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Cultural Perspectives


The Museum of the Americas is, of course, concerned with the artistic merit and aesthetics. But more than that, is the message that the differences in material culture creates an environment which recognized that all people do not necessarily think the same way nor value the same things.

Understanding differences is the very basis for developing a sense of tolerance. Understanding diversity and valuing other peoples’ ways of looking at the world is no longer a luxury of the leisure class; it is a necessity if people of different cultural backgrounds are going to survive. This is a teaching collection which aspires to be comprehensive for The Americas.

The Museum of the Americas is dedicated to the collection, preservation, presentation, study, and interpretation of the traditional arts and crafts of Native America, Mexico, and Latin America. These arts and crafts are the objects made, used, traded, and sold by ethnically identifiable peoples. These objects are presented in regional contexts. Traditions respect the past and influence the future; although the collections of the Museum focus on the 20th century, they reach back and point ahead.

Native America

Despite official governmental suppression of Native American cultures in the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Native American craft traditions survived. The Sun Dance and what has been called the Sun Dance Religion were aggressively suppressed, as was the potlatch among the Northwest Coast Indians; eradication of native languages in the United States and Canada was government policy to be achieved by forcing children to attend Indian schools and to live in dormitories where English only was spoken. But these same schools taught traditional Indian crafts, and railroad tourism encouraged the sale of these crafts to tourists.

The selling and trading of traditional crafts was not new to Native America. These same peoples had traded their crafts and technology among themselves for centuries; the fluted Folsom and Plainview points have been found throughout North America, as are obsidian points far from any immediate source for obsidian. Baskets and pottery have been and still are traded among Native Americans themselves. So, although many individual items in the collections of the Museum could be labeled "tourist items," they fit well within traditional patterns of crafting for trade or sale.

Often when names of Native American craftsmen become associated with the crafts themselves, it is a clear indication that a lost tradition has been resurrected or reinvented. The biographies of the most celebrated traditional potters, Maria Popovida of San Ildefonso, Nampeyo of Hopi and Lucy Lewis of Acoma, make this point quite clear. But what is important about their work and the work of other well-known Native American craftsmen is that their work at resurrecting and reviving lost traditions effectively provided some sense of cultural identity to their people who had developed a real sense of cultural loss from the fading memories of language among the younger people.


In Mexico the War for Independence severed ties with Spain, but left in place a nation controlled by virtually the same aristocracy. The Mexican Revolution during the first decade of the 20th century created the cultural framework that identifies modern Mexico. Modern Mexico is in fact a conscious blend of European and indigenous cultures; modern industrial cities signal European connections, but it is the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and similar institutions scattered throughout the state capitols that serve as the icons for indigenous Mexico. There are a number of indigenous cultures in Mexico that have remained separate and distinct from not only Spanish rule but also from the earlier Aztec and Maya civilizations, the Otomi, Tarahumara, and Zapotec, for example.

The Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City presents the full spectrum — pre-Columbian civilizations as well as modern indigenous cultures and village crafts, what the Museum identifies as artes popular, the popular arts or the arts of the people. In the southern states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, for example, whole villages are known for the crafts they produce: Teotitlan de Valle produces serapes and rugs; Coyotapec produces a black pottery; Santa Maria Atzompa pottery figurines, and so forth. Many of these villages produce primarily the same crafts they produced for trade before the Spanish ever arrived in the New World. Trade days move from village to village throughout the week, week after week, year after year. The popular arts are the commerce of rural Mexico. The collection in the Museum of the Americas presents both the useful (mason’s tools, laundry boards, baskets, dishes and so forth) and the purely decorative, which includes objects now regarded as folk art, much of it anonymously produced.

Latin America

With the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Native Americans were able to revive their cultural heritage and fading traditions. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, through the aegis of the Organization of American States, indigenous peoples attained “rights” and, in fact, an identity and recognition they had never had during the centuries of “New Spain” and the other European colonia. More recently these people are being disenfranchised as in Argentina, where the government policy recognizes all peoples as citizens, thus effectively eliminating the class “indigenous people.” What at first appears to be some sort of new equity for indigenous peoples effectively negates any claims these peoples might have legally to lands and identities taken from them. However, most of the larger countries in the hemisphere, especially those that cultivate a strong tourist trade, still maintain indigenous craft associations, and the governments themselves actively market the crafts these peoples produce. These craft associations, in turn, have served as something of a catalyst for manufacture and sale of folk art not only in the countries now known for their indigenous peoples but also in those countries where few if any indigenous peoples remain; these countries include virtually all the countries of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, however small. In very poor countries, Haiti, for example, these folk arts sold to tourists represent vital industries. NAFTA is now permanently changing the production of crafts in Mexico and Central America; because jobs in maquiladores are paying marginally higher wages, traditional crafts are rapidly on the decline. To preserve some sense of the craft traditions constitutes the third dimension of the Museum of the Americas collections.

Beyond Language

Language and especially a people’s literature are traditionally the means for articulating the differences, often very subtle, in the ways people see life in all of its manifestations; the ways in which a language or literature functions demonstrate and distinguish the nuances of a people’s thinking. Interpretation relies heavily upon impressions. But there are limits to language, and even the most carefully worded argument still relies upon impressions. Often it is a people’s material culture that holds a key to how people think differently. In illiterate or only marginally literate societies, the material culture often provides a vital link to oral traditions. In the current age that seems to have an obsession in defining people by the foods they eat or the myths and tales they tell, the idea of recognizing peoples by material objects they produced or produce has in fact faded. The collections of the Museum of the Americas attempt to show these differences and diversities in the same way the Smithsonian Museum proposed in its review of collections in 1903. What people make and use and, probably, value remains something of a constant.

Evolving Traditions

When plastic buckets are as cheap and durable as they are, one questions the why behind basket weaving or pottery making. In some Southwestern Indian cultures women were traditionally the basket makers or the potters; now men often practice these arts or assist the women, using traditional techniques and design. And the opposite is true; women now carve masks and take active roles in tribal leadership formerly associated with men only. Traditions seem to help people to identify themselves. In Oaxaca the village of San Martin Tilcajete that was once known for its carving of ox-team yokes is now known for its carvings of whimsical figures which either the men or women paint in brilliant colors after a manner peculiar to that village; a village near the Casas Grande Ruins in Chihuahua produces one type of pottery known as Mata Ortiz: village identity can be as important as individual identity. The Museum of the Americas honors these different ways of looking at the world.

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