Mexico City Museums are funny, contradictory institutions. The ones we hear about and see most often are the cultural playgrounds of the elite and powerful that contain and promote the dominant institutional, political, and historical messages that are intended to acculturate the rest of us. These are ones that get the big grants, have the society fundraising balls, and harvest the bequests from the wills of the well-born. Michael J. Lewis, the art historian and critic, has gone so far as to argue that the actual art in many of these museums has become irrelevant to the “experience” and of course the asset exchange. Fortunately, there are other voices that break through the cracks like weeds in a concrete sidewalk that unabashedly might be seen as “peoples’ museums.”
I think about this from time to time as we try to get our arms around our own peoples’ narratives and the value of their lives and struggles. It’s not a new concern. More than thirty years ago, we got a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities to produce a traveling series of displays that we trucked around the country, and that are lost to us now, called “This Might Dream: Social Protests in the United States,” that was a bit of a traveling history museum as well as an accompanying book and commentary by Madeleine Adamson and Seth Borgos. In fits and starts over recent years we’ve tried to clean out a room in the Little Rock building for an ACORN Museum of sorts and are dabbling with a Facebook site by the same name that looks at pictures from the ACORN family of organizations and its legacy. For years the archives of our family of organizations have been held by the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin in their Social Change Collection along with those of many civil rights organizations, NWRO, and the Highlander Center.
It’s worth keeping an eye open for these secret flowers surviving in mass culture. I read a piece in Bidoun about the Cairo Agriculture Museum that offered almost a history of the state itself, perhaps inadvertently. It recalled a visit to a similar set of exhibits and displays in Jackson, Mississippi near the state capitol at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum on the role of cotton and depictions of small town live in the rural south that was captivating in the same, almost disturbing, way. I’ve always had a weakness for dioramas and was captivated by them as a boy living for months in Denver, Colorado when we would visit the Denver Museum of Natural History which now has a new name as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, but I hope still has the dioramas, which are also a treat in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History next to Central Park. You feel like you are in the West with the buffalo herds crossing the planes. After a meeting a decade ago in Saltillo, Mexico about organizing maquiladores, before heading to the airport, I convinced a companero to visit the Museo de las Aves, and its captivating dioramas of Mexican birds. Amazing! The crowds walking the aisles of these museums are a long way from high society and the halls of the powerful.
We visited an exhibit on El Lucha Libre, the popular masked Mexican wrestlers, at the Museo del Objecto del Objeto, or MODO as they style it, where the visitors who piled in along with us were fans of popular culture. It was fascinating to see the hundreds of masks and the way that many of them retained what the political philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, called “critical content.” Visiting the Anthropology Museum again and the art museums in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City is something that has to be done to understand the dominant culture, but it will be hard to forget something like La Lucha Libre and the special gift of being able to witness and attempt to understand more about popular culture and the gift of peoples’ museums and their efforts to maintain the movement and message of our times and what we bring to the future.