Collectors Closures Mexico

Made in Mexico, found in Spain

Journalist Miguel Gleason’s exhaustive research project documents Mexican art and objects in Europe, but he is not calling for repatriation

Mexican objects found in Spain

A digital inventory of Mexico’s cultural heritage in Spain, compiled by Paris-based journalist and researcher Miguel Gleason, debuts this month, just in time for the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence from Spain as well as the centennial of the Mexican Revolution.

The DVD-ROM, titled “México en España”, is three years in the making and includes 2,000 artifacts discovered in hundreds of museums, churches and private collections. For this exhaustive project, Gleason visited 195 towns and cities. It will be presented on 9 September at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City and at the Instituto de México in Madrid on 14 September.

When Gleason moved to Paris from Mexico City 15 years ago, he sought anything Mexican to cure his homesickness. “I found things here that were not known in Mexico,” he said. Gleason wrote articles with a book in mind but then he changed direction. “I decided to do something much greater,” he said. He challenged himself to find “all the Mexican things.” In 1994, Gleason started photographing objects and compiling information in France. Through his network of friends and colleagues in Mexico, he tapped archeologists, Spanish Colonial Art specialists and other experts.

Then he moved on to the UK, followed by Italy and the Vatican. Gleason’s previous inventory projects were scantily funded but this year, the Mexican cultural council Conaculta (Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes), because of the upcoming celebrations, was able to offer a little more support. “Thanks to Pancho Villa and Hidalgo,” said Gleason.

Gleason produced his first findings in France in a CD-ROM format in 2002, organized geographically as well by period and type of artifact. Next he tackled the UK, which took him a year, followed by three years scouring Italy and the Vatican. In each place, the Mexican embassies offered moral support, such as writing letters of introduction. Since the projects are non-profit, educational endeavors, most institutions (except the Vatican) waived reproduction and other fees.

One might assume Spain to be the mother lode and in some respects that is true. “In Italy and in all the other European countries more attention was paid to pre-Hispanic items—which Spain didn’t collect, but the Colonial (16th- to 18th-century) items are wonderful and there are plenty of them,” he said.

Gleason considers the codices the most valuable objects he has encountered. “Not because they are ancient but because they have a lot of information about our past,” he said. “Together with the feather work that is what astonishes me the most.” Feather work—pre-Columbian decorative art of delicate mosaics made from tiny pieces of bird feathers—is rare in Mexico. “Spain has some very nice examples,” he said.

Gleason’s mission to document Mexican cultural heritage in Europe has nothing to do with the issue of repatriation. For Gleason, it’s a matter of pride to see Mexico represented in the great museums of the world. “These objects are like ambassadors of Mexico in Europe,” he said. That said, there is one collection he would like to see returned to Mexico. In Palermo, he visited the personal archive of Miguel Miramón, a general who was executed for treason in 1867 on the order of President Benito Juárez. Miramón’s widow went into exile in Italy and among her husband’s personal effects is the piece of cloth that covered his eyes before he was shot along with some letters which expand on the official story.

In the relative short time that Gleason began this project, there have been substantial technological improvements. DVDs didn’t exist when Gleason started (which is why he would like to re-do France). The GPS system has led him directly to church, museum and library doors in small towns. Most importantly, DVDs have larger capacity and embedded short documentaries can be viewed full-screen. “México en España” includes 60 such films on themes ranging from Mexican architectural influences to tracing the footsteps of Moctezuma’s descendants in Spain—his daughter married a conquistador and settled in Extremadura after the conquest.

When Gleason takes on Germany and Austria next, he will be including the most contentious item for Mexico in the repatriation argument: Moctezuma’s Penacho (the enormous crown of bright green feathers) held in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna. The history of the Penacho can be traced back to a 1596 inventory of the great collection of the Archduke Ferdinand II. Many experts believe that the headdress was actually part of a priest’s garb and used for ritual purposes, but it’s symbolically loaded just the same. Gleason said the ongoing Penacho controversy is complicated, but as far as he is concerned, it would not be worth the trouble to move it. “Once you transport the item it is going to be destroyed, it is very fragile,” he said.

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