Collecting Other Worlds: History, Politics and Heritage at the Gold Museum (Bogotá, Colombia)

A lecture to be given by Héctor García-Botero, curator of archaeology and ethnography Gold Museum – Central Bank of Colombia, on AJF Live with Museo del Oro, February 25, 2021

Abstract

Since the late twentieth century, anthropologists have been calling for a new way of apprehending and explaining the diversity of the human experience. Although the concept of culture seemed to work for quite a long time, its own conceptual and political history have deemed necessary to go beyond the relativism implied in it. Especially when dealing with societies that have been classified as non- western (itself a problematic name), anthropologists are proposing to understand the human diversity as a world diversity: instead of mapping the cultural diversity onto one universal world, the necessity is now to recognize a multiplicity of worlds -sometimes even immeasurable.

Material culture from pre-Hispanic societies in the Ancient Americas must be considered as windows to other worlds. They show, depict and bring to life the thoughts, the emotions and the cosmology that made sense of the world. Our opportunity is to grasp a feeling of the structure of those other worlds to reimagine our own. Through the ancient metallurgy of Colombia -their meanings, their technology and their iconography-, and through some aspects of the collecting and exhibit work of a museum, this lecture will explore some ideas on how to make sense of objects, materials, and socio-political contexts beyond the framework of westerns ways of thought and action.

Héctor García-Botero is an anthropologist. Since 2010, is curator of archaeology and ethnography at the Gold Museum in Bogotá, Colombia.

Plan of the lecture

Introduction

This first section will present an overview of the Gold Museum: its location, the nature of its collections and a brief history of its constitution. This section will also present the two main issues of the lecture, which I will address through the case of the Gold Museum. Firstly, the fact that all collections are both a testimony of certain cultural practices and a product of the practice of collecting; secondly, the fact that the museum institution is something more than a collection and it exists in a contested space in which heritage is created, negotiated and reimagined.

Other worlds: pre-Hispanic goldwork of Ancient Colombia (and, to some of extent, of the Americas)

This section will present the collection of the Gold Museum. In a first overview, we will locate technologically, spatially and chronologically the Goldwork of Ancient Colombia with some references to the Ancient Americas. This overview will introduce the audience to a general comprehension of this metallurgy and will be a starting point for a more detailed exploration of the value of the pre- Hispanic goldwork. I will show different perceptions of value of gold and metals amongst different styles through the analysis of specific contexts.

The practice of collecting: gold, the Central Bank of Colombia and anthropology in modern Colombia

In this section, I will address the histories of collecting the pre-Hispanic material culture of the Gold Museum. These histories will highlight the following issues: the relation between modernization and anthropological research and collecting; the images of the pre-Hispanic past imagined for the nation-state in Colombia; ant the ambiguities of having the Central Bank as main collector of pre-Hispanic metallurgy.

Negotiating place, identity and nation: the Gold Museum at crossroads

In this section, I will explore the consequences of becoming and being a museum in the 21st Century. Specifically, I would like to present the work of the museum as part of a contested, broader scenario in which the museum participates as a cultural producer and product. I will be concerned here with issues about representation, colonization and citizenship, and repatriation and global heritage.

Epilogue

The final words of the lecture will be devoted to place the museum as a potentially revolutionary space. These thoughts are directly connected to Benjamin’s famous statement of documents of culture as documents of barbarism: in order to become a place for an alternative future, the museum must embrace the issues that arise from the history of the collection and the institution. These issues must not be seen as some external circumstances opposed to the true meaning of the collection, but as social and cultural statements of how past, present and future interact in the museum.