San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What Museum Exhibits Don’t Explain

Museums inspire wonder and imagination through the linear narrative of history and fact, all tastefully encapsulated in glass and explained in succinct spoonfuls of information on placards.

But the question often overlooked is where those histories and fact – and where the artifacts, themselves – really came from.

The rummaging and ransacking of tombs and sacred sites filled with valuable goods has been a get-rich-quick scheme since there was any history from which to steal.

It wasn’t until the past two centuries; however, that there were was a large enough market for the plundering to become an organized and global commercial activity.

With the establishment of the world’s great museums, a semi-legal market for the trade of historic artifacts was opened during the 19th Century, lasting through the 1950s in many areas in the world. In Costa Rica, the practice was made illegal in 1982 when the government passed the National Archeological Heritage Law.

But by 1982, the collections of many museums already had been established; not only through the sweat and painstaking work of archeologists, but also through that of looters and dealers looking for the right price.

“I got into archeology through looking at all of the looting going on at my Peace Corps site,” said Michael Snarskis, an archeologist who has worked in Costa Rica since 1974.

To this day, the National Museum of Costa Rica is the only museum in the country that has any artifacts discovered through scientific excavations. Both the JadeMuseum and the GoldMuseum purchased the entirety of their collections either from collectors or straight from looters.

But at the time, that was how things were done, any specialists said.

The law that was passed in 1982 changed everything, creating a National Archeological Council and a national registry where every artifact is supposed to be listed – though no one claims that is the case for all of them.

“We can’t (add to our collection) anymore,” said the JadeMuseum’s archeologist, Virginia Novoa. “We can’t get anything else. The law doesn’t permit it.”

The law establishes that the trade of Costa Rica’s historical artifacts is illegal. It also states that any object found in the country belongs to the government, and thus, to the NationalMuseum.

While the practice of illegal trade has not been stopped, due to a plethora of artifacts to be found throughout the country, there are differing opinions within the archeological community about how to view the majority of items that occupy the display cases and exhibits of the country’s museums.

“In reality, many of the objects are out of archeological context,” Novoa said. “The context is the prism through which archeologists encounter the objects and all of the signs that are left by past cultures.”

But the objects still maintain their value, just for the visual and physical information they provide: style, material and symbols can all be used to draw more information from an object when comparing it to similar objects found through scientific excavation.

“The collections that were bought in the country before the law changed, these still offer a great deal of context and give us an idea of how to think about the past,” said Floria Arrea, who is finishing her master’s degree in the field at the University of Costa Rica.

Without that context, however, the objects are no more than beautiful pieces of art. The Jade and GoldMuseums provide little more than pretty collections, Snarskis said.

“What they’re doing is what we call antiquarianism, the collecting of antique objects,” he said.

While Novoa said the JadeMuseum is much more than a superficial collection of objects, its aim is not to be a scientific museum, but to provide visitors with an enjoyable time.

“The (Jade) Museum is a place where people can arrive and enjoy themselves – to rest a moment,” Novoa said. “Tourists come to learn something about the culture of a country… I believe that we shouldn’t overwhelm visitors to the museum with chronological and technical things. It’s not a scientific museum. But it gives context, and it’s beautifully done.”

Elena Troyo, president of the National Archeological Council agreed, saying both the Jade and the GoldMuseums are home to more beautiful artifacts than the NationalMuseum.

That, in part, has to do with the benefactors. The Central Bank provides the financial backing for the GoldMuseum, and the National Insurance Institute does the same for the JadeMuseum. Thus, both museums had access to far more money than did the NationalMuseum while buying artifacts was still legal.

The NationalMuseum now has full control over all historical objects found in Costa Rica – at least in theory.

“It’s the private practice of looting that is really hard to control,” said Myrna Rojas, an archeologist with the NationalMuseum and national registry. “But there are people watching.”

The National Archeological Council has to approve every excavation done in the country and make sure they are performing the excavations correctly. Any object found is registered with the NationalMuseum and handed over to them. The only exception is granted the University of Costa Rica, which is allowed to keep what it finds as long as the artifacts are used for educational purposes.


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