The New York Metropolitan Museum has in its collection more than 6000 objects created centuries ago on the currently occupied by America territory. They include Olmec vessels, jade masks, sculptures in stone Aztec, Peruvian textiles or figures Taino shellfish, with artifacts from Africa and Oceania share [space of the] Michael C. Rockefeller Gallery of the Met, opened to the public in 1982. After 40 years, the private institution began a redevelopment of space, “A complete conceptual and physical revision” which will be completed in November 2024. The team includes Mexican researcher Laura Filloy, doctor of archeology from the University of Paris, who has been appointed associate curator of the collection of pre- hispanics. “The challenge is to find a proper space in the museum for the art of the Americas,” she said from New York, where she moved / installed in February.
Filloy (Mexico, 55) notes that the American collection will be “a new discursive space” in the hall of 40,000 square feet overlooking Central Park. “Dr. Joanne Pillsbury, who is expert in the art of South America, and I, who have just completed part of Central America to the north, invite a dialogue that gives voice to all these objects, which have a cultural weight of more than 4,000 years,” says Filloy, who will be the first Mexican to hold this position at the American museum. During her years as a curator, Filloy was particularly interested in the life stories of artifacts millennia: she studied pieces such as the chimalliA shield of leather and feathers preserved in the Museum of Mexican history. “Most important,” she said, “is to try to give voice to those artists of the past and fit them in the present.”
QUESTION. How archaeological pieces fit they in an art museum?
TO RESPOND. Well, try to understand precisely in the context of what an artistic production, a materialization of creativity and ideas behind an object. These days, through these objects, we know more about the history of people who lived on this continent. We have deepened, for example, our knowledge of Maya writing and we know more about this artistic production through the voice of its creators.
Although all cultures have not signed their works, there are works that are signed. For example, in Mayan art, the creators demonstrate intentionality, to delineate a space of creation and say “it is we who have done this.”
It is interesting that currently Mexico, Museum of Fine Arts, a space is reserved for contemporary Indigenous art. Normally indigenous art was at the Anthropology Museum or Museum of Popular Arts, but now it can be found in a site dedicated to the fine arts and this is very important. There is a change in the way of seeing things.
Q What is the biggest challenge of this new position?
A. One of the challenges is to try to find a place for the art of the Americas in the museum. Since the creation of the Metropolitan, the collections of the Americas have not found their place in the world of universal artistic creation. It is because of the history of art itself, and locate the art of Mexico has always been complex. Many objects have been included in the collection of sculptures, then went to the Renaissance art in the post-Renaissance art, or decorative arts. That is to say that they were not marked as artistic production of a region of several cultures.
The renovation of the exhibition halls will create this space. For one, it will be a very important part of the museum: Michael Rockefeller Gallery is very large and overlooks Central Park. The objects of the Americas will be in this area, where there is plenty of natural light, which will allow us to see the pieces in a different way. Traditionally, the objects are placed in enclosed spaces with little light or where it is not possible to see the qualities of the materials and how they were manufactured. The continent is under consideration, but each culture speaks for itself. And, according to the tradition of the arrival of objects in the museum, also with art from Africa and art from Oceania. But not mixed.
Q How did they get to the museum?
A. Metropolitan Collections are framed by an interest nineteenth century American art and production, and by the attempt to appreciate the links with other artistic traditions worldwide. In general, these American objects more interested anthropologists, archaeologists or geologists. Indeed, typically American collections were in natural history museums. The Met was very early interested in exploring the characteristics of these objects as artistic creations, seeing their innovation and creativity. That is to say, recognizing the people behind these objects and positioning of American art in the universal language of art.
Q Two centuries ago, museums were considered “chambers of wonder”. What is the role of a museum like the Met today?
A. Museums are for the public. And their duty is to transmit advanced knowledge in different ways, regardless of their point of view. Ultimately, we are all dedicated to the study of human production. It is very important for me to try to bring the museum to the greatest diversity of audiences, not just the educated public.
I would like to try to reach communities that don’t usually go to art museums. Sometimes art museums intimidate us, we are more likely to go to a natural history museum.
Q As part of the space transformation, will there also be a review of the narrative and concept [of the collection]?
A. Absoutely. The collection has been overhauled over the past 40 years and not only, there has been substantial progress in the field of Hispanic studies worldwide. The idea is to take particular what is known about the collection and enrich the liking advanced the study of art history, archeology, anthropology and materials . In addition, experts from different cultural areas colleagues have also been asked to be involved in ideas on how to better tell these objects in the specific context of artistic production and try to find a dialogue between these parts.
Q What would your contribution be?
A. I like to tell stories and try to ensure that the public does not see only an artifact, but as the object moves something in him, which makes think beyond the form or material, and see the object as a container of ideas. Another fascinating thing is to see the materiality of objects and understand the point of view of the artist, [such as] why they chose certain types of materials. That may be because it allowed them to do this or that type of work, but these topics are also full of meaning. I want us to, for example, appreciate the transparency of green stones: we believe that jades are dense stones, but not if we see them in another type of light that we can see this transparency, these green colors that were related to important concepts for the Maya. I was always interested in sharing the life stories of objects, that is to say, to understand them in the context of why, how and by whom they were created, and what was their history.
Q It is difficult to determine the origin of parts that are out there for centuries the territory where they were created.
A. Yes, progress in the study of styles, techniques and materials of these objects allow to contextualize and situate them in a temporality and geography. The Metropolitan Museum, there is a large scientific team that supports this part of the investigation and there are also archives that reflect the subsequent history of the objects which we can trace much of their history.
Q In different countries, there is a debate about the return of archaeological pieces to the countries that claim them. Recently, France sent a consignment [back] Benin, for example, and in January, two Mexicans have inserted false audioguide [in the museum in Vienna] to open the debate in Austria about the relocation of the headdress of Moctezuma. What is your position on the return of archaeological artefacts preserved by museums?
A. It’s complicated because I just arrived at the museum. I have not the tools to be able to give an answer from my current position. What I can say is that museums are conservation areas, dialogue and knowledge transfer, and that’s what we need to promote. Now, there will be other things to consider, and I think Alisa LaGamma can give a better answer, because it is the curator [Met’s] African collections and has been involved in such initiatives.
Q Does this debate take place inside the museum?
A. It is difficult for me to answer. But there is [certainly] sensitivity to the museum. Alisa LaGamma, curator Africa, was born in Africa, and Maia Nuku is the curator of Oceania and its ancestors are Maori, and now Pillsbury Joanna and I add the American side in this department. This is to give voice to the communities of origin. There are experiences, but I can not talk about it because I have not known them. But Oceania and Africa have been involved in this discourse that takes place in the world.
Q In Mexico, the government insists that efforts be made to bring the parts back from abroad.
A. I’m not very involved in the political aspects of this issue. In Mexico, we have incredible museums, we have wonderful collections, we have a vast cultural heritage and we should be concerned to have the resources to study this heritage, learn about it, promulgate and make it not only local but also global level. Traveling in the territory, from the other side and know what the other is doing is important, and if one has the opportunity to cross-border travel and see another type of human production, it is amazing, it makes you understand a lot about how the world works.
Q In addition, the national union of restorers from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) was demanding improvements for months. You have actively supported this request. How do budget cuts jeopardize heritage?
A. We can consider this as the opposite: we should look for a way to have a budget to continue to study, preserve, promote and protect cultural heritage. Certainly it would not be only direct budget for conservation, but also for the study and dissemination [of objects and knowledge]. Without resources, it is obviously difficult to carry out the required tasks for this large area of protection and study of cultural heritage. One would expect that more budget for culture and education is a global trend. I think this would make us better as human beings.
The situation in Mexico is complex, but there are people who give everything to protect the heritage, understand, study, understand and disseminate.