Graphic via Diario de Yucatan
The state of Yucatan is building two new museums dedicated to the region’s rich history with the ancient Maya, the Museo del Mundo Maya (Museum of the Maya World) in the capital Merida and the Palacio de la Civilizacion Maya in Yaxcaba, a few miles from Chichen Itza. Both museums promise to be state of the art and according to published plans, will contain artifacts from the ancient Maya civilization.
Merida’s museum is scheduled to open in September (but may be ready by as soon as June). The facility will house 750,000 objects, according to plans released by the state of Yucatan. Exactly what artifacts and from where, no one who is speaking publicly knows. Those that do know are not talking. When the newspaper Proceso asked for specifics from state officials from Cultur, the agency overseeing the museum, the newspaper reportedly was told that the question was still being studied, “but assured that it possessed archaeological pieces.”
However, the state of Yucatan owns no artifacts of the ancient Maya, because, by law, it cannot. All artifacts belong to the people of Mexico and are managed by the federal government.
When Governor Ivonne Ortega Pacheco dedicated the site of the Palacio museum in Yaxcaba two years ago, she said it would contain artifacts excavated from the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) at Chichen Itza. Those artifacts removed in two expeditions in 1961-2 and 1967-8 are in the possession of the federal government. There are other collections from excavations of the Cenote Sagrado conducted in 1904-1910 that are held by the federal government and by other museums around the world.
The state has also said that artifacts for the museums will come via “acquisitions, donations, and loans.” What follows is an examination of possible sources of artifacts and the challenges facing the state to acquire them.
The federal agency that controls Mexico’s patrimony such as Maya artifacts is the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History, better known as INAH) and would be by far the easiest source for artifacts to exhibit.
INAH already operates several museums in Yucatan state, including the impressive Museo de Antropologia y Historia on Merida’s version of the Champs Élysées, Paseo de Montejo. However, the artifacts on display represent just a fraction of the collection. Thousands more are stored in the basement of the museum and in warehouses in Yucatan and in Mexico. INAH anthropologist Ivan Franco told Proceso that he suspected these would provide some of the collections the state intended to exhibit in its museums.
He added that the rank and file in INAH are opposed to lending archaeological treasures to the state, but that the director of INAH, Alfonso de Maria y Campos, would ignore his staff’s wishes and will reach an agreement to provide artifacts for the new museums.
Many of the most spectacular pieces from the Maya civilization are on display in Mexico City in the national museum. Beautiful gold and carved jade artifacts from Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado can be found there. Also, the most famous statue of the ancient Maya, the Chac Mool, which also came from Chichen Itza is there.
Museums Outside Mexico
Artifacts from the ancient Maya civilization that once flourished in Yucatan can be found in museums around the world, but it is unlikely any will loan artifacts to Yucatan. As a curator of a recent exhibit of Maya artifacts in the United States confided to me, “This exhibition cannot travel to Mexico because there is a law that would require them to repatriate any object that came in.” It made him sad, he said, to think that because of this law the only way people of the originating country can see the artifacts is to travel internationally.
Mexico has the law of repatriation because so many of its artifacts have been and continue to be illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country. However the law also pertains to objects that were taken from Mexico prior to enactment of the law, as well as artifacts that the government of Mexico allowed to be exported.
One of the best collections and the most controversial are those in Harvard’s Peabody Museum and Chicago’s Field Museum from Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado. Edward Thompson, an American, excavated the artifacts early in the last century. Mexico charged Thompson with theft, but the nation’s supreme court ruled in 1944 that Thompson had broken no laws. These collections would be perfect for the new Yucatan museums, but because of acrimony by Mexican archaeologists, it is doubtful they will ever be loaned to Mexico under any circumstances.
INAH’s Franco said he suspects the state may be negotiating with private individuals who will donate pieces from their own collections. One can own ancient Maya artifacts in Mexico provided they were not looted from a site. All artifacts must be registered with INAH. Most private collectors don’t.
Franco hinted that these illegal private collections might be donated “anonymously” to the state, although he has no direct knowledge that the state is negotiating with any individuals.
Wherever the state plans to acquire artifacts, they will find that “filling a museum is not easy,” warned Franco.
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