Rescuing a grand collection

Green glazed candle holder (1970) from Patamban, Tangancicuaro, Michoacan at the Querétaro museum

In Mexico, the somewhat dramatic word “rescatar” (lit. rescue) is used to mean to write about something that has fallen into obscurity. But perhaps in this case, “rescue” may be accurate.

Until the 1985 earthquake, Mexico City’s main handcraft museum was the Museo de Artes e Industriales Populares, located on Juarez Street near the Torre Latinoamericana in the city’s historic center. This area was hard-hit by the quake and hosts a monument to it in a plaza at the site of the former Hotel Regis.

The museum’s building was heavily damaged by the earthquake, but it and its collection of handcrafts from all over Mexico, limped along until 1997, when a fire closed the building. The museum disappeared and seemingly, so did its collection.

What happened was the the collection was boxed up and put in storage under the official care of one federal agency or another. Today, it is under the auspices of the Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (National Institute of Indigenous Peoples or INPI). The long storage means that the collection was not scattered among other museums or worse, vanished with no trace. However, that does not mean it did not suffer until 15 years ago.

Ceramic pieces at the INPI building in Mexico City

Coming in at over 24,000 pieces, the collection is one of the largest and most important in Mexico, but very few people know about it. Many of the items are jammed into a portion of INPI’s building  in Colonia Xoco in Mexico City… not even a warehouse, but rather a section of the building with the best temperature and humidity attributes for the purpose. With the lack of a warehouse INPI has done the next best thing, the purchase specialized shelving, drawers and packing materials about 4 years ago or so. And none too soon… as another major quake 32 years to the day, shook the city in 2017. Fortunately, the collection suffered only very minor damage.

Display of traditional Otomi garb at the Querétaro museum

By sheer numbers, the most important part of the collection is pottery, followed by textiles.  However, there are some speciality collections that distinguish it from others in the country. It has the most important collection of traditional lacquerware spanning centuries and four states: Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacan… and even pieces from the state of Durango, which I did not know produced any lacquerware. The oldest piece in INPI’s entire collection is a small lacquerware cabinet from the 17th century. The lacquerware, until a few years ago, was housed in a museum dedicated to it in Chiapa de Corzo, but it was recalled to Mexico City because the facilities could not control temperature and humidity in a environment with extremes in both. Another important sub-collection is that of handcrafts made almost exclusively by indigenous peoples in the north of the country. This is a region that is notoriously ignored by most Mexican folk art collectors, mostly because the center and south have dominated fine handcraft making since before the Spanish arrived.

Musical instruments from the north of Mexico at the INPI building
Antique lacquered plate at the INPI building

That INPI has been tasked with the preservation, and since 2004, the cataloguing and “rescue” of the pieces and their documentation (much of which was lost starting from 1985), means that, ironically, they are taking care of heritage that is mostly made by mestizo hands, not indigenous ones. The task is laborious and extraordinarily slow. Experts are sought through INPI’s other work and contacts to identify where pieces come from and if at all possible, who made them. Such efforts mean that almost all pieces are labeled with what is known (not a given in Mexican museums) but still only 5 to 10% of the pieces have an identified author.

Lacquered gourds and other pieces when they were still at the Lacquerware Museum in Chiapa de Corzo

Despite the loss of pieces and documentation of old museum collection, the collection is important enough to have attracted a number of donations, including major ones from the family of former President Echeverria and one from the Rufino Tamayo family. This last donation is still being counted and catalogued.

Part of the mask collection

Because of its overall anthropological mission, INPI has good support services to go with the collection, including a library with books, sound files and video. These are in a different building in another part of town, but are readily accessible to the public. INPI lacks a major space to exhibit the collection, which is the main reason why it is unknown to the public. It does run some small museums called the Museo Indígena, Antigua Aduana de Peravillo in Mexico City, the Museo Indígena Huatapera in Uruapan, Michoacan and Museo Indígena Queretaro, which house various handcrafts from the collection. But these are institutions dedicated to Mexico’s indigenous heritage, not to handcrafts, per se.

Huipil from Oaxaca

A number of the mestizo pieces are on permanent loan to other museums such as the Museo de Ceramica in Tlaquepaque, and the Folk Art Museums at the University of Colima and in Merida. The rest of the collection is in Colonia Xoco, where it remains available mostly for professional study and for loans to major museums in Mexico and abroad for temporary exhibits. Not all pieces in the collection are available for lending. Those deemed too valuable or too fragile stay in the hands of the agency. Same for those which have not been adequately documented.

With a limited budget and an immense task, perhaps the most impressive part about INPI’s handcraft collection is the people who work with it. Director Octavio Murillo and his staff are the most accessible federal employees I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They answer emails and other communication promptly and are genuinely interested in working with those who care about the collection as they do.

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