The Internal Semantics
The contents of the museum are organized like chapters in a book or section headings, with five main themes or areas: Knowledge, The Reality of America, Society, Religion and Communication. The five themes are divided into subheadings, each of which corresponds to a room connecting to what comes before or after it. Each of the themes is separated from the others by some type of architectural barrier (stairs, empty spaces, etc.). Like a written text, the museum uses a sort of punctuation mark, the museum label, to establish the connections and divisions between the different themes. Similarly, the building structure and arrangement of the exhibition as a gallery are designed so that visitors follow a single path leading from the first exhibit room to the last (Basu, 2007).
The first theme, “Knowledge,” is subdivided into “Tools of Knowledge in America,” “Allegory: America, between Myth and Reality,” “A Natural History Cabinet” and “Cartography.” After visiting these three rooms, the goal is for “the visitor to recognize how the image of America was constructed over centuries, where information based on the observation of reality is mixed with imagination,” as stated on one of the first panels. The first room, “Tools of Knowledge in America,” presents the different visions of the New World that appeared in Europe around the time of the conquest. In a telling arrangement, etchings of monstrous are overlaid with narratives, some fantastical and others not so much. According to the museum, some of these narratives are the result of first-hand experiences, while others are imagined, as if “having being there,” (on the part of the narrators) provided some guarantee of the veracity of the interpretation (Geertz, 1989). Yet according to the museum narrative, these initial perceptions of the Americas are transformed by the arrival of empirical science. This is depicted in the museum through cabinets of natural history from the eighteenth century and later through cartography. It is the advance of science—once again, according to the museum’s narrative—which has allowed the fanciful discourse of the initial period to become the true discourse of the exhibition. In other words, science transmits a certain image of the continent, yielding the reality of America, which is the title of the next museum theme. The documentary film that used to be shown in the first segment, like the other documentaries shown, had sought to make the exhibition coherent. Topics included Columbus and the impact of the “discovery” of the New World on the Old Continent. A few years ago this documentary was replaced by another video, without a voice-over, that shows images from the museum itself. The meeting of these two worlds is represented in the accounts of sailors, missionaries, military men, government officials and scientists, who describe the marvels they witnessed in their travels. The others, the residents of the vast continents, are represented by objects—generally clay pots—as if their narratives had never existed or as if their experience could only be presented through scientific discourse, with a preference for ethnography or archeology as opposed to history (Dening, 1996).
The second room is a reproduction of a natural history cabinet from the eighteenth century. The types of classifications for objects brought back to Spain by scientific expeditions are shown here; the fundamental criterion was the formality or the uses that scientists attributed to the objects. The room is lined with glass cases displaying hats, musical instruments and metal spears. This room represents a clear transition between the mythic thought of the first travelers to America and scientific thought, as represented by the museum. Two items are particularly out of place in this transition: a bust of Cortes (later replaced by a bust of Fernando VI and now by a feather headdress with no label) and an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. At the end of the room, as a sort of transition between this room and the next room on cartography, there is a large-scale reproduction of an Aztec calendar engraved in stone, though until recently there was no label or explanation whatsoever. In several of my works, I have questioned this silence. A few months ago, a small label explaining the calendar was added.
The next room, which presents cartography, begins with a documentary film, complete with dramatic music, on the technical advances—ships, navigating instruments and way of representing the earth—that allowed America to be “discovered” (my quotation marks). Each glass case shows a series of maps, going from the first handmade maps to a current satellite image of the planet. The caption to the last still image of the documentary reads as follows: “At the end of the eighteenth century, all of the oceans and their coasts had essentially been outlined. The real image of the world was complete.” The main idea behind this part of the exhibit is that knowledge is bound to technological progress, as if technology were the only true way of accessing reality. In contrast, it would appear that the others—the other cultures, those of America— knew nothing of geographical space and were incapable of representing it until the Europeans arrived and maps were made. The contribution of the Native Americans is reduced to ceramics, to vessels in the shape of marine animals, though the museum provides no label whatsoever for them.