Revealing Ancestral Central America, edited by Rosemary Joyce, is one of those museum books intended for slow grazing, on both images and text. As are many such books, it was prepared for publication to accompany an exhibition - the Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America ́s Past Revealed, a joint project of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the Smithsonian Latino Center.
The images are primarily of artefacts found in the Central American collection of the NMAI. The texts were written by diverse experts and scholars and have the stated intention of revealing "the lives of the ancestors of the indigenous, mestizo, and afromestizo peoples of Central America." In a Foreword penned by NMAI Director Kevin Cover, of the Pawnee nation, and Eduardo Diaz, Executive Director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, say that:
"Herein we honor the enduring, economically and politically stable cultural traditions of pre-Hispanic Central America through their exceptional material culture. Sharing this cultural patrimony and acknowledging its value is both our challenge and our responsibility, and we gladly take up the charge."
I've long been interested in both the art and the way of life of cultures not my own, past snd present. The artefacts presented for display in this volume give us (a modern, Western museum-going audience) a look at these aspects of Central American peoples, and the accompanying articles an overview of what is known or theorised about them. These contain fascinating discussions of art, government, trade, industry, everyday life, religious life, and other elements of the various Central American cultures. The artefacts chosen for presentation in this volume range from household items to decorative pieces and ritual objects, and represent a number of different cultures and time periods. There is much to engage the eye as well as the mind here.
Some of the articles are also valuable for discussions of how scientists and scholars do their work - the practices and paradigms of archeology and anthropology - and how artefacts such as these are collected and curated. The articles that discuss acquisition do not shy away from acknowledging a past of looting, theft, reckless excavation and other issues, but give only cursory consideration the the question of who has the right to collect, display (and benefit from) the cultural artefacts of indigenous peoples.
Unanswered questions: how many of these artefacts were in essence stolen? How many have sacred or culturally significant importance that would, if respected, mean they should not be publicly displayed? Are there people who can be considered as legitimate inheritors of the cultures represented, and if so, have they asked for the return of any of these artefacts to their native environment? Has anyone approached those inheritors and asked permission to retain these artefacts on display?