Albuquerque Museum Foundation Returns Indigenous Artifacts to Mexico

Some of the Mexican antiquities returned to the country by the Albuquerque Museum Foundation are seen during a Wednesday repatriation ceremony in Albuquerque. (Nora Vanesky/Albuquerque Museum Foundation via AP)

Small ancient sculptures that have gathered dust in an Albuquerque storage box are coming home to Mexico, where they are closely tied to the identity of indigenous communities.

The Albuquerque Museum Foundation celebrated the repatriation of the dozen or so sculptures in a ceremony on Wednesday. The local Mexican consulate will accept Olmec greenstone carvings, a figure from the city of Zacatecas, bowls that have been buried with tombs, and other clay figurines dating back thousands of years.

The event comes as indigenous, indigenous and African communities have pushed museums, universities and other institutions to repatriate objects that are important parts of their cultures and histories.

Foundation President and CEO Andrew Rodgers said returning the sculptures that had been in storage for 15 years was the right thing to do. Even the foundation’s board agreed. But some outside their organization had a different idea.

“We ran into a few people who suggested ‘Oh, you should just sell them…’ They might not be worth a ton, so keep them’ or ‘Mexico doesn’t really care about that stuff'” , Rodgers said.

Mexico, however, cares a lot.

“We appreciate and acknowledge the steps taken by the Albuquerque Museum Foundation to voluntarily return these archaeological pieces to the Mexican nation,” Mexican Consul Norma Ang Sánchez said in a statement. “These are important pieces of memory and identity for our Indigenous communities, and we are happy that they are being recovered.”

Mexican Consul Norma Ang, left, and Andrew Rodgers, President and CEO of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation, stand next to the 12 Mexican antiquities returned to the country during a ceremony at the Mexican Consul’s office in Albuquerque Wednesday. (Nora Vanesky/Albuquerque Museum Foundation via AP)

The effort to find the origins of the artifacts began more than five months ago when they were discovered sitting in a storage box. Rodgers’ assistant obtained the original appraisal form when a donor offered them in 2007.

“Immediately alarm bells started ringing in our heads” when they saw the label “pre-Columbian,” Rodgers said.

Playing detective on the internet, Rodgers found the original dealer. A woman from New York in the 1990s still had the original note cards from the sale of the items to donors in 1985. She said they were bought on the side of a road in Mexico or from dealers in New York. England.

“I don’t think anyone had a bad intention. I just think there wasn’t a lot of clarity or transparency in this kind of practice 30, 40, 50 years ago,” Rodgers said.

Archaeologists from the University of New Mexico Museum and Emory University in Atlanta authenticated the objects before speaking with the local Mexican consulate. The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, which will end up with the figures, estimates that they were made in western Mexico between 300 and 600 BC.

A shaft tomb figure indigenous to Mexico is among a dozen sculptures that the Albuquerque Museum Foundation is returning to Mexico. (Andrew Rodgers/Albuquerque Museum Foundation via the AP)

There has always been a desire to reclaim pre-Hispanic culture and artwork, according to Tessa Solomon, a reporter for online publication ARTnews who has covered dozens of stories on the subject.

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador became president of Mexico in 2018, his administration made recovering artifacts a priority. Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero tried to stop sales of cultural objects at auction. These efforts spawned a social media movement called #MyHeritageIsNotForSale. It is estimated that more than 5,500 archaeological objects from Mexico have been recovered in recent years.

“(Mexican officials) are certainly having the most concerted effort to stop the auctions of these coins,” Solomon said. To place these objects in a European or American gallery or museum is “to create these voids in the history of the art of these places which are difficult to fill. It should not be up to other countries to create these stories.

Campaigns for the restoration of artifacts and works of art in a country or a people are taking place all over the world. The US Department of the Interior is considering changing a federal law that guarantees the repatriation of Native American remains and sacred objects. Proposed revisions include more clarity, specific timelines and stiffer penalties for violating the law.

Indigenous groups in Canada are asking the Vatican Museums to give up tens of thousands of artifacts and works of art. The Vatican says the feathered headdresses, carved walrus tusks, masks and embroidered animal skins were gifts to Pope Pius XI.

Germany and Nigeria signed an agreement on July 1 to facilitate the return of hundreds of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes that the British stole from Africa more than a century ago. Hundreds of bronzes have been sold to museums around the world. The Smithsonian had 29 at its National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. They will go to the Nigerian government.

Other Smithsonian museums have been returning objects to their rightful owners for more than three decades, said Kevin Gover, undersecretary for museums and culture. Determining who owns objects can be a long process.

An Olmec greenstone figure is among a dozen sculptures the Albuquerque Museum Foundation is returning to Mexico. The items were discovered sitting in a box stored more than five months earlier. (Andrew Rodgers/Albuquerque Museum Foundation via AP)

“Some of these things, remember, are often very old,” said Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. “So a lot of research is needed to be sure we understand exactly what it is and exactly how it was acquired…I’m impressed that this Albuquerque Museum (Foundation) did it in six months.”

The racial reckoning that began in the United States in 2020 has likely increased the number of calls for the recovery of antiques and works of art. In April, the Smithsonian enacted an “ethical return policy” that requires a review of how an item came into the possession of the institution.

Museums and other art venues must face a time when they will be judged by their actions, not just their works of art.

“The public kind of expects more from these institutions,” Gover said. “That’s part of maintaining that trust, being able to say that we came into this object in an ethical way, in a fair way.”

Rodgers of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation sees the ordeal as a key learning opportunity.

“This experience mostly gave us exposure to this world and a better understanding,” he said. “So I think we’re certainly much better prepared to make sure that we never agree to anything that we shouldn’t.”

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