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Exhibiting the repatriation of archaeological heritage

San José, capital of Costa Rica, may not be the main tourist destination of this beautiful Central American country. Tourists normally spend a night or two at the city on their way to paradise-like beaches or national parks. Nonetheless, for the museum- or heritage-enthusiast, San José offers plenty of opportunity to explore the rich archaeological heritage of Central America and its Caribbean coastline.

El Retorno de lo Nuestro - Patrimonio Recuperado

Just a few months ago, the Museo Nacional opened a temporary exhibition on the return to Costa Rica of looted and illegally traded archaeological artifacts. The problem of illicit trade and looting – or huaquerismo in Spanish – is well-known to archaeologists, academics, museum professionals and government officials. In recent years, the international media has increasingly focused on the consequences of war and political disruption to cultural heritage – with special attention to looting and cultural destruction in the Middle East. Therefore, raising public awareness about this problem is of central importance. In this sense, the exhibition “El Retorno de lo Nuestro – Patrimonio Recuperado” comes as a great opportunity for the wider public to learn more about the legislation and the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin – in this case, Costa Rica.

The Exhibition

What is illicit trade and looting? Where and how does it happen? What are the laws regulating the import and export of cultural objects? How do governments, museums and other professionals deal with the return of cultural property to its countries of origin? These are some of the questions answered by the exhibition, which was curated by Leidy Bonilla Vargas and Marlin Calvo Mora. Displayed throughout three large, interconnected rooms at the Museo Nacional, overlooking the city of San José, “El Retorno…” starts with a life-size statue of a warrior wearing a zoomorphic mask, a belt, and tattoos. The statue is placed in the center of the smallest of the three exhibition rooms, on its own, dimly lit. Its size and weight impress the visitor and makes one wonder: how can such a huge and heavy piece of work be – illegally! – transported out of the country? The question is answered at the end of the exhibition.

The exhibition displays 80 different Pre-Columbian objects that were recovered from private collectors in Costa Rica, the United States, Canada, Spain, France, and Italy. The objects come from archaeological sites in the regions of Guanacaste, the Caribbean and the Central Valley and include ceramic vessels, greenstone amulets, carved ceremonial metates, human figurines and even stone spheres – these are unique to the archaeological sites of the Diquís Delta in Costa Rica, which have been inscribed in the World Heritage List. Some objects, we learn, were voluntarily returned to Costa Rica. Others had to undergo processes of diplomatic negotiations and international law enforcement. These efforts were only successful due to the international collaboration between governments, consulates, embassies, museums, and customs and police departments worldwide: museum archaeology becomes detective work!

The last part of the exhibition focuses on how these objects are physically transported from and back to Costa Rica. The real examples of packaging in layers of bubble wrap, or inside crates or boxes lined with polyethylene foam, allow the visitor to picture and appreciate the careful and precise work done by those involved in the recovery of archaeological objects. We learn that it is not only a long and sensitive process of political and diplomatic maneuvering, but also the physical and practical sides of the process have to be carefully planned and executed so as not to damage the artifacts

Strength of the Exhibition

Socially relevant and aesthetically pleasing, the strength of this exhibition is that it tells a complex story in simple, easy-to-follow terms. It relies on traditional museographical techniques and materials: exhibition panels, objects, labels, the proper use of colors and a balanced text. No fancy technological gadgets are needed, no interactive clichés that may deviate the attention or blur the storyline. Visitors to this exhibition will leave the museum having seen what kinds of objects are looted and how. They will have learned about the process of repatriation or recovery of cultural objects. More importantly, this exhibition can also serve as an encouragement for participation: the exhibition website includes information on how to return cultural objects or how to make a denúncia anonymously. As they say: ¡Sea parte de la solución!

By Mariana Françozo

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