- Collecting Mexico: Museums, Monuments, and the Creation of National Identity by Shelley Garrigan
Shelley Garrigan's work is an important contribution to the study of official culture during the rule of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico (1876-1910), primarily because it casts new light on episodes, objects, and events that historians of Mexico tend to think they know quite well. The book's five chapters examine the construction of a national canon of painting; the creation of a "national" discipline of archaeology, which culminated in the renewed importance afforded to Mexico's National Museum; the production of urban monuments to commemorate national events and heroes in the Mexican capital; the exhibition of Mexican artifacts for international consumption at the 1889 Paris World's Fair; and the gathering and display of statistical information used to rationalize, order, and govern Mexico's territory and resources. [End Page 406]
Garrigan argues that the operation that unified these otherwise disparate domains of official cultural production was collecting, understood not merely as the accumulation of facts, figures or objects, but as the creation of a symbolic order that situated them within the discursive parameters of a state-sponsored narrative of the Mexican nation. Hence, Garrigan claims, "Mexico's politics of ordering material things at this time allowed for stories of origins and future projections to write over the deficiencies of the present state." In other words, the collection of these various objects and types of knowledge helped bridge the gap between what the Porfirian state "no longer was" (a state that had not stabilized politically since independence)" in 1810, and what its governing elites wished it would finally become: "a fully consolidated and modernized sovereignty with its own ascending position within the international economic hegemony" (p. 164).
Garrigan is not the first to examine how exhibiting and collecting artifacts proved central to the Porfirian project, nor the first to look closely at the emergence of a generation of científicos, as Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo called them in his Mexico at the World's Fairs (1996). These were thinkers who provided an intellectual language to articulate the state's political demands. To Tenorio-Trillo's and other studies, however, Garrigan adds a fresh perspective, examining how virtually all the artifacts in question were consumed and officially promoted not only as transcendent bearers of national meaning, but also as commodities traded in a nascent market economy. This insight reveals that these artifacts operated not only as anchors around which a grand, static narrative of the Mexican nation was constructed, but that their relevance to the structure and form of such a narrative was contingent, at least in part, on their fluctuating market value.
The fact that these artifacts were seen as commodities did not undermine their transcendent qualities. Instead, Garrigan claims, the fetishism attached to them facilitated their enshrinement as the material substrate for the articulation of a national project. Garrigan's focus on the unstable yet powerful allure of the Porfirian state's material culture compels us to reconsider just what that national project consisted of, a question that most historians of the period tend not to ask. The contradictions embedded within the evolving project were expressed in multiple ways. For example, the creation of a monument to Christopher Columbus (1877), patronized by capitalist Antonio Escandón as compensation for an unpaid debt to the Mexican state, spurred debates about whether the structure, borne out of a mundane commercial transaction between the state and an entrepreneur, could indeed have genuine "national" and patriotic meaning, as its sympathizers among critics and bureaucrats of culture intended it would (p. 118). Indeed, Garrigan claims, in this and other contexts, "there was some confusion as to whether public monuments were to be treated as public or private property" (p. 132). A similar dynamic defined the production of a national canon of painting. While the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City promoted art that adhered to neoclassical canons on largely stylistic grounds...