Cover image for Our Indigenous Ancestors: A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877–1943 By Carolyne R. Larson

Our Indigenous Ancestors

A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877–1943

Carolyne R. Larson


$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06696-7

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06697-4

Available as an e-book

232 pages
6" × 9"
29 b&w illustrations

Our Indigenous Ancestors

A Cultural History of Museums, Science, and Identity in Argentina, 1877–1943

Carolyne R. Larson

“Carolyne Larson’s revealing of the indigenous foundation of liberal constructions of Argentine national identity is both startling and convincing. She does justice to the native peoples of Argentina and provides a historical context for current museum reforms and cultural repatriation efforts today. With clear and elegant writing supported by a remarkable depth and breadth of sources, Our Indigenous Ancestors is both a must-read for specialists and an accessible delight for the general reader.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Our Indigenous Ancestors complicates the history of the erasure of native cultures and the perceived domination of white, European heritage in Argentina through a study of anthropology museums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Carolyne Larson demonstrates how scientists, collectors, the press, and the public engaged with Argentina’s native American artifacts and remains (and sometimes living peoples) in the process of constructing an “authentic” national heritage. She explores the founding and functioning of three museums in Argentina, as well as the origins and consolidation of Argentine archaeology and the professional lives of a handful of dynamic curators and archaeologists, using these institutions and individuals as a window onto nation building, modernization, urban-rural tensions, and problems of race and ethnicity in turn-of-the-century Argentina. Museums and archaeology, she argues, allowed Argentine elites to build a modern national identity distinct from the country’s indigenous past, even as it rested on a celebrated, extinct version of that past. As Larson shows, contrary to widespread belief, elements of Argentina’s native American past were reshaped and integrated into the construction of Argentine national identity as white and European at the turn of the century. Our Indigenous Ancestors provides a unique look at the folklore movement, nation building, science, institutional change, and the divide between elite, scientific, and popular culture in Argentina and the Americas at a time of rapid, sweeping changes in Latin American culture and society.
“Carolyne Larson’s revealing of the indigenous foundation of liberal constructions of Argentine national identity is both startling and convincing. She does justice to the native peoples of Argentina and provides a historical context for current museum reforms and cultural repatriation efforts today. With clear and elegant writing supported by a remarkable depth and breadth of sources, Our Indigenous Ancestors is both a must-read for specialists and an accessible delight for the general reader.”
This fascinating, deeply nuanced study complicates the commonly held notion that Argentina has imagined itself exclusively as an ethnically European nation. It makes a decisive contribution to our understanding of nation building and race in Latin America.
“In dialogue with the current literature on the role of indigenous peoples in the evolution of the Argentine nation, Our Indigenous Ancestors makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of how a particular interpretation of Argentina's past was produced and consumed in the contradictory interaction between science and colonialism.”
“Larson’s work will be useful for historians and other cultural studies scholars. While scholars of Argentina will likely be the target audience, those interested in museums and questions about indigenous identity and representation may also find useful information in the text. In the classroom especially, this study can be assigned by chapter to highlight competing ideas of identity and how national histories are shaped by multiple groups in scientific spaces that are hardly neutral.”
“Larson’s excellent study underscores how a nation can both strategically embrace native cultures while simultaneously marginalizing and attempting to destroy them.”

Carolyne R. Larson is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wyoming.


List of Illustrations



1 Magic in the Desert: Indigenous Bodies on Display in the Museo de La Plata, 1877–1906

2 Prized Objects: Archaeological Science and Public Actors in Buenos Aires, 1904–1930

3 El Alma del Norte: Northwestern Regionalism and Anthropology, 1900–1940

4 Sensational Discoveries: Heroes, Scandals, and the Popularization of Anthropology

Epilogue: Reflections and Remaining Questions





On September 5, 1929, the popular Buenos Aires newspaper La Crítica ran the bold-lettered headline “Man Has Inhabited the Santiagueño Chaco for More than 5,000 Years.” Claiming exclusive rights to the story, La Crítica covered its front page with photographs and drawings of artifacts uncovered during a recent archaeological expedition in the northern province of Santiago del Estero. The newspaper punctuated the page with dramatic subtitles such as “Don’t Fail to Read It” and “A French Scientist Has Made a Sensational Discovery,” referring to the expedition’s lead archaeologist, Emilio Wagner. The next day, La Crítica ran a follow-up story with the provocative title “An Unknown Race Predominated in the Argentine North?,” enticing its readers to “Read Tomorrow” for the answer to the question “Where Did the Man Who Inhabited the Santiagueño Chaco in Remotest Times Come From?”

In many ways, the existence of a five-thousand-year-old human culture hardly seems newsworthy. Why did La Crítica devote its front page to an archaeological find and not, for instance, to the all-time high reached by the U.S. stock market only two days before, a subject of considerable interest to the many Argentines involved with U.S. companies? The publication of this story—one among many reports on anthropological discoveries that were regularly printed by popular newspapers and magazines in Argentina’s early twentieth century—shows that anthropology commanded the kind of widespread interest that sold newspapers, making it newsworthy indeed.

Such newspaper stories revealed a groundswell of popular interest in anthropology as a science and especially in indigenous cultures of Argentina’s past and present. They also highlighted the complex and sometimes contradictory role of science in modernizing Argentina. Professional scientists—a self-defined community of experts and educated scholars—and nonscientific actors—a much broader and more flexible category encompassing those without academic scientific credentials—shared a strong interest in scientific studies of indigenous cultures. However, popular and scientific actors expressed this shared interest very differently. While the popular press often presented indigenous cultures in sensationalized terms, pairing romance and science in ways designed to attract an ever wider readership, professional scientific publications were written for an increasingly exclusive audience by the early twentieth century and were characterized by technical analyses of stratigraphy, morphology, typology, and statistics. This emphasis underscored the importance of anthropology’s scientific nature to its practitioners. Anthropologists clearly identified their work as a hard science, minimizing its qualitative and interpretive elements and stressing its factual and quantitative basis. The titles of professional scientific publications capture, perhaps most succinctly, the nature of the differences between popular and scientific writings about indigenous cultures. Rather than promising answers to tantalizing questions about “remotest times” or “unknown races,” titles of professional scientific publications more commonly ran along such sober lines as “The Chaco-Santiagueña Civilization and Its Correlations with Those of the Old and New World”—a landmark study published by Emilio Wagner and his brother Duncan on the same discoveries reported by La Crítica.

While professional scientists and newspaper editors may have disagreed on how best to write about Argentina’s ancient indigenous civilizations, they nonetheless agreed on three important points. First, both clearly saw Argentina’s indigenous cultures as subjects worthy of their attention and expended considerable energy writing about them. Further, scientists and nonscientists alike couched indigenous cultures as a part of Argentina’s cultural heritage and an inheritance of an authentic creole nation, and they made romantic connections between indigenous cultures and contemporary creole-dominated Argentine national culture. Third, popular and scientific writers both acknowledged the importance of scientific authority for making claims about indigenous cultures. When popular newspaper and magazine writers such as those for La Crítica strove to appropriate scientific knowledge and authority for themselves, they also acknowledged and reinforced its power in contemporary Argentine society. Science wielded substantial social influence in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Argentina. Under the aegis of a progressive Liberal state, Argentine elites championed an agenda of national modernity and employed scientific tools to “improve” the nation, expanding national infrastructure to facilitate transportation and communication and practicing eugenic science to “cure” social ills. Science also permeated everyday decisions and social norms. During this period, Argentina—especially its cities and large towns—supported a growing and diversifying class of physicians; a rising tide of electricity, indoor plumbing, and other innovative modern conveniences in private homes; and a vibrant civic scientific culture of museum visiting, scientific reading, and private collecting. In this modernizing moment of deliberate preoccupation with progress, science also became a vehicle for understanding indigenous cultures in strategic connection with the Argentine nation-state, even as mainstream national narratives suggested that a new creole Argentina was emerging, composed of Argentine-born and European-descended citizens and destined to triumph over the “barbarous” influences of Afro-Argentine and indigenous peoples.

The scientific authority to interpret indigenous cultures during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was housed primarily in museums. Museums appeared across Argentina during this period, embodying contemporary national orientations toward science and institution building and also creating spaces for new interpretations of national history, nature, and aesthetics. In natural science and anthropology museums, anthropologists linked indigenous cultures with nature, displaying them as natural adaptations and mounting indigenous bodies like zoological specimens. Museums offered ideal spaces for the cultivation of anthropological authority and knowledge, as many subfields—especially archaeology, physical anthropology, and ethnography—did object-based work, easily suited to museum exhibition and publication. In displaying their growing collections in vaulting exhibition halls and lavishly illustrated museum journals, museums in Argentina carved out niches as authorities on scientific understandings about indigenous people.

In addition to their scientific research, museums defined themselves as institutions that educated “the public.” This amorphous category encompassed a cross-class array of politicians, educators, lawyers, collectors, artifact dealers, businessmen, journalists, workers, newspaper audiences, school groups, women’s groups, foreign travelers, and others. Members of this complex “public” interacted very differently with museums, responding to their own political, economic, and social agendas. As scientific institutions that facilitated public access to indigenous artifacts and human remains, and even very occasionally to living indigenous people on display, museums spoke to a spectrum of popular interests in science and worked to shape national understandings about indigenous cultures through their displays. Popular actors, however, did not always accept museum scientists’ interpretations or decisions. Argentine museums during this period received a growing stream of requests, demands, and objections from members of the public, and their displays and publications were criticized in the popular press and retooled by nonscientists in support of other agendas. In this back and forth, museums lost some of their ivory luster and became social spaces that fueled interest in scientific understandings of indigenous cultures but were not always able to control public debates over how these cultures connected with Argentina’s modernizing nation-state.

Within a self-consciously creole national imagination—“creole” being a very flexible term that in Argentina included those who self-identified as being of European descent and born in Argentina—museum-driven scientific understandings of indigenous cultures played important symbolic roles in crafting notions of national distinctiveness and history. Through museums and science, Argentines could imagine and embrace an indigenous national heritage, while simultaneously maintaining ethnically European, creole identities. La Crítica’s front-page story on the Wagners’ discovery, for instance, spoke to contemporary debates about Inca cultural expansion into Argentina’s pre-Columbian north, a scientific question that for scientists and nonscientists alike became entangled with national identity and pride. Creole Argentine readers were encouraged to see the photographed artifacts and human remains in La Crítica as evidence of their country’s ancient pedigree and to think of the Inca as foreign invaders and aggressors against an older and more elevated “Argentine” indigenous culture, framing themselves—rather than the indigenous people living in the north—as inheritors of this remote and romantic past. Through museum-based anthropological science, creole Argentines expressed a connection with indigenous cultures and bodies, simultaneously possessing and cataloguing them as artifacts belonging to the nation but not necessarily within the national community. Such contradictory visions of indigenous connections to the nation-state were possible largely because many creole Argentines maintained a distinction, to borrow Rebecca Earle’s very useful phrase, between indigenous cultures (which were abstract and embraceable) and indigenous people (who lived in the present and were often seen as troublesome and backward).

The notion of strategically embracing indigenous cultures as part of national identity and politics is not new in modern Latin American history. Earle’s comparative work has illustrated the multiple symbolic roles that indigenous cultures played for creole elites crafting heritage and identity throughout Spanish America in the tumultuous century after independence. Other scholars have drawn out the implications of scientific, cultural, and official state adoptions of indigenous cultures for nationalist and indigenista projects in countries such as Mexico and Peru, where indigenous cultures have often been strategically linked with state-making projects. In Mexico, for example, national history has been connected with the indigenous past—in one way or another—since independence, and anthropological collecting has been an official, state-sponsored part of Mexican patrimony making at least since the creation of the National Museum in 1825. As Christina Bueno has shown, Mexican anthropologists during the later nineteenth-century Porfiriato collected pre-Columbian artifacts as markers of Mexican heritage and brought them to state-operated museums for interpretation and transformation into objects of national patrimony or “objects believed to embody the nation’s culture and identity.” Nineteenth-century scientists collecting archaeological artifacts in national museums connected ancient cultures such as the Mexica with the nation-state and lent the modern Mexican nation a desired sense of unity and permanence. Later, in postrevolutionary Mexico, indigenista movements incorporated contemporary indigenous bodies and cultural practices into possessive expressions of nationally and regionally distinctive identities that often simultaneously celebrated and sought to control the meanings of indigeneity within national society. Such connections between national identity and indigeneity, patrimony and science, have made anthropology a fruitful avenue for recent historical research.

In light of the often-cited importance of a “white” Argentine identity that emerged during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, creole Argentines’ strategic engagement with indigenous cultures during these decades prompts important questions about race, science, nation, and identity in Argentina. This connection also puts Argentina’s nation-state formation process in dialogue with broader movements in Latin America, rather than framing it as an exceptional case. Nicolas Shumway has argued that nineteenth-century Argentine state makers and intellectuals crafted a foundational “mythology of exclusion” that imagined Argentina as a negatively defined space, identified as much by what was not Argentine as by what was. Argentine state makers constructed national identity through inside-outside relationships that identified Argentina as European, white, and progressive, while their opposites—non-European, nonwhite, and backward—became accordingly un-Argentine. Mid-nineteenth-century liberal statesman Juan Bautista Alberdi illustrated this inside-outside thinking in 1852 when he wrote, “Who among us would not prefer a thousand times over to see his daughter marry an English shoeman rather than an Araucanian prince? In America everything that is not European is barbaric; there is no division other than this one: Indian which is synonymous with savage, and European which means those of us born in America, who speak Spanish and believe in Jesus Christ.” Alberdi exhorted Argentines to seek political unification by appealing to a shared identity as European-descended creoles and as Christians. As the nineteenth century progressed, Alberdi’s division between creole Argentines and others—including indigenous peoples—acquired new urgency. Likewise, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s midcentury exhortation that Argentines escape from the clutches of barbarism and enter into the light of Western civilization became a generational clarion call, and indigenous peoples were pushed decidedly into the former, politically undesirable category. Insightful studies focusing on the marginalization of a variety of deviant behaviors and groups, including Afro-Argentines, federalist caudillos, prostitutes, and the mentally ill, have borne out the importance of these and other inside-outside identities to nineteenth-century Argentine politics and culture.

In this vein, scholars have compellingly explored the extent to which indigenous peoples were excluded from Argentina’s modernizing economy, educational system, and political agendas during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Because Argentine national identity is most often associated with these narratives, Argentina is not generally recognized as a nation shaped by an interest in indigenous cultures, much less one that would seek to connect indigenous cultures to its national identity and heritage. And yet, as Mónica Quijada has shown, indigenous cultures were critically involved in constructions of Argentine patrimony and narratives of nationhood during this period. This book argues that while many creole Argentines participated in the everyday construction of a “white” or creole Argentina, they also helped create strategic and possessive connections with Argentina’s indigenous heritage in the scientific and public spaces of museums, as well as newspapers and magazines, schoolrooms and congressional sessions, public monuments and antiquities markets.

Cultural History: Nation, Science, and Objects

It should be noted from the outset that this is not an institutional museum history, nor is it a scientific history of the discipline of anthropology. Other scholars have written a great deal about the institutional development of Latin American museums, the evolution of scientific methodologies, and the scientific biographies of anthropologists discussed here. The aim of this study, by contrast, is to use the insights of cultural history to explore the everyday social life and meaning making of museums and anthropological science. Museum scientists’ approaches to anthropology as scientific practice will play an important part in this history but will do so in dialogue with how their scientific work impacted and was shaped in return by other people’s feelings about science, museums, and indigenous cultures. Key here will be the relationships between professional science and popular science, especially dialogues between professional attempts to control scientific knowledge and popular expressions through correspondence, the popular press, public events, private collecting, and other avenues.

Cultural history’s heterogeneous methodologies and theoretical base offer an aptly flexible framework for exploring something as multivocal (and even cacophonous) as the meanings of scientific ideas about indigenous cultures to an entire country. Cultural history draws together scholars interested in diverse topics, from consumerism to religion, national identity to childhood. While cultural history embraces many topics and various approaches to them, one central tenet holds them together: cultural history seeks to address the idea that human life is about meaning. Cultural historians contend not only that symbolic and everyday social practices are “as” important to understanding history as more traditional political and economic questions, but that these cultural practices form a foundational context within which other historical questions take on more complete meaning. From within the wide field of cultural history, this study draws particular inspiration from scholarship on nation, science, and the intersections between elite and popular culture. Benedict Anderson’s foundational study of nations as “imagined communities” has inspired a generation of new scholarship that sees nations and states as socially constructed understandings rather than stable realities. Anderson’s notion that all human communities—from small towns to nations and beyond—are held together not by preexisting or static likenesses but rather by communally crafted narratives of shared history and character shows identity to be a flexible and contested thing that is shaped not by an objective “truth” but by ever-changing human perceptions and priorities.

Anthony Smith has developed this idea in connection with national identity, arguing that national identities combine both “civic” and “ethnic” elements, building multifaceted identities that appeal to a wide base of human sensibilities, both political and legal (civic) and cultural and genealogical (ethnic). Smith locates Argentina among nations whose identity after independence formed “without immediate antecedent ethnie”; instead, Argentine state makers deliberately coded their nation in civic terms, embracing Atlantic revolutionary ideals such as liberalism, citizenship, and popular sovereignty as part of Argentine national identity, even if those ideals were not fully realized in practice. Nineteenth-century Argentine national identity, from this perspective, was based on political character and conviction rather than inherited traditions, memory, or ancestry.

This book argues, however, that Argentina’s national identity also relied on a carefully constructed ethnie, whose first chapter lay in the pre-Columbian world. Along with creole elites across Latin America, Argentina’s Liberal state makers and intellectuals carefully selected useful elements of indigenous cultures to reinforce and authenticate the nation’s unique ethnic identity. Argentina’s indigenous peoples, viewed through the lens of museum anthropology, responded to calls for national identity and heritage. In this pursuit, creole Argentines coded themselves as the rightful heirs to the deep indigenous past and sometimes also claimed connections with indigenous peoples in the present, thus creating a largely symbolic ethnic foundation for a liberal, civic nation willfully throwing off the tarnished vestiges of Spanish colonialism. The social utility of this strategic embrace also begins to explain why, at the end of the time period examined here, creole Argentines moved away from indigenous imaginings of their national heritage as alternative models—particularly colonial Spanish heritage and criollismo—gained political and social ascendance.

Much of the most visible national imagining in modern nation-states has been driven by political and socioeconomic elites, who have constructed national images that reflect their own aspirations and self-perceptions. Mary Louise Pratt has argued that elites in modern nation-states have often engaged in “autoethnography,” actively creating their own cultural identities through mechanisms of national representation such as national anthems and World’s Fairs, folklore festivals and public monuments Scholars have often seen museums as crucial institutions of elite autoethnography and have analyzed them in Foucaultian terms, emphasizing elite efforts to control visibility and to use it as a form of power through the languages of knowledge, science, and art. Through museums, scholars have demonstrated, elites learned to control what was seen, how it was seen, and who might see it. These insights have proven invaluable for understanding how museum scientists and their savvier elite patrons used museum spaces and exhibit technologies to send specific messages to specific audiences. Such approaches also help us understand how museum scientists constructed their own authority as “experts” during the nineteenth century, as museum objects became invested with unique types of knowledge and power. In the more specific realm of museum anthropology, scholars have underscored that indigenous bodies on display were not willing collaborators in their own exhibition, nor did they often return the visitors’ gaze. Rather, they were acted upon, exposed to public examination without their consent in the name of furthering Western scientific knowledge.

There are, however, some limits to this kind of analysis. At their best, Foucaultian-inspired studies have interrogated the flow of power, vision, and knowledge through the institutional framework of the museum. On the other hand, focusing on the circulation of power as the primary goal of museums runs the risk of transforming these institutions into what is by now a familiar stereotype of museum scholarship: museums become cogs within abstract elite machines of social control, and the human beings within them morph into one-dimensional accomplices of social domination. Such a focus can also suggest that elite control over national imaginings in museums and elsewhere was absolute, a notion that recent cultural historical scholarship has largely deflated. Answering calls in the 1990s from scholars such as Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, cultural historians have recognized the importance of popular cultures as primary factors in defining national identity and culture. Scholars have identified popular culture as the broad sphere of everyday actions of nonelite or subaltern people, as well as the meanings that are attached to those actions. Moreover, most cultural historians emphasize that there is no cut-and-dried boundary between elite and popular cultures, but rather that these arenas are created in dialogue with one another, in ways that reveal power inequalities in a given society and also create space for negotiations, appropriations, and transformations. The everyday dialogues between elite and popular sectors have revealed culture making that is neither top-down nor bottom-up, but rather a negotiation between.

Museum science is a valuable window onto exchanges between elite and popular culture during this period in part because of how museum scientists saw the objects they studied. Museums of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries exhibited objects as direct conduits to knowledge, which could be understood not just by trained scientists but by anyone who observed them carefully. This perception of objects as carriers of knowledge, which Steven Conn has called an “object-based epistemology,” opened the door to popular interpretations and appropriations of museum science. In essence, by understanding museum objects as universally comprehensible, without the need for professional mediation, and by defining itself in relation to those self-explanatory objects, museum science cast itself as open to all, even as museum scientists continually contradicted this idea by insisting on their own scientific authority. Thus, while science and museums are generally understood as a part of elite histories, cultural history allows for fruitful analysis of negotiations between elite and popular understandings of science, as well as examination of fractures within these large categories.

Museum objects were sometimes physical—as in artifacts and human remains, or photographs that served as proxy objects—while others were more abstract—as in the scientific language, data, and theories that identified indigenous cultures as ancient and autochthonous. These physical and abstract objects enjoyed distinct social lives in Argentina; they operated as contested commodities that circulated between scientific and popular hands, gaining and losing different sorts of value. As Arjun Appadurai has noted, an object or idea can be considered a commodity when “its exchangeability (past, present, or future) for some other thing is its socially relevant feature.” There is no concrete distinction, then, between commodities and other things, because all things acquire and lose exchangeable value through the mercurial mechanisms of human desire.

Analytically approaching indigenous artifacts and even human remains as commodities calls attention to their constructed and contested values and meanings and to the processes of recoding that transformed them into exchangeable commodities. Moreover, scientists and popular actors attributed conflicting sets of scientific, cultural, and economic value to indigenous artifacts that translated these objects into powerful commodities and patrimonial symbols and also disassociated them from indigenous lives and cultures. These different sorts of value were often couched as mutually exclusive, and yet, in practice, scientists and nonscientists alike often invoked them together, revealing complex and often contradictory understandings of what these objects, and the ideas they were seen to embody, actually meant. Although human skulls were collected, sold, and displayed as objects in the period under study here, important questions remain about the moral implications of describing them as such. In transforming human remains into museum objects, scientists and collectors often subtracted something of their humanity and distanced the scientific practices of collecting, researching, and displaying from cultural considerations of sanctity or privacy of the body in death. This book employs the language of objects and commodity value to underscore the historical processes under analysis, but it also works wherever possible to call attention to the humanity of these remains.

Through the tangible objects of museum science, indigenous cultures became malleable and meaningful indicators of authentic argentinidad. Shelley Garrigan has argued that acts of collection often involve processes of “emptying,” in which objects are disassociated from earlier meanings in order to recode them as part of new collections and their narratives. The power of museum objects to embody abstract ideas such as national identity, heritage, and patrimony lay in the multiple meanings that could be imprinted onto them, making them elastic symbols in ongoing conflicts over what, precisely, the nation was. Objects associated with indigenous cultures in Argentina—ceramic jars and human remains, weapons and musical instruments—came under scrutiny by museum anthropologists, newspaper writers, politicians, schoolteachers, field guides, and a diverse array of other actors, who emptied them of connections with individual indigenous people and recoded them as bearers of creole heritage and identity. This ability to recode objects’ meanings was coupled with a prismatic array of possible interpretations, making indigenous cultures powerful points of contention. Scientists in different parts of Argentina interpreted the same indigenous artifacts in conflicting and impassioned ways, popular texts made different claims about the ancient human past than academic sources did, and scientists became popular celebrities and national icons even as their theories were debunked by professional scientists.

This study explores everyday meaning making about indigenous cultures through the individual objects collected by museums, along with the stories of scientists and others who engaged with them. In exploring the variable meanings of indigenous cultures, science, and objects, this book contends that “big ideas” like national identity are shaped by small, quotidian actions like reading a newspaper or visiting a museum, and that these ideas must be examined from multiple perspectives—geographical, socioeconomic, political, generational—in order to understand their full importance. My research took me into museum libraries and archives, where I found records of daily museum operations, including reams of correspondence and telegraphs, shipping receipts documenting collections exchanges, employment records and complaints, working drafts of speeches and publications, field journals and sketches, requests and petitions from people outside the museum, and museum supply catalogues and order forms. These archives also contain photograph collections that offer visual evidence of museum display techniques and spaces, public events in museums, anthropological field work, and collections analysis. I also worked in state, university, city, and private archives and libraries, where I found a wealth of published anthropological studies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, university publications and operations records, newspapers, art and literature, and current Argentine scholarship on museums and anthropology. Finally, I spent time in the museums themselves, exploring them and connecting my own experiences to historical documents and events that occurred decades ago in these spaces. I saw how each museum presents its own history—in both text and museum display—and studied the changes that these museums have undergone during their histories.

Museums in Argentina, 1877–1943

Susan Sheets-Pyenson and other scholars have often framed their work on museums by defining a “museum age,” a period during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which museums gained and exercised authority as dominant scientific institutions in areas of both professional research and public education, giving them potent influence over civic, regional, and national cultures. The time frame under analysis here is more specific, addressing the development of an idea within museums, rather than the rise and fall of museums themselves. The period between 1877 and 1943 captures a window of unprecedented state support for museums in Argentina and complex alignments between liberal political and scientific interests, in addition to the professionalization of museums and anthropology in Argentina and the popularization of science on local, regional, and national scales, which transformed anthropology into a “national” science—one deeply involved in national identity and heritage. This period was marked by a contentious and conditional affiliation between museum anthropology and the Liberal Argentine Republic, whose political philosophy ideologically aligned with museums as part of wider mantras of progress and civilization. This was, however, a very changeable relationship. At times museum anthropologists supported liberal state agendas, and at other times they broke with state interests to adhere to their own plans for museum professionalization. Museums during this period emphasized the rational, orderly organization of their collections, the seriousness of scientific research conducted in their libraries and collections repositories, and the importance of public education and improvement as part of their mission.

This was also a period of transition in Argentina, characterized by indigenous conquest, European immigration, political radicalism and agitation, the emergence of mass politics and oligarchic struggles to retain control, civilian uprisings and military coups, regional tensions, and economic swings. As scholars such as Marial Iglesias Utset have noted, periods of political and economic transition can intensify the meanings of ordinary social practices; everyday decisions take on new meaning, old assumptions are called into question, and the search for identity or purpose assumes a conscious social importance. During the sixty-odd years under study here, Argentina experienced a series of important political, social, and economic transitions, whose impact on creole Argentine identities was shaped by and reflected in changing ideas of national indigenous heritage in museums and popular science.

This book focuses on three museums: the Museo de Ciencias Naturales de La Plata, the Museo Etnográfico “Juan B. Ambrosetti” in Buenos Aires, and the Instituto de Etnología at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán in northwestern Argentina. I have chosen these museums because they offer a range of institutional size and focus, and they are situated within different geographical and social contexts. Because of their differences, they constitute a compellingly representative sample of the priorities and challenges faced by different kinds of museums in Argentina, including state-funded and university-run museums, large and small museums, anthropology and natural science museums, museums that were open to the public and those dedicated largely to academic research, and museums whose collecting focused on a specific region and those with broader national or international ambitions. They are not, of course, the only museums I might have chosen for this study; interesting anthropological museums and museum departments also existed during this period in Santiago del Estero and elsewhere, among them the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Buenos Aires. Additionally, I have chosen these three museums because of their palpable influence on museum anthropology in Argentina: the Museo de La Plata became a national icon and an internationally recognized scientific center during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the Museo Etnográfico served as a highly visible institution of Argentine archaeology and of porteño cosmopolitanism in the early twentieth century; and the Instituto de Etnología identified itself as a center for northwestern regional studies during the early twentieth century, often standing in contrast to coastal institutions in Buenos Aires and La Plata. This book does not aim to be a comprehensive or exhaustive history of museums in Argentina, but rather to offer a detailed analysis of a group of carefully chosen museums and to use those museums as a platform for broader comparative analysis. I examine each museum in turn, while also comparing and highlighting the connections between them, exploring the internal dynamics of anthropology museums as well as their impact on broader understandings of indigenous peoples, popular actors’ impact on museums, and, where possible, indigenous peoples’ reactions to anthropological scrutiny.

This study begins in 1877 with the opening of the short-lived Museo Antropológico y Arqueológico in Buenos Aires, founded and directed by naturalist Francisco P. Moreno and dedicated to the anthropological study of Argentina’s indigenous peoples. The new museum reflected the tensions of its day, including the Liberal preoccupation with museums and science as part of cultivating civilization and the creole Argentine anxieties about the “unconquered” indigenous peoples of the southern pampas, who by the 1870s were responding to southward creole expansion with increasing violence. Less than a year after the Museo Antropológico y Arqueológico opened its doors, the Argentine Republic mounted the Conquest of the Desert, a military campaign aimed at the “subjugation or eviction of the barbarous Indians of the Pampa” and the clearing of these fertile grasslands for creole Argentine occupation. At the time of the Conquest, Argentina’s southern regions were populated by a number of largely nomadic and seminomadic indigenous groups, who had resisted conquest by Spanish and Argentine forces since first contact in the sixteenth century. A complex and flexible frontier society existed between Argentine settlements to the north and indigenous territories to the south, forging trade networks, social exchange, and fragile peace agreements punctuated by outbursts of violence. Estimates suggest that more than 40,000 indigenous people occupied the territory south of the Argentine settlement frontier in 1870, as compared to an estimated 170,000 living in Buenos Aires at that time. Official figures claim that 1,271 warriors were taken prisoner and 1,313 were killed during the Conquest; in addition, 10,513 women and children were “placed under state supervision,” which often meant relocation to Buenos Aires as service laborers, forced adoptions of indigenous children by creole families, or captivity in state prisons. These figures are not exact, nor do they encapsulate the range of destinations and fates faced by displaced indigenous peoples after the Conquest. Some escaped southward or westward into Patagonia and Chile, at best temporary refuges against the expanding Argentine and Chilean states. Others were relocated to state-created colonias, where it was hoped they would become Western-style agriculturalists and shed their indigenous identities.

In addition to a legacy of violence and erasure, the Conquest spurred interest in scientific knowledge about indigenous peoples. The same interethnic tensions that built support for military conquest in the 1870s also prompted the growth of scientific studies of indios amigos (“friendly” or treaty-bound indigenous peoples) and indios no sometidos (“unconquered” indigenous peoples). Francisco Moreno himself sent information about indigenous cultures and politics back to Buenos Aires and later advocated for the relocation of indigenous groups he knew personally after their expulsion during the Conquest. Argentine anthropologists from the 1870s to the turn of the century focused most of their attention on the contemporary indigenous cultures of the southern pampas and the northern Chaco, who had recently been subdued by the Argentine military. In these conquered landscapes, anthropologists and others amassed vast collections of the remains of recently deceased indigenous people. Argentina’s largest and most impressively displayed physical anthropological collections were housed in the Museo de La Plata, opened in 1884 by Moreno, who took his original collections from the Museo Antropológico y Arqueológico with him (see chapter 1).

After the turn of the twentieth century, Argentine anthropologists shifted their focus from the bodies of the recently conquered to the ancient indigenous civilizations of the Argentine northwest. These cultures had left behind stonework structures, worked bronze and stone artifacts, and strikingly beautiful ceramic vessels, meeting contemporary sensibilities about “advanced” ancient civilizations. This sliding scale, which differentiated glorified civilizations like the Maya and the Inca from “lesser” groups like the seminomadic peoples of the pampas and the Amazon, identified the pre-Columbian indigenous cultures of Argentina’s northwest as indicators of a splendid and ancient national past (see chapters 2 and 3). Between the beginning of the 1900s and the early 1940s, northwestern archaeology attracted significant state funding, regional support, and popular interest. This popularity was finally overshadowed in the 1930s and 1940s by a rise in conservative politics and nationalism that championed colonial Spanish and rural criollo folklore as the “true” seat of national heritage, rather than indigenous cultures.

Also during the early decades of the twentieth century, Argentines joined impassioned international debates over human evolution in scientific publications and the popular press. These debates were brought home by Argentine scientist Florentino Ameghino, who contended that humankind had originally evolved in Argentina. Ameghino’s highly provocative and much-debated theories drew out divisions between popular scientific enthusiasm, which overwhelmingly embraced him as a national hero and scientific visionary, and professional scientists, many of whom worked to distance themselves from his increasingly outlandish claims. Between the 1910s and the 1930s, Ameghino’s scientific celebrity highlighted the fissures within the social life of science in Argentina, as well as the highly emotional payload carried by a purportedly “objective” field of knowledge (see chapter 4).

This study closes with the military coup of 1943, following a decade of resurgent conservative politics in the 1930s that shifted national focus and scientific resources away from indigenous-focused anthropology and toward alternative national identity markers. While the period under analysis here begins with the opening of a museum, it concludes with a coup d’état; I have chosen this ending point not because anthropologists ceased to study indigenous cultures in 1943, but rather because the coup signaled a turning away from nationalist politics and culture making that imagined Argentina as a creole nation with an indigenous heritage. Instead, strategic political adoptions of criollo folk culture and the colonial Spanish past were embraced as truer indicators of authentic Argentine heritage.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.