Not All That Glitters Is Gold: A Conflicted Review of the British Museum’s “Beyond El Dorado” Exhibition

Since seeing it some time in October, I’ve been raving to almost everyone about the British Museum’s current exhibition, Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament. 200 BC - 1300 AD, Colima/Malagana culture. Gold alloy, platinum. H 6.6 cm, W 13.5 cm.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament. 200 BC – 1300 AD, Colima/Malagana culture. Gold alloy, platinum. H 6.6 cm, W 13.5 cm.

For one thing, it’s a selection of artefacts that cannot fail to cause wonder in visitors. A necklace made out of gold-covered jaguar claws! A jaguar with a parasol (left)! A minuscule, grinning bat-man creature with a pair of wings that looks like an impossibly elaborate hairdo! Wonder is so incredibly important for this sort of thing–people talk about the way sex is often used to grab people’s attention, but sheer wonder is just as effective at ensnaring the public–and ensuring that they stick around long enough that they actually end up learning something about whatever it is they’re feeling wonder for. I remember one of my teachers in school giving us this piece of advice: whenever you’re studying something, and it’s starting to get a bit boring, the best thing to do is to think “wow, that’s amazing!” at the end of each sentence. Pretty soon, your mind starts thinking that the stuff you’re reading actually is amazing, and the information sticks to your brain much more easily. It does work!

Seated male figure. 600-1600 AD. Late Nariño culture. Ceramic. H 17.5 cm, W 12.5 cm. I absolutely love that little bump where he's chewing the coca leaves!

Seated male figure. 600-1600 AD. Late Nariño culture. Ceramic. H 17.5 cm, W 12.5 cm. I absolutely love that little bump where he’s chewing the coca leaves!

It’s not just because the objects are made of gold that they are spectacular. In fact, I was a bit worried, before going, that the exhibition would be too “bling”: that is, that it would focus too much on shiny stuff and how shiny it is, and de-emphasise both the people that made and used the shiny stuff, and all the other non-gold things they made and used and valued as well. Instead, there are loads of beautiful ceramics, and a whole room whose main message is “it wasn’t all about gold for ancient Colombians, here’s some stuff that was equally if not more important”–such as feathers, textiles, and animal matter. And as for the ancient Colombians themselves, it seemed to me that the curators chose exactly the right objects to give a strong sense that there were living, breathing, squishy humans behind all the bling and jewellery: a disarmingly lifelike ceramic sculpture of a man chewing coca leaves (right), a big fleshy nose adorned with a huge bull-ring emerging from a funerary urn as if the urn itself were still haunted by the spirit of its occupant, a small gold effigy of a man removing a mask from his face… Of course, it’s also possible that this is just my overactive imagination, combined with the fact that the message “we study things in order to get to people” was so strongly inculcated in me at University, that I’m always pushing myself to imagine the human context within which the stuff I see in museums was originally used. In other words, I’m not sure if anyone else, who doesn’t study the same sorts of things as me, would also get such a strong sense of the people behind the artefacts.

Mannequins at Lima's Museo Larco, displaying Pre-Columbian (Moche?) jewellery.

Mannequins at Lima’s Museo Larco, displaying Pre-Columbian (Moche?) jewellery.

The only real criticism I had to make about the exhibition was that the curators could have used mannequins like the ones they have at Lima’s Museo Larco (left), or at least small illustrations next to captions, to show people how exactly the jewellery on display was worn: without explanations like these, it was a bit difficult to figure out, at least for some of the pieces.

However, the other day I came across a critique of the exhibition that made me reconsider my extra-positive opinion. It is titled “Not far ‘Beyond El Dorado’: Grumblings about the British Museum, Colombian gold, and looting in public display”, and it appeared on Donna Yates’s wonderfully named blog about looting, antiquities trafficking and art crime, Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector. I don’t agree with everything Yates says: I don’t agree that people will learn little from it, or that it’s all about gawking at gold, and I certainly don’t agree that the exhibition will do more to encourage the El Dorado myth than to dispel it. If anything, my feeling was that the curators designed the exhibition to give visitors a smug sense of superiority towards the sixteenth-century adventurers hunting for the mythical golden city: the exhibition starts by explaining how all the early explorers really cared about was gold, and how they couldn’t care less about what the objects that were made out of it meant to the people who made them; then, by shrouding the following rooms in darkness and filling them with a not-too-cheesy “jungle noises” soundtrack, they make you feel like you’re the one discovering these things for the first time, but doing it right, by also reading the captions and learning about the objects’ original cultural contexts. You could easily argue that there is no substance to this, that no way is an exhibition like this going to make up for all the wrongs suffered by indigenous South Americans by the hands of Europeans, that it’s just hollow easing of Colonial Guilt, and I would agree with you, but I do think that it does at least encourage people to reject the myth of El Dorado from the very start.

A shaman switching from one identity to the next? Maybe, maybe not. This is an undated Muisca votive figure, made of gold alloy. H 7.5 cm, W 2.7 cm.

A shaman switching from one identity to the next? Maybe, maybe not. This is an undated Muisca votive figure, made of gold alloy. H 7.5 cm, W 2.7 cm.

As for the stuff about shamans (right) being “crap”, I don’t know that much about ancient Colombians, so I can’t comment, although I’m aware of so many other instances of the illegitimate use of the word “shaman” by archaeologists (might write a post about this soon), that it wouldn’t surprise me too much if Yates was right in rolling her eyes at that part of the exhibition. And I didn’t notice all the inconsistencies she noticed regarding the different culture groups the objects belonged to–though there is a map at the beginning of the exhibition with the main culture groups, apparently it doesn’t mention many that are subsequently mentioned in the captions.

But I think Yates’s most important point is that the British Museum completely neglected to talk about the matter of looting. Almost all the objects on display do not come from legitimate archaeological excavations, but from looting. Their legal status is not in question, as they were bought or seized by the Colombian government, and they are now usually on display in Bogotá’s Museo del Oro, rather than in some anonymous Swiss collector’s mansion. But looting is a huge problem people should know more about. For one thing, because it means we don’t know where exactly the objects comes from (not just in terms of geography, but also in terms of stratigraphic layers, as well as in terms of structure–for example, an ancient trash pit as opposed to a pottery workshop), we will never know for sure what they were used for, why/whether they were important for people in the past, and often even what time period they’re from (I don’t know if you noticed, but most of the objects I’ve drawn have extremely vague dates–600-1600 AD for the ceramic figure, for example). This assuming the object, like the ones at the El Dorado exhibition, end up in a museum, rather than someone’s private collection, where they will often be unavailable for study. Moreover, because looted objects have a tendency to be sold to tourists or smuggled out of their original country, they deprive the latter not only of its cultural heritage, but also of the possibility of, for example, creating a museum of local history and prehistory, with which to attract more visitors to the country.

How would I tackle the problem of looting, if I were a curator? A good idea might be to replace captions that tell you what we know about the objects, with captions that tell you what we don’t know about them, and may never know about them, because of looting. Of course, this emphasises the problem that looting represents to archaeologists, rather than the one it represents to source countries.

But one or two panels on looting would also work fine. If the El Dorado exhibition had some, they would fit quite well with the theme of “we moderns have enlightened attitudes towards these objects, early explorers were just greedy”, by turning it on its head, and showing that greed towards these things is alive and well in the modern age. If placed at the end, this might have had a particularly powerful effect, as visitors would have just spent an hour or so patting themselves on the back for all the un-greedy learning they were doing, and how much better Europeans like themselves are towards Colombians now.

But there were no such panels, and so an excellent opportunity to get people thinking about looting and antiquities trafficking was lost. Hopefully, similar exhibitions in the future will not make the same mistake, although it’s likely that many will.

I don’t want to discourage people from seeing the exhibition (which will run until 24th March 2014)–as I said, there are a lot of amazing things on display, and I do think it’s possible to learn something from it. But be aware of the issues I’ve highlighted, and think–how would you have talked about looting, if you’d been one of the curators? and why don’t they talk about it?

For more about looting from this blog, check out my post on ransacked Pre-Columbian cemeteries in Peru.

If, dear readers, you’ve seen this exhibition and would like to share any thoughts about it, even if they don’t have anything to do with anything I’ve written, I’d be very glad to hear someone else’s opinion!

Suggestions for further reading

Donna Yates’ aforementioned blog, and her page on the Trafficking Culture project website, are highly, highly recommended.

1 comment
  1. Yourself and Swiss Collector both make a very good point about looting, and I must admit I found myself wondering where/who/how etc these objects had actually got into the hands of the Museo del Oro in the first place. The stories about the numerous attempts to drain Lake Guatavia over the centuries would have also made for some really interesting exhibition content, but were largely ignored. I only stumbled across them on the internet somewhere while I was researching for my blog!

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