- From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico by Miruna Achim
It is an article of faith that nations, especially those seeking to distinguish themselves from monarchical or colonial pasts, endow public museums as assertions of cultural and political independence as well as techniques of citizen-formation. [End Page 218] Mexico is no exception. In 1825, a mere year after securing independence from Spain, the National Museum of Mexico was founded. The collections amassed over the course of the nineteenth-century seeded an impressive federal museum complex with today's National Museum of Anthropology its most spectacular legacy. In From Idols to Antiquity: Forging the National Museum of Mexico, Miruna Achim explores the first four decades of the National Museum's operation, revealing that during this period the museum was more an ideal than a reality. Its failures, however, provide a glimpse into the process by which the Mexican state established its custodial claim to the indigenous antiquity with which it would become identified.
Achim notes the dearth of archival material on the museum's operations during its early years, a consequence of the new nation's political instability during the first half of the nineteenth century. Part of Achim's achievement, therefore, is the impressive archive of supporting materials she has gathered from both sides of the Atlantic to tell this story: correspondence between museum functionaries and European and US antiquarians as well as regional authorities within Mexico, official decrees, archeological surveys, expeditions and publications, to name only a few. Through this archive, she substantiates her central claims. First, the museum's development did not follow from "previously scripted protocols," but rather was improvised and contingent upon "interpersonal relationships, private greed, competition for collectibles, imperialist claims on certain kinds of objects, market, and intellectual ambition" (9). Second, the museum's early history was as determined as much by "material conditions"—bad roads, foreign blockades, the weight of objects, available technologies for the dissemination of information—as it was by a "master plan." And third, the museum was a node through which "local, national, and international politics of collecting were being played out" (9). On this final point, Achim highlights the competition over Mexico's indigenous antiquities within the European and American collecting booms. Her book restores Mexican voices to this contest. Furthermore, by attending to the power dynamics between political elites in Mexico City and local authorities in the Yucatán, she sheds light on the imperial dimensions of collecting within Mexico as well.
Achim divides her study into six chronological chapters that trace the museum's development from its founding in 1825 through 1867, when Benito Juárez established the legal and financial infrastructure necessary for its subsequent success. She focuses on key actors such as lawmaker Lucas Alemán, curator Isidro Icaza, and director JoséFernando Ramírez, and situates their endeavors within a nexus of foreign antiquarians such as Jean-Frédéric Waldeck and Carl Nebel and their expeditions to the Yucatán; influential publications, such as William H. Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843); and ongoing civil war and military interventions by the United States and France. Chapter 1 tracks the transition from colonial collecting cultures to the republican logics of national patrimony during the museum's rocky first years. Chapter 2 explores early attempts to craft the pre-Columbian past as Mexico's classical antiquity. Achim shows how the need for [End Page 219] collaboration with foreigners resulted in the pillaging of antiquities, which in turn helped to build the impressive collections of Mayan art in London, Paris, New York, and Philadelphia. Chapter 3 focuses in greater depth on the international race to claim and collect the ruins of Palenque. Here, Achim convincingly demonstrates how physical conditions, such as impassable roads or the resistance of local authorities obfuscated the state's attempts to convey objects to Mexico City. Chapter 4 explores the museum's exploitation of an emergent independent press to...