Antiquities and Archaeology
Row erupts in Mexico over chocolate museums at Mayan sites
National archaeology institute’s management of Unesco heritage sites called into question
By Laurie Rojas. Web only
Published online: 29 August 2013
A row in Mexico about the construction of museums of chocolate at Chichen Itza, the Mayan complex in the Yucatán peninsula that is a Unesco World Heritage site, and in nearby Uxmal, has revealed deep divisions within the National Institute of Archaeology and History and called into question the institute’s management of such sites.
Opponents of the planned museums, some of whom work for the institute, organised a public campaign that resulted in the institute ordering work to stop on the Choco-Story Museum at Chichen Itza. The chocolate museum was being built on private property but within the site’s protected archaeological zone—around 30 metres from the Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza. Starting construction without a permit breaks a law that protects Mexican national heritage.
The institute ordered the building to be dismantled this month. However, it granted permission to the same company to finish building a museum at Uxmal. Both Choco-Story museums are owned by the Van Belle family, who are the founders of Puratos Group, a Belgian chocolate company.
The institute’s academics and researchers campaigning against both chocolate museums want the Choco-Story company to be fined an appropriate amount for the damage caused to sacred paths at Chichen Itza.
In a public declaration, professors and researchers from the National Institute of Archaeology and History Centre, Yucatán called the construction of the museums “a violent act”. They also criticised the “hasty decision” to grant a permit to the Uxmal chocolate museum—both projects went ahead before receiving permits. “We reject these kind of works within the archaeological sites and demand their dismantling as they have a highly commercial character and threaten the social and educational objectives of the cultural heritage of the nation,” they said.
The Mexican newspaper La Jornada, reports that the chocolate museum in Uxmal was approved by two institute delegates, the anthropologist Eduardo Lopez Calzada and the archaeologist José Huchim Herrera. The institute declined to comment on the Uxmal permit.
This is the latest in a series of rows over how some of Mexico’s most famous sites are managed. The anthropologist Gilberto López y Rivas told La Jornada: “There are two kinds of [institutes], the one of the workers and the one that serves the interests of transnational companies.”
International tourism is one of Mexico’s biggest revenue sources and there is a burgeoning domestic tourist market. Critics have long feared the exploitation of the country’s ancient sites for commercial purposes.
In 2009, members of the National Institute of Archaeology and History workers’ union complained that a spectacular light show at Teotihuacan had caused “irreversible damages” to the Sun and Moon pyramids at the Mesoamerican temple complex north of Mexico City. The institute denied the site had suffered any damage, but the shows were suspended.
Although most of these displays have been cancelled, Enrique Magadán Villamil, the director of Cultur, a trust for tourism and cultural services, supports a new sound-and-light show at Mayan sites, including Chichen Itza, where shows ended last year because of the mechanical breakdown of outdated equipment.
The director of the newly created Institute of History and Museums of Yucatán, Jorge Esma Bazán, is working on a high-tech “video mapping” show to be projected onto the temples of Chichen Itza. He says: “The new system is a hundred times more technically feasible and less damaging for the archaeological site.” The show has high-level support. It is backed by the former governor of Yucatán, Ivonne Ortega Pacheco, who is now the secretary general of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, currently in power in Mexico. Bazán has organised more than 20 light shows and concerts at archaeological sites, including an Elton John concert in 2010 at Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1988. “The sacred site is one of the greatest Mayan centers of the Yucatán peninsula,” Unesco says. Visited annually by 1.2 million people, Chichen Itza is the second most visited archaeological zone in Mexico, after Teotihuacan. A day trip from Cancún along the so-called Mayan Riviera, the 300 hectare site includes the Temple of Kukulkan and Temple of the Warriors. After the 13th century, no major monuments seem to have been constructed and the city rapidly declined from the 15th century. The ruins were excavated in the 19th century.
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