The small old carvings that were gathering dust in the Albuquerque storage box are coming home Mexicointertwined with the identity of indigenous communities.
The Albuquerque Museum Foundation celebrated the return of dozens of sculptures at a ceremony on Wednesday. The local Consulate of Mexico accepted the greenstone Olmec carvings, a figure from Zacatecas, and buried vessels with tombs and other clay figurines dating back thousands of years.
This event came as indigenous and African communities have been pushing museums, universities and other institutions to return items that are an important part of their cultures and history.
Andrew Rodgers, the foundation’s president and CEO, said returning the sculptures, which have been in storage for 15 years, was the right thing to do. The board of directors approved. But some outside their institution had a different idea.
“We interviewed a couple of people who suggested ‘Oh, you just have to sell these’… ‘It might not be worth much, so just keep them,’ or ‘Mexico doesn’t really care about that kind of thing,'” Rodgers said.
Mexico, however, cares a lot.
“We appreciate and appreciate the actions taken by the Albuquerque Museum Foundation to voluntarily return these artifacts to the Mexican nation,” Mexican Consul Norma Ang Sanchez said in a statement. “They are important elements of memory and identity for our indigenous communities, and we are delighted to have them back.”
Efforts to research the artifacts’ origins began more than five months ago when they were discovered sitting in a box in storage. Rodgers’ assistant got the original evaluation form when a donor submitted it in 2007.
“Immediately alarm bells started ringing in our heads” when they saw the “Pre-Columbian” poster, Rodgers said.
Rodgers played an online detective who found the original dealer. A New York woman in her 90s still owns the original note cards from selling the items to donors in 1985. She said they were either purchased on a roadside in Mexico or from dealers in New England.
“I don’t think anyone has ill intentions. I just think there wasn’t a lot of clarity or a lot of transparency in that kind of practice 30, 40, 50 years ago,” Rodgers said.
Archaeologists Museum at University New Mexico Emory University in Atlanta endorsed things before speaking with the local Mexican consulate.
The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, which will end in numbers, believes it was made in western Mexico between 300 and 600 BC.
There has always been a desire to take back pre-Hispanic culture and artwork, according to Tessa Solomon, correspondent for online publication ARTnews who has covered dozens of stories on the subject.
When Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador became president of Mexico in 2018, his administration made recovering the artifacts a priority. The Minister of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero, tried to stop the sale of cultural items at auction. These efforts spawned a social media movement called #MyHeritageIsNotForSale.
It is estimated that more than 5,500 artifacts from Mexico have been recovered in the past few years.
“[Mexican officials]“We will definitely have the most concerted effort to stop these lots being auctioned off,” Solomon said. Placing these in a European or American gallery or museum “creates gaps in the art history of these places that are difficult to fill. It should not be up to other countries to create these histories.”
Campaigns are conducted to restore artifacts and works of art to a country or people all over the world. The US Department of the Interior is considering changes to a federal law ensuring the return of Native American remains and sacred objects. Suggested revisions include more clarity, specific deadlines, and stiffer penalties for breaking the law.
Indigenous groups in Canada are demanding the Vatican Museums give away tens of thousands of artifacts. The Vatican says 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 over a century ago. Hundreds of bronzes have been sold to museums around the world.
The Smithsonian had 29 in its African National Museum art in Washington DC. They will return to the Nigerian government.
Other Smithsonian museums have been returning pieces to their rightful owners for more than three decades, said Kevin Goffer, the undersecretary for museums and culture. Determining who owns items can take a long process.
“Remember, some of these things are often very old,” said Gopher, a native of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. Obtained … I was impressed that this Albuquerque Museum [Foundation] I did it in six months.”
“The public is kind of expecting more of these institutions,” Gopher said. “That’s part of maintaining that trust.”