Mexico & Central America Virtual Hall
Culture Area
What is the history of the Mexico & Central America Hall?
The Mexico & Central America Hall in 1910 and 1911

The objects in the Mexico & Central America Hall represent a very small fraction of the roughly half a million objects in the collections of the Anthropology Division. Most of these objects were acquired over the span of about 100 years beginning around 1869, the year the Museum was established. Very few pieces have been acquired since 1970 because of the Museum's strict adherence to the 1970 UNESCO treaty on cultural property.
The Anthropology Division was established in 1873 but the first hall dedicated exclusively to the archaeology of Mexico and Central America was not founded until 1899. In the late 1800s archaeologists were only beginning to understand how systematic excavations could shed light on pre-Hispanic culture. Most of what Americans and Europeans knew about the pre-Hispanic past came from architecture and sculpture found in ruined cities or from studying ethnohistoric documents (oral history written down after the conquest). Museum exhibits usually focused on sculpture and unique pieces, not on the typical artifacts scientists study to understand everyday life. The 1899 hall primarily contained plaster copies of Maya and Aztec sculpture on display at museums in Mexico and Europe.

At the same time, research initiatives implemented by Anthropology Chair Frederick Ward Putnam in 1894 were beginning to scientifically acquire information about the pre-Hispanic past. The Museum sponsored its first expedition to Mexico in 1894. The research was directed by curator Marshall H. Saville and financed by a loyal Museum patron named Joseph Florimond Loubat, the Duke of Loubat. In Mexico, Marshall Saville collaborated with Eduard Seler, a noted German scholar, and with Leopoldo Batres, the Mexican government's director of antiquities. Artifacts from Saville's work in Oaxaca are on display in the hall. The next curator, Herbert Spinden, was an expert on Maya art and he acquired several artifacts from noted Maya sites, including two important carved stone panels from Kabah originally collected by the famous explorer John Lloyd Stephens in 1839-1840.
In the 1930s and 1940s, research conducted by curator George Vaillant contributed to the creation of a timeline of pre-Hispanic culture. Dr. Vaillant and his American and Mexican colleagues studied ethnohistory, but derived most of their data from excavation. They worked out cultural stratigraphies to examine the material record of a region and to determine the comparative antiquity of cultures in different regions. Radiocarbon dating, a technique used to assign an absolute date to a deposit, was not available to archaeologists until the 1950s. Establishing the cultural stratigraphy of a region requires the analysis of objects that people use everyday such as pots and dishes, tools, personnel adornments, and religious objects. The adoption of a scientific methodology allowed archaeologists to hypothesize what cultures were like, how they interacted, and how they changed over time. This scientific approach and the new data it produced were incorporated into the hall in 1944. The current hall, established in 1970, was the vision of Gordon Ekholm, the fourth curator of Mexico and Central America. Dr. Ekholm worked on the Gulf Coast and in West Mexico and his research established a better picture of the archaeology of those regions.
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