Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City
Mexican antiquities for mounted birds (Or, how to build a National Museum, Mexico City, ca 1828)
In 1828, the recently founded National Museum in Mexico City engaged in a somewhat unusual exchange with the French traveler Henri Baradère. The Museum ceded Baradère pre-Colombian antiquities and manuscripts describing the famed ruins of Palenque, in return for a considerable number of mounted birds, collected in different places in Mexico and Africa. In retrospect, the exchange violates our notions of value: long after most of Baradère’s specimens had been destroyed by insects, the ruins of Palenque continued to exercise a powerful effect on the imagination of explorers, travelers, antiquarians, and fortune-seekers, comparable only to that of Luxor at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But, rather than judging the pertinence or the “logic” of the deal against some modern-day actuarial table, in this talk I will strive to understand the motives which led Isidro Icaza, the Museum’s Director, to consider the exchange “notoriously advantageous.” Reconstructing the trajectories and contingent meanings of the objects that entered and left the National Museum, I will reflect on the situation of national museums in Latin America in the post-Independence decade, on the criteria which governed the formation of their collections, and on the legitimating strategies some of them employed in the attempt to establish their autonomy and command institutional recognition as active protagonists in the traffic of collectables in the first half of the nineteenth century.