Mining the museum (reprised).
Last week we learned that the Museum of Natural History in New York is going to finally address the presence of 12,000 human remains in its collection, mostly of indigenous and enslaved people. The museum will remove all human remains on view and set on a course for their proper identification and eventual return. As we well know, this museum is not alone in this practice, but only one of many collecting institutions that come from this colonialist and eugenics-influenced tradition. For the most part, the staff of museums that hold human remains generally acknowledge the problem and are personally troubled by it, but given the complexity, ethical questions and expense of the task, the subject of repatriation and return of these remains tends to be a proverbial can that gets quietly kicked down the road. Yet museums are receiving greater and greater pressure from activists and advocates and the media to act faster on this matter, which has likely contributed to the Natural History Museum’s announcement.
This is of course not the only issue that confront museums during this neo-culture war period we are currently living. During my last years in museums, my staff and I pushed to do land acknowledgments for public programs but encountered stiff resistance, under the argument that to do land acknowledgments amounted only to pay lip service to social justice. As Graeme Wood pointed out in an article in The Atlantic a few years back, “A land acknowledgment is what you give when you have no intention of giving land. It is like a receipt provided by a highway robber, noting all the jewels and gold coins he has stolen.” These kind of objections from within the institutions are often accompanied by saying that the problem is much bigger and requires a bigger solution, one to become the subject of committees that will meet for years and years and eventually dilute into bureaucratic paperwork while the status quo holds. It is through death by ethics committee that we still have, by some estimates, around half a million Native American remains in US museum collections.
Having started my museum career in the early 90s during the multiculturalism debates in the arts, I have been critical of some of the cultural policies that resulted from those years, but what I did learn from that time was how important it is to make visible that which had been glossed over; to say the name of those who have been erased by official history. It might feel like an insignificant act and should never be the last, but it is a first and crucial step into the future (incidentally, the recent Creative Time project The World’s Unfair, by the collective New Red Order, is an artistic proposal to map a future plan to return indigenous lands).
But beyond recognizing the colonial plunder that allowed for the modern world that we benefit from daily, there are other, smaller, but significant moves toward transparency and disclosure that museums should make.
Over the last two and a half years I have been collaborating with Tom Finkelpearl in writing a book about best practices for art museums. Our motivation stemmed from the fact that while a lot of new literature is emerging on the subject, we can provide a perspective that is both historical and practice-oriented, not just from the executive perspective of museum leaders, but from the perspective of museum professionals from all areas who toil on a regular basis with key issues around education, indigeneity, governance, conservation, fundraising and beyond. One topic in our investigation, which we have shared in a few articles, has involved the ethics of investing practices of those who manage museum endowments (often in fossil fuels, big pharma and the like).
But not less significant is where the money that funded many of the great art institutions of our era (MoMA, the Frick, the Getty and the Guggenheim, to name a few) came from. The origin stories of these museums are often told in glowing terms on their websites, emphasizing the visionary philanthropy of these museum founders (which do deserve to be recognized, especially given that countless American billionaires past and present never used their wealth to support the betterment of culture). Conspicuously absent (or if anything, barely mentioned) is the story behind that very wealth that built those institutions. If we rightfully pay attention to the provenance of an artwork in a museum’s holdings (e.g. if it was looted by the Nazis during the war), why should we not also pay attention of the provenance of the money that acquired an art collection? Lastly, this is not a story buried in the past, since many museums today, including recently founded ones, receive funding by family money derived from corporations that are accused of unfair labor practices.
Thus even as institutions do land acknowledgments, more importantly they should do wealth source acknowledgments.
In the case of the Guggenheim Museum, its founding story is generally told with the anecdote of Solomon R. Guggenheim meeting Hilla Rebay who later introduces him to Kandinsky in Europe and advises him into collecting non-objective painting, forming the foundation whose collection would eventually be housed by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum. Much less discussed is the fact that the Guggenheims made their fortune in mining, first through the investing of Solomon’s father, Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss industrialist. After the death of the patriarch, Daniel (one of Solomon’s brothers) took the helm of the company, initiating a number of mining projects that brought enormous wealth to the family, making them among the richest in the planet. One of the Guggenheim family’s most important investment was the purchase in 1912 of the largest open pit copper mine in the world, located in the northern region of the Atacama desert in Chile and known as Chuquicamata. The Guggenheims purchased the mine for 25 million dollars, baptizing it as the Chile Exploration Company, or Chilex. They developed an extraction system through centrifugal force that became known as the “Guggenheim Process” which made obtaining the mineral more efficient. In 1923 the family sold the mine to Anaconda Copper Co.
While the enterprise was hugely profitable for the family, there was enormous environmental damage caused by dust emissions from ore extraction, high-temperature processing, and tailings disposal. The exposure to this type of pollution, as shown in contemporary studies of this mine, resulted in conditions “associated with a wide array of chronic diseases, neurological and neurobehavioral disorders, increased cancer risk, as well as developmental abnormalities.” Ultimately, the pollution from the mine was so severe that the area was deemed unsafe for human habitation. On a personal note, when I first saw images of the open mine, (being entirely ignorant about the mining process), I was struck by how the excavation system of the open pit by creating benches, visually resembled a negative cast, Rachel Whiteread-style, of a very familiar museum.
Below is an excerpt from a video titled Chuquicamata, which narrates aspects of the history mentioned above, primarily focusing on its human impact. The video is part of an exhibition currently at the Americas Society in New York titled El Dorado: Myths of Gold, on view until December 16. The exhibition is part of a multi-part project organized in collaboration with Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires and the Museo Amparo in Puebla.
May 18, 1915.
The train departs from Antofagasta, Chile, going into the mountain range on the coast. As it turns, the windows to the left, reveal the expanse of the blue green sea. The train proceeds to the northeast, to the Salar del Carmen fault. From there it starts a slow ascent to the Cordillera Oriente that borders Bolivia at 3,696 meters from sea level; it passes Mantos Blancos and, there, finally, enters the Atacama Desert. The train crosses mountains that contain gold, silver, and copper, treasures trapped in thousands of miles of rock. There is sand, lots of very thin sand, and the heat is unbearable, asphyxiating. This is one of the least habitable parts of the world, where rain rarely if ever visits, and where there is nothing other than mineral and dust. There is not a single tree in sight, not a single bird, no water, only the vastness of the sand dunes. At times there are windstorms that make the desert impossible to navigate. Every object - a stone; an animal, or, occasionally, a human skeleton, perfectly white and polished by the wind – becoming the basis for a new mound of sand.
As the train makes another turn, the passengers can slowly see a majestic view of the red mountain, a mineralized body that measures 4.5 kilometers in extension and 1 kilometer in depth, the largest open pit copper mine in the world.
Around 5 o’clock the heat starts to dissipate, and the passengers are relieved after drinking rice water all day. They arrive in the town of Calama, at the foot of the red mountain of Chuquicamata, also known as Chuqui. The houses are made out of wood, their roofs covered with zinc.
The train station is humble, run by a single manager who also serves as the mailman. A group of rough and muscular men emerge from the station, now wearing scarves as the evening cold quickly sets in. Some of them start loading large bags filled with red metal onto the train. Others are unloading barrels of water; here, these are more precious than gold.
An elegant car awaits a group of men. After they board, it leaves and passes by La Placilla, a community in the mineral capital of the world, yet it consists of only two streets that cross each other, with wooden houses along and next to a series of bars that in the south are called restaurants. It is mostly silent here; the only constant is the ghostly whisper of the wind that grows more violent and furious at times. There is a “luxury” store, if anything can be called a luxury in this miserable town. This is where the Chilean workers live. There are no women in sight, other than those in a couple of brothels down the road. Everyone’s fate here is almost always dark; it is rumored that no one dies here under peaceful conditions. Most die of arsenic in their blood.
The car eventually arrives at the American Encampment, an oasis of lights. Once inside, you could almost convince yourself that you are not in the middle of the driest desert in the world. Music can be heard coming from the buildings, as well as the clinging of dishes and conversation from a restaurant. In the Plaza del Campamento Nuevo you could almost feel at home, next to the Chilex Club, an elegant church, a theater, and a number of busy stores.
At sunset you can see a massive image of the mine tinted in red and black and looking like a giant sleeping serpent. A monumental chimney rises from the end of the foundation, expelling dense red and black smoke.
The men sit down at a large table in the club, in anticipation. The grandfather clock in the room is ticking. Finally, through the window they see the arrival of a vehicle from the mine. Four workers in dirty garments walk into the building with an object wrapped in black cloth. They enter the room and ceremoniously unwrap the object. It is the first bar of pure copper produced by the mine.
The wind has grown violent in the darkness, hitting the windows and slamming the doors in a house outside the dusty plaza. But the group is celebratory, looking ahead to a bright future.
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