Colombia’s Ministry of Culture and the Institute of Anthropology and History – ICANH – had been planning since March to showcase some of the best preserved stone statues from heritage site San Agustín at the National Museum in Bogotá, in an exhibition titled “El Retorno de los Idolos” (The Return of the Idols).

The San Agustín National Park, recognized by UNESCO as the “largest group of religious monuments and megalithic structures in South America” lies 400 kms southwest of Bogotá in the central Andes. For many, it remains an out-of-sight place and only identifiable thanks to the park joining the World Heritage list in 1995.

The first archeological studies were conducted on the stone statues of San Agustín and Isnos, Huila, one hundred years ago. These magnificent pieces are all that remain of an aesthetically advanced civilization that lived and disappeared in mystery 1,500 years ago. Many of the pieces, which range from one to seven metres dwell on life’s duality; the sun and the moon, death and birth. Archaeologists estimate that the statues were created between 100 BC and 800 AD.

Carved from volcanic rock, many of the statues also represent animal deities, and were designed as “guardians” to stand for eternity near indigenous graves scattered throughout this national park. Many believe the unearthed statues are just one third of what remains buried.

The statues of this mysterious culture are at the center now of a bitter dispute which has pitched the government, the department of Huila as well as many in San Agustín against a group of activists who do not want the stone deities moved. Tensions ran so high in November that the National Museum was forced to rethink “The Return,” leaving curators with the possibility of an empty exhibition space. In effect, the “return” never materialized, and the exhibition renamed as “The Silence of the Idols.”

According to the National Museum the San Agustín community was involved in the planning of the exhibition for the early stages, and included in the “exchange of ideas” as to how best celebrate the Año de la cultura Agustiniana, (Year of Augustine Culture). Important funds were set aside and the house museum Luis Duque Gómez within the park was upgraded.

The cultural entity chose Héctor Llanos as its curator, the same archaeologist who almost two decades earlier had worked on a similar exhibition. Llanos selected 20 ‘Gods’ for the exhibition.

The Museum refutes claims that moving these statues would have proved risky. In 1992, stone deities “Agriculture” and “Rain” traveled to Belgium with the highest standards of care, returning to their verdant fields in the park. According to the museum, an important sum of money was also set aside for the scientific studies needed to guarantee the safe passage of these silent guardians.

But the fight went from verbal, to physical. Several acts of vandalism were recorded near the park; the special cases built to transport the statues were burned and the very investigators who studied these masterful pieces harrassed by “persons motivated by interests external to the exhibition,” claims an official statement.

The Museum also questions a sudden change of heart by an indigenous community, the Yanacona, who after publicly welcoming the Bogotá initiative, turned to setting up road blocks. The situation of public order deteriorated so fast, that the selected statues were forced to remain in their natural setting.

One U.S citizen, calling himself the “Guardian of the Berlin statues,” has been vehement with anti-exhibition rhetoric. David Dellenback, age 60, is no stranger to the statues fight. A long-time resident of San Agustín, he has been petitioning the German government to return 35 ancient stone statues housed in Berlin’s Ethnological Museum; and which were taken by ethnologist Konrad Preuss when conducting excavations in the region back in 1913.

When asked “why so much opposition to allowing the ICAHN to move the statues temporaily to Bogotá?” Dellenback responded to The City Paper. “The 21st century architectural world understands the value of things in sitio, the complete experience of the place where they were created. No one wants to bring the pyramids to Bogotá. I haven’t seen the pyramids, but if I see them I want to see them in Egypt. These things only have their magic, only have their sense, their context, where they are, where they were made.”

The National Museum has taken great stride to bring international collections to Colombia. On its white walls it has exhibited works by Picasso. In what used to the old prison dungeons it has lined up the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang. In April, it received the Louvre’s rare collection of Greek vases. But it can’t move the sentinels of San Agustín.

In defiance to the bullying by an intransigent minority, the anticipated “The Silence of the Idols,” has been launched. The only pathos, here, is there are no stone gods to gaze upon us. All we can appreciate is an empty room, filled with silence, like a void in our lives when something precious is taken against our will.

Museo Nacional – Cra 7 No.28-00