columbian history.

“The object was deemed too fragile for transportation,” said the expert.

Familiar said the agreement illustrates a path that many governments and institutions could follow.

“I firmly believe that both Mexico and Austria share a joint responsibility toward the objects for the preservation for future generations,” said Familiar.

For the expert, the current repatriation of historical objects in Mexico responds to a nationalistic rhetoric. But he says it’s important that historic objects return to the communities where they have special significance.

“In my opinion, what defines an object with a cultural or historic significance has to do with heritage,” he said.

Familiar said many indigenous communities in North America consider these artifacts sacred objects; like an extension of their beings. And in those cases, he says it’s important to return those artifacts.

For him, collaboration and friendly dialogue between countries, institutions and ethnic groups will be fundamental for years to come to protect the objects that history has left behind.

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