Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why Aren't More Museum Collections Published?

I just posted photos of a very odd ceramic object on my Calixtlahuaca Archaeological Project blog. I have no idea what this thing was used for, and I am hoping that someone will provide some clues or suggestions. Our puzzlement over this object brings back my complaints about the lack of publication of museum collections of Aztec materials (Smith 2004). Aztec ceramics (the materials I work most closely with) are very poorly published. There is not a single adequate descriptive report on an excavated collection of Aztec ceramics (I know, I shouldn't throw stones -- I'm sure my colleagues are asking why my book on Tlahuica Ceramics has been listed as "in press" for ten years now. But that is another story..... ).

Museums in Mexico, the U.S. and Europe are full of Aztec ceramic objects that remain unpublished. Most Aztec ceramics aren't as nice as, say Classic Maya polychromes or Mixteca-Puebla polychromes, so they haven't attracted much attention from connoisseurs or art historians. Many examples of the finer Aztec ceramics, such as the fancy stuff excavated from offerings at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, are published in expensive art books and elsewhere. But at the provincial sites I excavate, we don't get too many of these fine objects. But we do get some rare and complex things like musical instruments and various kinds of incense burners. But they are almost always in very fragmentary form, and the lack of publication of the whole objects in museum storage collections really hampers the intepretation of these things; this is the theme of my 2004 paper.

But why aren't these museum collections published? Here are some off-the-cuff answers to that question.
  1. Its too expensive publish museum collections. Even for internet publication, which saves the costs of printing and binding, someone has to take the time to photograph and document the museum collections, organize the data, and write descriptions (not to mention producing the html and host the project).
  2. Its not fashionable to do documentation projects. Most art historians would rather spend all their time on a couple of really fine objects than on documenting the range of variation within a material category. Its difficult or impossible in art history or archaeology to get funding for documentation projects; they just aren't sexy enough. When museums start documenting their collections digitally, the Aztec ceramics are pretty low on their priority scale.
  3. Museums don't have the resources to document their collections. When I started working at Calixtlahuaca, I wrote to museums in Europe to see if they had collections from the site (it was a favored stop for foreign collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many museums have collections from that time). One beleaguered curator replied that he had absolutely no idea whether his museum had anything from the site, and that he had no way to even find that out, given recent budget cuts.
  4. Museums often put up roadblocks. Some museums charge a fee for any use of images of their objects, whether for print publication or internet posting. Others allow such images to be posted, but add restrictions. For example, as an experiment a few years ago I posted a collection of ceramic vessels from Calixtlahuaca and other sites in two U.S. museums. I got permission from the museums, but one required that their reproduction policy be available within a single click of each image. That seems reasonable, but it meant that the automated program I used (it was called Arles) was unable to produce the html files, which required hours of hand editing.
  5. Archaeologists avoid museum collections, since most are poorly documented with many unprovenienced objects. Yet I don't need to know precisely where a particular Aztec ceramic widget came from in order to get some use out of the object.
I don't have any big conclusions or solutions here. One of my many fantasy "retirement projects" is to travel to the great museums of Europe and document their collections of Aztec ceramic objects. But that is a long way off, and I would really like to know NOW what some of the weird ceramic fragments we get really are.

Smith, Michael E.
2004 Aztec Materials in Museum Collections: Some Frustrations of a Field Archaeologist. Nahua Newsletter 38:21-28.


I just found a news story stating the the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania has just announced a new initiative to digitize its entire inventory and post images and information on the internet (but I couldn't find any information about this on the University Museum's web site. Hmmmmm). This is great news. I know they have some Aztec pottery; maybe they have a complete example of one of these weird objects.....

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