The Museo del Oro – Gold Museum – can claim to be one of the most imposing in the world, and the most visited attraction in the country, an obligatory stop for all tourists traveling through the Colombian capital. Home to an estimated 50,000 artifacts, all crafted by artisans in pre-Columbian cultures, the original collection of the Museo del Oro started after board members of the Banco de la República set out to preserve and display rare artifacts found in archeological sites.
The first acquisition to enter the Central Bank was a 777-gram gold Poporo, belonging to the Quimbaya culture, a rare object of beauty that would symbolize Colombia’s rich and diverse cultural expressions around the world. The extraordinary craftsmanship of this first item expanded the collection throughout decades, today safeguarded in the modern Museo del Oro building in Bogotá, with other equally stunning objects in six other Banco de la República museums across the country: Armenia, Cali, Cartagena, Leticia, Pasto and Santa Marta.
To mark the octogenarian anniversary of the founding of the Gold Museum’s collection, The City Paper talked with archeologist María Alicia Uribe, director of the prestigious and award-winning institution.
The City Paper (TCP): Turning 80 marks a historic moment for the Museo del Oro, museum ranked as the most important cultural and tourist attraction in the country. How have audiences responded to the collection since the 2008 renovation of the building?
María Alicia Uribe (MU): We have seen audiences grow to 650,000 visitors a year from 300,000 since embarking on the renovation that included expanding exhibition space. Foreigners have greatly contributed to this growth, especially during the last couple of years as they increasingly visit Colombia. We call our- selves Museo del Oro because gold is the attraction, a draw and fascinating material worked by many ancient cutures. In reality, however, we consider ourselves a museum dedicated to the archaeology and anthropology of pre- Colombian cultures, and how societies were structured in ancient times. We are opening up our narrative to other cultural voices, especially Afro- Colombian with exhibitions that are contemporary and relevant to the museum-going public.
TCP: Does the museum collection continue to grow, or has the search for rare objects, many found by illegal treasure hunters, ceased?
MU: We must first look at our origins. We are celebrating 80 years of the start of a collection considered by experts as patrimony of the nation. The collection’s founding mission was to save gold objects from destruction for their value in weight, as well as those found by guaqueros – grave robbers- that were being exported illegally. When we look at the historical context of the 1930s, guaquería was a profession, and we must understand that it played an important role in Colombian society like so many others.
When the Central Bank’s directors set out to buy some of these irreplaceable objects, they never envisioned that the collection would grow to 32,000 gold artifacts, and 20,000 made from alloys and other materials. The Consitution of 1991 transformed the gold trade in the country, as before this date, the Central Bank had a monopoly on gold. With the new Charter of Rights, archeological artifacts officially were listed as “patrimony of the nation, and for all Colombians.” In other words, they could no longer be brought or sold. The Constitution placed a time limit on the Central Bank to 2002 to consolidate the collection as part of its ethnological and anthropological research. Every object, therefore had to be registered under “cessation of ownership,” which legally gives the bank authority to safeguard objects that once formed part of private collectors.
TCP: Did the Constitution of 1991 influence the way citizens perceived their patrimony?
MU: To a large extent yes, especially with younger generations who may have inherited pre-Columbian artifacts and preferred to surrender possession to the museum rather than keeping them in their homes. Archaeologists also continue to find gold objects, but their real value is in the information they provide regarding ancient social structures. For archaeologists, a ceramic or bone fragment is as equally valuable as a gold one.
TCP: Is there any pre-Columbian culture that dominates within the collection?
MU: No, there is no predominant culture because all objects are diverse in their styles, iconography and aesthetics. Pre-Columbian cultures were closely connected to their interpretations of nature, rituals and cosmogony. Each item offers valuable insight into the study of gold within specific contexts, from burial practices to adornment.
TCP: One of the many aspects that captivate audiences is modernity in pre-Columbian designs. How can one interpret this?
MU: Yes, in many ways, the geometry of the shapes, attention to form makes the Gold Museum’s collection very modern, and people make a connection with contemporary art. We have baptized many of the items with the names of post-modernists, including Brancusi, Klee and Calder. Many of the objects on display have also inspired Colombia’s art movements and artists Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar, Enrique Grau, Olga de Amaral and Miguel Ángel Rojas. The workmanship of early goldsmiths has a timeless appeal, and this, to a large degree, is what inspired the Colombian academic elites to study them during the 1930s.
TCP: What is the status of the repatriation process of pre-Columbian objects housed in museums overseas. Does the Museo del Oro play a role?
MU: The demand for pre-Columbian objects began in the late 19th century, and precisely because of this demand, the collection was started. The majority of artifacts left this country legally because there was no legislation in place back then that protected our heritage. This is a complicated issue because as we are a museum, we are not the entity that defines “what is patrimony.” Patrimony, in my opinion, should be shown and reach new audiences when it circulates with specific legislation. And there should always be recognition as to its origin. We also need international agreements to negotiate how objects can be loaned from one institution to another for specific periods and objectives. If a pre-Columbian object from an overseas museum enters Colombia as a loan – such as the Quimbaya Collection in Madrid’s Museo de América, it won’t be allowed to return.
TCP: Have these legal issues hindered dialogue between museums over the rightful ownership of collections?
MU: Because our collection is legal, we can solicit the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) to export objects overseas for a period of up to three years. Once a year, we take our exhibitions to audiences in other countries, and the exhibition we have prepared to mark our 80 years, Museo del Oro: 80 años de historias compartidas (80 years of shared stories) includes a timeline of our international presence. Our first international show was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1954. We returned there in 2017 with the collective exhibition The Golden Kingdom. The collection has been exhibited in over 50 countries.
TCP: Museums around the world face increasing costs, and many are no longer profitable. The Museo del Oro offers an admission fee of $4,000 pesos (US$1.30). Is this sustainable?
MU: Almost all museums would like to be free, and many are. For us, it has always been paramount to our role to reach out to audiences; and, with our renovation, we also focused on people with auditive and visual disabilities. Our fee is minimal, but somehow people appreciate the experience when they pay something. Every Sunday our admission is free, and this brings in families and visitors from vulnerable neighborhoods. The philosophy of cultural inclusion extends to our six regional museums that are free every day to the public.
TCP: Many remember the experience of entering the Salón Dorado vault and being overwhelmed by the amount of gold on display. The current Sala de la Ofrenda offers a very different experience.
MU: We decided at the museum to evoke a ceremony rather than a commodity. Our focus isn’t volume, but symbolism. In times of crisis, gold has always been the standard. In the Sala de Ofrenda, audiences can experience how, for pre-Columbian peoples, gold restored balance in the universe from chaos.
TCP: To mark the 80 years of the collection, the Museum has organized a purification ceremony on October 10. Can you explain?
MU: We have invited members of Wounaan, displaced from their ancestral territory near the Togoramá River, to preside over a traditional ritual and one that strengthens our understanding of indigenous wisdom and healing practices. At the Gold Museum, we are constantly in dialogue with indigenous and Afro communities, because museums are more than just antiquities, they are also about the people who work in the museums: from the curators to researchers and guides.
TCP: Even though the collection started in 1939, the Museum dates to 1968 with the inauguration of a modern building facing the Plaza de Santander.
MU: The Republican building Pedro A. López served as the collection’s home for almost three decades, but there was no workforce to study the artifacts. They were simply being displayed. In 1968, the building opened for educational, scientific and conservation objectives. The structure broke with the colonial mold of the neighborhood, and from the very beginning, it was conceived to be a world-class museum and important tourist attraction.
TCP: How connected were our pre-Columbian ancestors to each other despite the difficulties of terrain and distance?
MU: When one looks at this collection, there are direct references to other cultures across the Americas. The Teyuna (Tairona) of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta traded with peoples in the Caribbean, and what we refer to today as Central America. We were not insular, and metallurgy spread across the hemisphere thanks to this inter-connectivity.
TCP: Is the narrative of the Legend of El Dorado centered on the iconic Muisca gold being downplayed in the museum’s narrative?
MU: The Legend of El Dorado is a myth of Western construction created by the Spaniards. We are currently publishing a new research paper with a different vision of what this gold raft represented in the Muisca ceremony and the role of the Cacique (Chieftain).
TCP: The celebration is as much about the collection as it is about listening to audiences with what they are saying and posting on social media.
MU: We have to transcend the traditional function of a museum by communicating with audiences. While our mission statement continues to be research and preservation, we want the public to participate and engage with us through their interpretations of ancient cultures. By being more conscious of the strong societal role we play, we stay in tune with the many voices emerging in this 21st Century, especially those of women, the marginalized, the displaced. Museums cannot impose on society. Because of this, we are inviting our audiences to share stories, impressions, and ideas from the collection with the hashtag #HistoriasQueValenOro (#StoriesThatAreWorthGold).