Small, ancient sculptures gathering dust in an Albuquerque storage box return to Mexico, where they are woven into the identity of indigenous communities.
The Albuquerque Museum Foundation celebrated the return of the dozen sculptures in a ceremony Wednesday. The local Mexican consulate accepted Olmec greenstone sculptures, a figure from the city of Zacatecas, bowls buried with tombs, and other clay figures dating back thousands of years.
The event came as local, indigenous and African communities pushed for museums, universities and other institutions to repatriate items that are important parts of their culture and history.
Foundation President and CEO Andrew Rodgers said returning the sculptures, which have been in storage for 15 years, is the right thing to do. Even the board of trustees agreed. But some outside of their organization had a different idea.
“We met a few people who were like, ‘Oh, you should just sell these’ … ‘They might not be worth a ton, so just keep them,’ or ‘Mexico doesn’t really care about stuff like that,'” Rodgers said.
However, Mexico cares a lot about it.
“We appreciate and recognize the efforts of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation to voluntarily return these archaeological pieces to the Mexican nation,” Mexican Consul Norma Ang Sánchez said in a statement. “They are important pieces of memory and identity for our native communities, and we’re excited to see them being restored.”
Efforts to research the origins of the artifacts began over five months ago when they were discovered sitting in a crate in storage. Rodgers’ assistant received the original assessment form when a donor gifted her in 2007.
“Alarm bells started going off in our heads immediately” when they saw the “pre-Columbian” label, Rodgers said.
Rodgers played internet detective and found the original dealer. A New Yorker in her 90s still had the original index cards from when the items were sold to donors in 1985. She said they were either bought curbside in Mexico or from vendors in New England.
“I don’t think anyone had bad intentions. I just think 30, 40, 50 years ago there wasn’t a lot of clarity or transparency in this type of practice,” Rodgers said.
Museum archaeologists from the University of New Mexico and Emory University in Atlanta authenticated the objects before speaking to the local Mexican consulate. The Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, which will eventually provide the figures, believes they were made between 300 and 600 BC. BC in western Mexico
According to Tessa Solomon, a reporter for online publication ARTnews, who has published dozens of stories on the subject, there has always been a desire to reclaim pre-Hispanic culture and artwork.
When Andrés Manuel López Obrador became President of Mexico in 2018, his administration made recovering artifacts a priority. Culture Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero has tried to stop the sale of cultural goods at auction. The effort spawned a social media movement called #MyHeritageIsNotForSale. It is estimated that more than 5,500 archaeological objects have been recovered from Mexico in recent years.
“[Mexican officials]are definitely making the most concerted effort to stop the auction sale of these pieces,” Solomon said. Placing these objects in a European or American gallery or museum means “creating these gaps in the art history of these places that are difficult to fill. It should not be up to other countries to create these stories.”
Campaigns to restore artifacts and works of art to a country or people take place worldwide. The US Department of the Interior is considering changes to a federal law that would ensure the repatriation of Native American remains and sacred objects. The proposed changes include more clarity, specific deadlines and tougher penalties for breaking the law.
Indigenous groups from 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, which 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 National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC They go back 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 the items can be a lengthy process.
“Some of these things are often very old,” said Gover, a resident of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. “So it takes a lot of research to be sure we understand exactly what it is and exactly how it was acquired… I’m impressed that this Albuquerque Museum (Foundation) pulled it off in six months.”
The racist reckoning that began in the United States in 2020 likely increased calls for antique and artwork reclamation. In April, the Smithsonian issued an “ethical returns policy” that requires looking at how an item came into the institution’s possession.
Museums and other art venues must face an age in which they will be judged by their deeds and not just by their artworks.
“The public kind of expects more from these institutions,” Gover said. “It’s part of maintaining that trust, of being able to say that we’ve taken possession of this property in an ethical and fair manner.”
Rodgers of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation takes the ordeal as an important learning opportunity.
“This experience made us particularly compelled to be exposed to this world and gain a better understanding,” he said. “So I think we’re certainly a lot better prepared to make sure we never accept anything that we shouldn’t.”